There are real electoral battles and then there are shadow combats. In the real world of Puducherry, which goes to the polls for 30 Assembly seats on April 6, the actual battle is between the Congress, which is popular in the Union Territory, and former Chief Minister N. Rangasamy, head of the N.R. Congress, whose simple lifestyle and ability to connect with people has endeared him to voters.
However, there is a plethora of political parties to choose from: the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), the Left parties—Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Communist Party of India—and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But the main fight is between two fronts—one led by the Congress and the other by the N.R. Congress.
Both the VCK and the CPI(M) have grown significantly in terms of cadre in the past decade, while the AIADMK, once a strong political force, has witnessed a decline in fortunes. However, given the complex electoral calculations that involve the neighbouring State of Tamil Nadu, neither the VCK nor the CPI(M) would want to go it alone or form a third front.
The shadow battle is between the Congress and the BJP, which is fighting for a “Congress-mukt Bharat” (Congress-free India). This battle has been in the making in Puducherry for a while. When the BJP realised that 10 per cent of the Assembly members (three MLAs) can be appointed through nomination, its interest in the Union Territory grew manifold, chiefly because the party considers the largely Tamil-speaking Puducherry an entry point to the last bastions of BJP resistance—Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The Puducherry Union Territory consists of areas in Tamil Nadu (Puducherry and Karaikal), Kerala (Mahe) and Andhra Pradesh (Yanam).
Also read: Coordinated resignations of legislators in Puducherry just ahead of the Assembly election
In the past the nomination was done on the basis of the recommendations of the elected government, but the BJP did not think it fit to observe such parliamentary niceties. It nominated its office bearers, who had lost their deposits in the 2016 Assembly election, with the help of the Lieutenant Governor (LG) Kiran Bedi.
Soon after the death of K.G. Shankar, a nominated MLA and BJP’s Puducherry treasurer, in January, the BJP nominated the party unit vice president T. Vikraman. It appeared that a plan was being hatched, because Assembly election was due in five months and nomination of an MLA for that period seemed unnecessary.
The BJP had three MLAs, who were crucial in a vote of confidence in the Assembly in February, in which the BJP brought down the Congress government.
In short, while the Congress seems to enjoy the support of the people by and large, the BJP’s strong-arm tactics and the decidedly partial manner of working of the LG ensure that no elected government, other than one of the BJP’s choice, will be able to function in a free manner, making a mockery of the entire Assembly and the public mandate. Former Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy said that the voters would not forget the manner in which Congress MLAs were lured or threatened, the inability of the so-called opposition to form a government afterwards, and the deceptive manner in which the government was brought down.
He said: “A few legislators left the Congress for a price. Due to pressure by Amit Shah [Union Home Minister], the Speaker overthrew the Congress government…. This was done a mere 10 days before the announcement of the election by the Election Commission. This is a shameful act perpetrated on the people of Puducherry by the BJP leadership.”
Also read: V. Narayanasamy on BJP’s twin-track toppling game
Although the Congress and the DMK do not agree on some issues, Narayanasamy said, their alliance was intact. This time around, the VCK is likely to join the alliance. The Left parties, too, are in the alliance, making it a formidable combination.
A former bureaucrat said: “Regardless of the fact that the Congress has been in power for five years, chances are bright for the Congress alliance to come back.” He attributed this to the fact that the Congress had managed to keep the Union Territory moving ahead despite many hurdles placed in its path. He said: “For once, it appears that people believe that Kiran Bedi was actually not allowing the government to function. If only this haphazard manner of removal of the Congress government had not taken place, I am sure that the N.R. Congress would have won.”
There are hiccups in the N.R. Congress-AIADMK-BJP alliance as well. Rangasamy was unhappy over the comments of BJP leaders and Amit Shah’s speech about the BJP forming the government in Puducherry. Rangasamy had hoped that the BJP would announce him as the chief ministerial candidate. Since this has not happened, he is left wondering why his party should even ally with the BJP, which is a lightweight in Puducherry.
The AIADMK is playing the wait-and-watch game because its options are limited: it can either be part of this alliance or it can go it alone. The party is not keen on the second option as it would mean total annihilation at the hustings. At the time of going to press, Rangasamy was undecided on an alliance with the BJP, and was still engaged in the process of consultation.
Also read: N. Rangasamy: ‘It was our duty to seek a trust vote’
Just before the election announcement, the Central government appointed two retired IAS officers as advisers to the LG: C. Chandramouli and A.P. Maheshwari. This appears to be an indication that the additional charge of Puducherry given to Telangana Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan will continue for some time. The officers are participating in programmes though the model code of conduct is in force. The excuse for the violation is creation of awareness on the COVID-19 vaccination programme.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Puducherry in February and attacked Narayanasamy on various issues, but the former Chief Minister countered him with facts and statistics. This was followed by Amit Shah’s visit to Karaikal. The BJP believes that the mere presence of Amit Shah will ensure that the party gets to lead the alliance and make a dent in the deep south. There are over eight lakh voters in the Puducherry region, comprising 25 Assembly constituencies, including Mahe and Yanam. The voter population in Karaikal, which has five constituencies, is 1.6 lakh.