Did the centre and LG Kiran Bedi work in tandem to weaken the Puducherry government?

On 22 February, Velu Narayanasamy, the chief minister of Puducherry, submitted his resignation letter to Tamilisai Soundararajan, the lieutenant governor. ANI / Hindustan Times
27 February, 2021

On 22 February, Velu Narayanasamy, the chief minister of Puducherry resigned from his post after he lost a trust vote in the assembly. Tamilisai Soundararajan, the current lieutenant governor, had directed Narayanasamy to prove his majority. The union territory will be under President’s rule until the next legislative election, scheduled for 6 April. Narayanasamy’s position in the 33-member assembly was weakened after the central government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, won a landmark case in 2018 allowing it to nominate three BJP members to the house. The ruling Congress-Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam alliance was further reduced to a minority after several resignations and defections of the coalition’s members of the legislative assembly.

Through the last five years, Narayanasamy was also having trouble governing the UT after several government orders and assembly resolutions were countermanded by the former lieutenant governor Kiran Bedi, who was removed from her post on 16 February. Bedi had made it difficult for the Congress-DMK combine to introduce social-welfare measures in the UT. Several journalists told me that the recent defections and resignations were largely out of frustration with how Bedi had restricted the functioning of the government rather than any monetary incentives from, or ideological affiliation, to the BJP. Political analysts and journalists also told me that the fall of the Narayanasamy government follows a pattern of the central government disregarding democratic norms in the UT.

The 2016 Puducherry legislative election was a major victory for the Congress-DMK combine, as they won 15 and two seats, respectively. They also gained the support of V Ramachandran, an independent candidate and the representative of Mahe—an exclave of Puducherry surrounded by Kerala. The All India Namathu Rajiyam Congress, or AINRC, headed by former Congress chief minister N Rangasamy, won eight seats and Rangasamy became the leader of opposition. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or AIADMK, won four seats. The BJP did not win a single seat and all its 18 candidates lost their deposits. In May 2019, AINRC lost one of the eight seats to the DMK in a by-poll, taking the total of the Congress-DMK alliance to 18 seats. The opposition had 14 seats, including the three nominated BJP members.

In January 2020, the Puducherry Congress suspended N Dhanavelu, the MLA representing the Bahour constituency, for anti-party activities. Dhanavelu had accused Naryanasamy and Malladi Krishna Rao, the health minister, of corruption. Subsequently, since January 2021, five other Congress MLA’s have resigned or defected. 

On 25 January 2021, Namassivayam, minister of the public-works department, and E Theepanjan, an MLA, resigned and joined the BJP. Namassivayam was the most senior leader of the Congress after Narayanasamy. On 16 February, Rao also resigned from the assembly. “Rao had resigned from his post as health minister out of anger that he wasn’t able to get anything done due to Bedi’s interference,” a journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. “He is also the only leader from Yanam”—an exclave of Puducherry in Andhra Pradesh—“and was unable to help his constituency much in the past five years.” Earlier, on 10 February, Rao had gone with Narayanasamy to meet the president Ramnath Kovind,  and urge him to recall Bedi. In the following weeks, two Congress MLAs—K Lakshminarayanan and A Johnkumar—and one DMK MLA, D Venkatesan, also resigned. This reduced the Congress-DMK alliance to 11 seats while the opposition had 14 seats including the nominated members. 

The journalists I spoke to stressed that most MLA’s in the UT garnered public support not through their party affiliation but rather by the work they did in their constituency—that was the yardstick by which they would be judged during elections. “For the past five years, they have been completely starved of funds and the government hasn’t been able to push forward any schemes because Bedi has been constantly blocking them,” a former journalist and a political commentator told me on the condition of anonymity. “This means that the only real way they can maintain support is by flipping to any party that is able to lavish funds onto them.”

He added, “The people are angry with the BJP, they know they are the main reason for this situation, but the MLAs are just betting that the money they’ll get for last minute development work and food distribution will overcome the peoples’ political dislike of BJP.” The journalist continued, “If they got elected as Congress candidates, they know that the next five years would be the same struggle with a central government that doesn’t allow anything in the state to work.” He further added, “The BJP has achieved what they wanted to with Bedi, frustrating the entire political class into switching sides.”

Over the past five years, the Narayanasamy government has been frequently butting heads with Bedi over the everyday administration of the UT. Several examples illustrate this tussle—one instance is their battle over the supply of rice. For over a decade, the Puducherry government has had a universal rice-supply scheme for those above and below the poverty line, similar to neighbouring Tamil Nadu’s universal public-distribution system. In 2016, one of Narayanasamy’s first moves as chief minister was to increase the rice allocation from 10 kilograms to 20 kilograms. In January 2018, Bedi reduced the rice supply to 10 kilograms. She also changed the scheme such that cash would be directly transferred in lieu of rice to those above the poverty line.

In June 2019, the UT’s cabinet passed an order to distribute rice in kind, particularly after several women’s groups argued that cash was often collected by men and used for other purposes. Narayanasamy also argued that his move had been approved by Ram Vilas Paswan, the union minister of consumer affairs, food and public distribution. However, Bedi cited support from the ministry of home affairs and cancelled the changes. In February 2021, the Madras High Court dismissed Narayanasamy’s petition challenging this move.

Similarly, Bedi also stopped the chief minister’s order to gift every family in the UT sarees and rice for Pongal, a harvest festival, and instead demanded that cash be transferred to every account. Such gifts are a government tradition common in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry and seen as a highly symbolic cultural gesture.

Another major issue that Bedi and Narayanasamy clashed over was scholarships and reservation for marginalised communities in higher education. In 2013, the central government instituted the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, or NEET, an exam for admission into India’s medical and dental courses. The exam is widely believed to discriminate against marginalised communities. Subsequently, the Puducherry and Tamil Nadu governments attempted to change reservation policies to ensure that higher education had better representation.

On 28 October 2020, the Puducherry cabinet passed a government order which reserved 10 percent of undergraduate medical seats for students who had studied in government schools in the UT. The order was also unanimously approved by Puducherry’s legislative assembly. According to government data, only 16 students from government schools could get admission in the medical colleges in Puducherry in 2018, while the figure was 243 for candidates from private schools. This was specifically meant to aid rural, Dalit and Adivasi students who do not have access to private education.

Immediately after the cabinet order, Bedi referred it to the union ministry of home affairs. The home ministry sent a reply stating that a state or UT government cannot issue any order on medical education as it was under the purview of the ministry of health and family welfare. On 16 December, Subulakshmi, a resident of Puducherry, filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court challenging the home ministry’s decision. She was a student from a government school who had scored well in her UT board exams but below the NEET cut-off for a medical seat. Subulakshmi argued that while medical education might come under the purview of the health ministry, reservation is a state matter and the Puducherry UT has the power to grant it.

During a hearing in the court, P Wilson, a senior advocate representing Subulakshmi, pointed to regional reservation in medical and engineering courses in the UT for those from Mahe, Yanam and Karaikal—the exclaves of Puducherry. These had been upheld by the court previously. The petition also pointed to Tamil Nadu’s reservation for those from government schools. The court, however, dismissed the petition, and argued that the elected UT government did not have jurisdiction over the matter.

On 22 February, in his speech in the legislative assembly shortly before the trust vote, Narayanasamy also criticised Bedi for unilaterally making several government appointments. One such case was Bedi’s appointment of Roy P Thomas, a retired officer of the Indian Forest Services, as the UT’s election commissioner.

The last civic polls in the UT had been held in 2006 and the five-year term of the elected bodies ended in 2011. In 2018, the Supreme Court passed an order directing the UT government to hold local-body polls within four months. The UT was unable to hold these for two reasons—the UT had no election commissioner and a case regarding the delimitation of constituencies was ongoing in the Madras High Court. On 25 May 2018, the cabinet of Puducherry selected TM Balakrishna, a retired officer of the Indian Administrative Services, as the election commissioner. Their decision was ratified by the legislative assembly. However, in December 2019, Bedi declared that Balakrishna’s appointment was “null and void ab initio,” or void from the beginning, and issued advertisements in newspapers for a new election commissioner.

A Namassivayam, the minister of local administration, challenged this and moved the high court through a public interest litigation. The PIL, which sought to declare Bedi’s order as arbitrary and without legal authority of the Constitution, was dismissed by the court. On 22 October 2020, without the permission of the elected UT government or the speaker of the legislative assembly, Bedi appointed Thomas, and announced that local body polls would be held soon. Thomas was then working as a consultant with the ministry of environment forests and climate change. “It is a unilateral decision taken after bypassing a democratically elected government,” The Hindu quoted Narayanasamy as saying.

Amidst the controversy, on 26 December 2020, the prime minister Narendra Modi, while speaking at a video conference where he extended the Ayushman Bharat scheme to UTs, said, “The party of those teaching me democracy is in power in Puducherry.” He brought up the local body elections in the UT and added, “You will be surprised to know that the Supreme Court had given an order in this regard in 2018, but the government there has been delaying it.”

Thomas’s appointment was not recognised by the UT government, which continued to work with Balakrishna. On 3 January 2021, Narayanasamy told the media that the appointment of the state election commissioner was an executive action and the removal of the official can only be through a legislative action as stated in Articles 243 K, 243 L and 243-ZB of the Constitution. On 5 January, Bedi passed another order dismissing Balakrishna and issued advertisements in newspapers for the selection of a new election commissioner. However, Narayanasamy, declared both the order as well as the advertisements unconstitutional and affirmed that the government only recognised Balakrishna as SEC.

The Puducherry government has also protested Bedi’s nomination of BJP party leaders to the UT’s legislative assembly. Article 239 (a) of the Constitution allows the Parliament to enact a law for the creation of “a body, whether elected or partly nominated and partly elected, to function as a Legislature” for Puducherry. However, throughout the UT’s history, it has had only an elected legislature. On 4 July 2017, Bedi, without consulting either the Puducherry government or the speaker of the legislative assembly, administered the oath of office to three BJP leaders as nominated members of the assembly. This included V Saminathan, the president of the BJP’s Puducherry unit, KG Shankar, its treasurer, and S Selvaganapathy, a senior BJP leader, all of whom had previously lost their deposits during the 2016 elections.

Nominated positions in central or state legislatures are usually reserved for those from minority communities—such as the two nominated seats in the Lok Sabha for Anglo-Indians. The only other legislature which has nominated members is the Rajya Sabha. According to Article 80 of the Constitution, people having special knowledge or practical experience in the fields of literature, science, art and social service can be nominated to the Rajya Sabha.

Opposition parties in the UT protested Bedi’s move and moved the Madras High Court against it, but the nominations were upheld by the court on 22 March 2018. Later, on 6 December that year, the Supreme Court also upheld the decision, arguing than since no established process was mentioned in the Constitution for such nominations, the Puducherry government could not deny Bedi the right to nominate members. The nomination of the three BJP members eventually allowed the opposition to turn the numbers in their favour on the floor of the house.

On 6 January 2021, the Congress and their allies—including the Communist Party of India and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, a political party active in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry—began an indefinite sit-in protest against Bedi. “Now it has peaked,” Narayanasamy told NDTV in January 2021. “She is now returning files, overruling the decision of the cabinet, overruling the decision of the minister. This is not the job of the Lieutenant Governor.” He continued, “She has no independent power or authority. She has no respect for law or Constitution. She is the Constitution herself.”

The protest was initially supposed to be outside the Raj Bhavan, Bedi’s residence, but was shifted to Anna Salai, a main road one kilometre away, after Bedi ordered the heavy deployment of paramilitary forces. Many parts of the city were cordoned off with concertina wires. “It was looking like a war zone,” the former journalist, told me. “There were water cannons everywhere, and heavy vehicles meant to shoot rubber bullets from.” He added, “All of this is a very bad image for the state which largely depends on tourism for its income. All the hotel owners and tourism industry workers were very worried by how Bedi was acting.” On 11 January, Narayanasamy called a halt to the protests, citing upcoming festivals including Pongal, but said they would restart soon. On 16 February, Bedi was removed as LG and replaced by Soundarrajan, a previous national secretary of the BJP, who was given the post as an additional charge alongside the governorship she already holds in Telangana. In a statement released on Twitter, Bedi said that she and her team “worked to serve larger public interest.” She added, “Whatever was done, was a sacred duty, fulfilling my constitutional and moral responsibilities.”

A Anbalagan, the secretary of AIADMK in Puducherry and MLA for the Oupalam constituency, told me that Narayanasamy was merely deflecting blame on Bedi. “Narayanasamy had made 142 promises in his election manifesto and, to the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t delivered on a single one,” Anbalagan said. “His promises related to rice and sugar rations are unfulfilled, or relating to cheaper electricity rates. He promised to develop new cotton mills, but has failed to even stop old ones from closing down.” He added, “If you look at the genuine attempts his government has made to push these policies, it has been minimal, he has been happy to saddle the blame on Bedi and not work.”

Anbalagan compared the past relationships between chief ministers and governors in Puducherry. “The relationship between any chief minister and any lieutenant governor was bad,” he said. “When Rangasamy was chief minister, he and the LG used to frequently clash too. AINRC cadre even threw cow dung at portraits of then governor.” Anbalagan continued, “At that time Narayanasamy was a central minister and he said that Rangasamy was using the governor as an excuse not to work.” He added, “But Rangasamy still tried to work with him and oversee the everyday functioning of the state.” Anbalagan said that Narayanasamy acted more like a leader of opposition or a party head than a chief minister. “He called for 18 bandhs when he himself was chief minister.”

I also spoke to Rangasamy, who said, “Governance is about working with the institutions to address issues, not combat them.” He added, “I too had trouble when I was chief minister but attempted to work amicably with everyone and manage it in a respectable manner.” Commenting on the Congress MLAs who resigned, he added, “We are not certain whether they intend to join the AINRC or not. We will wait for them to approach us if they are interested.”

The former journalist added that Bedi’s meddling in government affairs and the recent imposition of President’s Rule are a continuation of a much older smothering of democracy in Puducherry. “What does it mean when our votes just don’t matter and bureaucrats can make any decisions, they want to without knowing our state or our people,” he said.

In 1967, the DMK came to power in Tamil Nadu, and since then only Dravidian parties have ruled the state. In 1969, the DMK rose to power in Puducherry, too. Since then, no Dravidian party—neither the AIADMK, nor the DMK—has finished a full five-year term in the UT. DMK governments were dismissed in 1974, 1985, 1991 and 2000, while AIADMK governments were dismissed in 1977 and 1980. In all but one case, President’s Rule was imposed immediately after. Nearly every imposition of President’s Rule in the UT happened when the Congress ruled at the centre.

The only non-Congress government to ever finish a full five-year term in the UT was the AINRC between 2011 and 2016. “We have always been treated as a colonial possession of Delhi,” the political commentator told me. “The Congress themselves have always worked to crush the democratic voice of the people of Puducherry. This is the first time they are facing what they have always put us through.”

However, political commentators also pointed out that the BJP government had escalated attempts to curb Puducherry’s autonomy, when compared to previous central governments.  The nomination of three party members to the legislative assembly, which is nearly ten percent of the total strength of the house, is the most critical example of this. This allowed the central government to strong-arm any elected government in the UT, not merely through the office of the lieutenant governor but also through the assembly. In 2005, the Supreme Court had stayed the nomination of a member to the Jharkhand Assembly, prior to a trust vote. However, in 2018, with the BJP in power at the centre, it upheld the nominations to the Puducherry assembly.

Bedi also increased the amount of control the central government has over the UT, by referring several key decisions, such as those on grain distribution and reservation in educational institutions, to the home ministry instead of the relevant ministries. These decisions were thus framed as a question of whose prerogative it is to frame policy on these topics rather than whether a policy was correct or not. In the process, the space for federal decision making has been narrowed. Other non-BJP chief ministers, such as Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal, have also clashed with BJP-appointed lieutenant governors. 

The BJP’s engineering of defections is also part of a pattern replicated in several other states. In Arunachal Pradesh in 2016, 44 out of 45 Congress MLAs, including the chief minister Pema Khandu, quit the Congress and joined the People’s Party of Arunachal. A few months later, Khandu, along with 32 other PPA MLAs, joined the BJP and brought the saffron party to power in the state. In Goa, despite the Congress winning the largest number of seats in the 2017 assembly elections, the BJP formed the government with the support of regional parties. Eventually, by 2019, at least ten Congress MLAs of the state had defected to the BJP.

In Manipur, the 2017 election verdict threw up a hung assembly with the Congress winning more seats than the BJP. However, the BJP formed the government after post-poll alliances with regional parties, and the support of one defecting Congress MLA. In 2019, in Karnataka, 16 MLAs of the ruling Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) alliance resigned. The government fell and was replaced by a BJP government. At least 10 of those who had resigned joined the new BJP government as ministers. Similarly, 22 Congress MLAs in Madhya Pradesh resigned in 2020—this lead to the collapse of the Congress government and the formation of a BJP government. Before the upcoming 2021 West Bengal elections, at least nine Trinamool Congress MLAs and two Congress MLAs have defected to the BJP. However, Puducherry still stands out as an example where a non-BJP government fell to the saffron party’s advantage, without the BJP having a single elected member in the assembly.

On 25 February, prime minister Narendra Modi was in Puducherry to launch development projects and addressed a public gathering. Responding to the Congress charge that the centre and the Bedi had together weakened their government, Modi said that it was Congress that did not cooperate and “didn’t utilise central funds.” Referring to the absence of local polls in the UT, he added, “Congress leaves no opportunity to call others anti-democratic. But they need to look at themselves in the mirror. They insult democracy in every possible way.” A few hours later, President’s Rule was imposed in Puducherry.

Anbalagan added that the past five years had led to an irreparable loss of federal autonomy for the UT, precipitated also in part by Narayanasamy’s decisions. “I think the biggest thing Narayansamy has lost for the state is our federal rights,” he said. “Previous chief ministers have tried to negotiate with the lieutenant governor and central government and maintain our federal rights. Narayanasamy took every single dispute to the higher courts, and once they adjudicate our rights away, we will never be able to frame policies on those questions again. This is an irreparable loss to our state’s autonomy and has crushed the future prospects of federal policy making.”