Puducherry: BJP’s port of entry to the South

Only the popularity of the devout Chief Minister N. Rangasamy has kept the saffron party and its Hindutva plank at bay in the Union Territory.

Published : Feb 08, 2024 00:16 IST - 7 MINS READ

Chief Minister N. Rangasamy and his Cabinet colleagues watching the consecration of the Ram temple at Ayodhya on January 22,
streamed live at Vedapureeswarar temple.

Chief Minister N. Rangasamy and his Cabinet colleagues watching the consecration of the Ram temple at Ayodhya on January 22, streamed live at Vedapureeswarar temple. | Photo Credit: S.S. KUMAR

Every Saturday, Puducherry Chief Minister N. Rangasamy, who is from the All India N.R. Congress (AINRC), visits the Appa Paithiyasamy temple next to JIPMER hospital, engages in a deep conversation with God, meditates, and serves food to about 300 people. Over the many years that he has been in and out of power, Rangasamy, the longest serving Chief Minister of Puducherry, has been insistent that he adhere to this ritual. All else, however important, will have to wait during those three hours.

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An associate of Rangasamy told Frontline: “This is not for any show. He is genuinely seeking God’s guidance. He has been feeding the poor for decades.” Rangasamy, who always appears with sacred ash smeared on his forehead and who has shifted his residence very close to the temple, is the reason why, ironically, the BJP has not been able to grow firm roots in Puducherry, even after capturing power surreptitiously.

Southern inroads

Soon after the BJP came back to power at the Centre in 2019, it started formulating a plan to gain a toehold in the South (excluding Karnataka). Puducherry was picked as the venue for this venture because politics in the Union Territory was not largely ideology-driven, and most MLAs were businessmen, mostly in the liquor business or in the real estate and construction sectors. Businessmen can always be encouraged or persuaded to change sides when regulatory agencies are around to help the government in power. Also, the post of the Union Territory’s Lieutenant Governor (LG) comes with not very clearly defined powers in the Constitution, and is thus an invitation to the occupant to abuse grey areas.

The BJP was guilty of doing both. The LG at that time, Kiran Bedi, made governance impossible for the then Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy. MLAs such as John Kumar, who were in the Congress at that time, suddenly switched sides. In all, as many as six Congress MLAs switched sides or resigned. The Congress government was reduced to a minority in February 2021, even though only a few months were left for the Assembly election.

A look at some of the current Ministers gives a clearer picture of how rampant switching sides is. A. Namassivayam, former president of the Puducherry Pradesh Congress Committee, is now a BJP Minister. K. Lakshminarayanan, who is now in the Cabinet as an All India N.R. Congress (AINRC) member, was with the Congress and was also a Minister earlier. R. Selvam, the Assembly Speaker, spent over three decades with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) before joining the BJP. He is a first-time MLA. Even Chief Minister Rangasamy was in the Congress previously; he was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2006 and then from 2006 to 2008. After forming the All India N.R. Congress in 2011, he was sworn in as Chief Minister and lasted a full term.

John Kumar, who was summoned by the Income Tax (IT) authorities in Chennai just before he quit the Congress in 2021, ensured that his son contested the 2021 Assembly election on the BJP ticket and won. After he joined the BJP, there has been no news of the IT case.

In the run-up to the 2021 Assembly election, Rangasamy was under pressure to join the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Initially he refused, seeing an easy victory for his party without any alliance. But he later conceded, under duress, and his party contested 16 seats. The BJP, which had never won a seat in the Assembly, pushed All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) to the status of a minor ally and contested nine seats. With the support of the AINRC and the cross-over candidates, the BJP managed to win six seats.

  • Puducherry Chief Minister N. Rangasamy, deeply devoted to his temple rituals, remains unaffected by political pressures during his weekly spiritual routine, serving the poor and seeking divine guidance.
  • Despite BJP’s attempts to gain ground in Puducherry through political maneuvering and ideology, Rangasamy’s influence, faith, and ability to poach from other parties maintain a stronghold.
  • As the BJP strategically plans for future elections, Rangasamy’s spiritual aura and political prowess continue to overshadow attempts at usurping his Hindu savior image.

Rangasamy and faith

However, the BJP’s reliance on Hindutva and religion to deliver electoral results falls flat in a place like Puducherry where Rangasamy does penance and temple-hopping as a matter of everyday routine, and also because its victory comes from poaching from other political parties. In fact, Rangasamy visits the main ashram of Appa Paithyasamy in Salem, Tamil Nadu, before he takes any major decision, in life as well as politics. In an earlier interview, Rangasamy had told this correspondent that he “follows the path that God” shows him.

So, it was no surprise that ahead of the January 22 Ram temple consecration at Ayodhya, Rangasamy told AINRC workers to organise a live stream of the event at the Vedapureeswarar temple, which he watched along with his Cabinet colleagues. In fact, most MLAs in Puducherry had arranged to stream the event across constituencies, such that there was a sudden demand for large LED screens, pushing up the hiring cost of the screens to Rs.3,000 an hour.

Rangasamy was so overcome with emotion after the pran prathistha that he felt compelled to write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, praising him to the skies, something even Chief Ministers of BJP-ruled States did not do. In a letter dated January 25, expressing his gratitude to the Prime Minister for the “grand success” of the pran prathistha in Ayodhya, Rangasamy claimed that “the hands that worshipped Rama” were seen bowing down to Prime Minister Modi with gratitude. He added that like Ram, the Prime Minister’s “unwavering commitment to service to humanity and moral integrity” was unmatched.

In the 30-member elected Assembly (which also has three nominated members), 10 are members of the AINRC. Although the DMK and the BJP have six elected members each, the BJP’s tally goes up to nine with the addition of three nominated members. There are six independents and the Congress, which was the ruling party the last time around, has two members.

‘Capturing Puducherry’

“Capturing Puducherry” has been on the drawing board of many political parties from the time the first election was held in the Union Territory. The AIADMK and the DMK managed to come to power a few times, but after the year 2000, both parties have become a pale shadow of their former selves. The Pattali Makkal Katchi has always been only a minor force, unable to figure out why it cannot convert its support among the Vanniyars into a majority in the Assembly.

As the next Lok Sabha election nears, the BJP has already appointed its trusted senior hand, Nirmal Kumar Surana, as the Puducherry incharge. Surana, the architect behind the 2021 realignment of MLAs and the BJP victory, has made it clear that the BJP will contest the lone parliamentary seat.

Also Read | How Dravidian politics offers a bulwark against the exclusionary politics of Hindutva

Although the announcement was made without consulting the AINRC, which contested the seat the last time, there has not been even a whimper of protest from the party or its leader. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Congress candidate, V. Vaithialingam, secured over 50 per cent of the votes polled.

Spread over these events and incidents lies the BJP’s discomfort: it clearly dominates the administrative landscape because of the LG and Puducherry’s excessive reliance on the Central government. However, the realignment in Puducherry is as fragile as it is in Goa or in the north-eastern States. For now, no political party, including the BJP, can appropriate the “saviour of Hindus” mantle from Rangasamy. BJP’s best bet would be to wait out until Rangasamy, currently 73 years old, calls it a day.

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