IN a scene that appears to have been taken straight out of an insurgency-ridden State, Puducherry Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi conducted the swearing-in ceremony of three nominated Members of the Legislative Assembly, all belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), amidst tight security and secrecy at the Raj Nivas on the night of July 4.
To Kiran Bedi, the Union Territory, a weekend getaway for fun and frolic for many residents of Chennai, is under siege. Extraordinary measures are common in any place under a security scare. Kiran Bedi cited “compelling circumstances” to justify her out-of-line act.
The irony was surely not lost on the three MLAs who were sworn in: that three people’s representatives were being sworn in without a soul around them and in a hush-hush manner. The press was barred from the ceremony, considering the “developments of the day” and the “compelling circumstances”. One of the three MLAs told a Tamil television channel that he was not aware why he was summoned late on July 4 by the Lieutenant Governor. “He told me that he would at least have worn a decent shirt and brought his wife and kids,” a television journalist, who has him on record and played the byte for this correspondent, said.
As is her style, which has now crippled the functioning of the Puducherry government, Kiran Bedi clarified first on WhatsApp and then on Twitter. As is her style, which has now become a standing joke in the Union Territory, the explanation was repeated in different words in a press release.
The WhatsApp message was as follows, including explanatory notes in brackets: “For those who are seeking more information on Legal Provisions on Appointment of 3 MLAs to Legislative Assembly in Puducherry. According to the Union Territories Act the nomination of 3 MLAs to Puducherry Legislative Assembly is to be done by the Central Government (It only says this and nothing more). Ministry of Home Affairs sends the names to the Puducherry government (who then notify it. As was done in their case). The oath is/can be administered by Administrator (As was done in their case). Hence, the nomination and the oath is/was laid down under the UT Act.”
According to her interpretation, Kiran Bedi is law in Puducherry. The elected government has no role. No official of the Raj Nivas seems to have told her that India is run in compliance with the provisions of the Constitution, not on an interpretation of some rules by an Under Secretary in the Home Ministry. In an earlier interview to Frontline , she did just that: she held that an Under Secretary in the Home Ministry writing to her saying that she had wide-ranging powers was enough for her to keep pushing an elected government to the point it cannot function.
The press release issued by the Lieutenant Governor’s Secretariat on July 5 (LGS/PRO/2017) said:
“The oath ceremony of 3 nominated MLAs was done against the background of their reporting the compelling circumstances they had been placed in.
“After which a careful decision was taken not to delay their taking the oath. Hence, without any public function being organised the oath was administrated in the LG’s office chamber itself…. Thereafter, immediately after the event, for the benefit of all the media equally, Raj Nivas released the photograph and a short video of the oath taking. We respect the right of the media to cover such occasions, however, as described, the developments of the day compelled it to be a limited event and not be a public function.”
Kiran Bedi, who was projected to be the chief ministerial candidate in Delhi and who could not manage to win her own seat in the Delhi Assembly elections held in 2015, clearly misused her office to please her political bosses. After all, it was her bosses who picked her after the crushing defeat she faced in Delhi and sent her packing to remote Puducherry, over 2,300 kilometres from Delhi. It is not clear if she actually managed to please anyone with this blatant act of partisan behaviour. To date, no ranking leader in the BJP’s central leadership has come out in defence of Kiran Bedi, although most political parties in the Union Territory, barring a few trying to cosy up to the BJP, have condemned her act.
It might be a coincidence that all these events unfolded soon after BJP president Amit Shah visited the Union Territory. Kiran Bedi did the BJP’s bidding by first nominating BJP leaders, and secondly, swearing them in, in blatant disregard of all established norms and traditions of the Union Territory.
One nominee, BJP president V. Saminathan, had contested the 2011 and 2016 Assembly elections from Lawspet and lost his deposit both times. Saminathan and another nominee, party sympathiser and educationist S. Selvaganapathy, have cases registered against them on major charges. Kiran Bedi takes pride in fighting corruption and graft and has been speaking about it at every turn in the Union Territory. But she not only nominated as MLAs those facing major charges but also conducted the swearing-in ceremony. The third nominee is the party’s Puducherry treasurer, K.G. Shankar.
Kiran Bedi believes that she is as powerful as the Delhi Lieutenant Governor (see interview in Frontline, June 9, 2017). But she conveniently forgets the fact that Delhi is governed by Article 239 AA of the Constitution and Puducherry by Article 240. The elected government in Puducherry has certainly more powers than the government in Delhi.
When this is pointed out, many BJP leaders, including its spokespersons, insist that the Union Territories Act, 1963, is the only rule that applies in this instance. They even make a case that the Constitution does not matter here. And therein lies the problem, and it is not a problem of perception or understanding, it is a problem of blatantly throwing all established norms to the winds. “Why have an elected government in Puducherry?” asks senior Tamil Nadu Congress Committee leader Peter Alphonse. “Let them nominate everyone. This is murder of democracy in broad daylight.”Bandh call
Almost all political parties in the Union Territory are livid. For the first time in the history of independent India, a bandh was called against the administrator of a Union Territory. The ruling Congress, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and other political parties supported the bandh called for July 8. Puducherry is not known for bandhs or violence, despite the fact that a gang war has been claiming lives in the past few months. The Union Territory is largely a place for fun and frolic for the people from Chennai and even Bengaluru. For a city of this reputation to abide by a call for a dawn-to-dusk bandh on a weekend, supported by political parties, is a rarity. All shops and establishments remained closed, schools declared a holiday, and private inter-State buses and autorickshaws stayed off the roads. Most residents of Puducherry do not rely much on bus services in any case. It is a two-wheeler town. It has been a tradition in both Tamil Nadu and Puducherry for private vehicles to operate during a bandh day. This time, it was different; most people preferred to stay indoors.
The Raj Nivas area, from where Kiran Bedi operates, seemed like a fortress. Cadre belonging to a political party attempted to demonstrate in front of the Raj Nivas. Kiran Bedi became only the second Lieutenant Governor to have the dubious distinction of having a political party demonstrate in front of her palatial office-cum-residence.
It is also a fact that the Puducherry government did not nominate members to the Assembly despite being in power for about six months. Congress leaders defend this by saying that when almost all files that go to the Lieutenant Governor’s office get stuck there on one pretext or the other, a decision to nominate also would have met the same fate. When it is pointed out that such arguments are hypothetical, they say that it would be insensitive to be concerned only about nominating MLAs when serious matters of governance have not been sorted out with the Lieutenant Governor because of her intransigence.
Most politicians this correspondent spoke to described Kiran Bedi’s act as unprecedented and as one that would adversely affect the functioning of any government in the fledgling Union Territory. Some point to the example of S. Chandrawati in 1990, when the Janata Dal-DMK government was in power. Chandrawati had sworn in nominated MLAs, but at that time there was no Speaker or a Deputy Speaker for the Puducherry Assembly.
“The norm is that the Speaker does the swearing in. It has happened so many times and there has never been a problem. What is the hurry to swear in the MLAs? Did the Speaker refuse to swear them in?” asked a Congress leader. The usual practice is for the Cabinet to send a panel of three names to the Lieutenant Governor, who would then forward the names to the government. If the Lieutenant Governor had wanted names of three persons, she should have asked the Chief Minister and gone by his recommendation, he added. As such, there is no representation for Christians in the Assembly while the representation for fishermen is negligible.
Condemning the “back-door” entry of the BJP into the Assembly, Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy said this was a conspiracy hatched by the Lieutenant Governor and the BJP leadership. “I hope the court gives a fitting reply to this act. Kiran Bedi has not come to Puducherry to develop this place. She has come to develop the BJP,” he said. He said the time had come for the President to recall her from the Union Territory in the interest of protecting democracy.
Kiran Bedi’s main weapon against the politicians of Puducherry was that she was a crusader against corruption. That narrative is in tatters. But she does not seem flustered. For her, there is no need to search for a new story for a second coming as a champion of the people of Puducherry. On July 7, she was on Twitter, “feeling sad for our most beautiful part of India… Puducherry”.
On July 4, the three nominated MLAs met the Assembly Speaker V. Vaithilingam and requested him to swear them in. The Speaker told them he wanted to wait for the outcome of the case relating to the appointment, which was pending in the Madras High Court. K. Lakshminarayanan, former Minister and Parliamentary Secretary to the Chief Minister, had filed a public interest litigation petition in the Madras High Court against nominating members to the Puducherry Assembly without any consultation with and waiting for the choice of the elected government of the Union Territory.
The court posted the next hearing for July 23, a decision Kiran Bedi saw as her victory. “The judiciary is the final arbiter,” she said in a message mailed to many, including this correspondent, on July 11. “We can always go to it. Let truth prevail,” she added.
The BJP men claimed that if the appointments were improper, the court would have granted a stay, conveniently forgetting the long-standing tradition of courts being circumspect and extremely cautious when dealing with issues relating to State Assemblies.