When a legislative assembly has the size of the House of Puducherry, instability is inherent, unless incumbent chief ministers are politically deft in handling conflicting ambitions of the legislators. V Narayanasamy, who headed a Congress-DMK alliance in Puducherry until he lost a vote of confidence in the assembly on February 22, was certainly one of them.
He had mentors like the late Ahmed Patel, a powerful aide of Sonia Gandhi behind him and had brazenly misled Rahul Gandhi a few days ago, when a woman had complained to him at a public interaction about being denied any relief after the recent cyclone.
Narayanasamy has himself made no bones about his close proximity to 10 Janpath, the euphemistic expression that stands for Sonia Gandhi and her establishment. But despite his political dexterity, Narayanasamy could not thwart his ambitious Congress colleagues, who resented his parachuting into Puducherry just after the 2016 assembly polls — to grab the post of chief minister when the Congress captured power.
Stung by colleague
His ministerial colleague, A Namasivayam, who was Puducherry Congress chief at that time and an aspirant for the CM's post, felt outsmarted by Narayanasamy. He struck now by resigning and joining the BJP when alliance partner DMK too signalled readiness to go it alone in the assembly polls. Narayanasamy had blamed the political crisis on former Lt Governor Kiran Bedi and the BJP-led Central government.
A crisis was inevitable after a spate of resignations of MLAs supporting him since mid-January. Some of these MLAs crossed over to the BJP.
But the net result is that the Congress has lost its only government in south India—in Puducherry. The Congress ministry, headed by Narayanasamy, had to resign after losing the confidence vote on February 22. That too, just at the fag end of his tenure.
Before this crisis hit the roof, the Centre suddenly removed Kiran Bedi as Lt Governor on February 16. Telangana Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan was subsequently given the additional charge of Puducherry.
Kiran Bedi’s removal as Puducherry lieutenant governor was a clever move by the BJP, to prevent Narayanasamy and the Congress from making her an emotive political issue in the state.
Behind the scenes
In fact, the role of the BJP from behind the scenes marked a new strategy by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. The BJP managers were aware that a Puducherry MLA represents about 20,000 to 25,000 voters, which is only as big as an average municipal corporation ward elsewhere in India. It made MLAs easier to shift their loyalties.
The collapse of the Congress is no mean achievement for the BJP, considering its presence in the former French colony until a few years ago.
Unless the Congress wins the Kerala assembly elections, it will be without power in any southern state for some years. The Left Front, which has been ruling in Kerala since 2016, is more hopeful of returning to power again though it fared badly in the Lok Sabha elections. In the other southern states, Karnataka has been under B S Yediyurappa of the BJP since 2019 after the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance collapsed under H D Kumaraswamy. In Telangana, the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) has been in power since 2014, under K Chandrasekhar Rao. In Andhra Pradesh, Jaganmohan Reddy remains well entrenched as CM under the YSR Congress rule.
Perhaps, the Congress high command did not realise the importance of Puducherry until the latest crisis escalated.
Kiran Bedi factor
Was Kiran Bedi the reason for the latest crisis in Puducherry?
Narayanasamy has often accused Bedi of disrupting governance by the elected government under his stewardship. Definitely, the BJP benefitted by having her as Lt Governor in the past four years. First, the BJP allowed Bedi to take on Narayanasamy, exposing cases of irregularities and corruption and referring many cases to the CBI. This went on for the last four years.
A helpless Narayanasamy kept blaming Kiran Bedi for his inability to run his government, saying she was stalling all his decisions. He felt that Bedi was challenging the powers of an elected government and often interfered in every small matter related to governance.
But she also enhanced her image as a crusader for better governance — at the cost of Narayanasamy— by streamlining the administration for the common people. She made many government operations transparent.
Bedi earned public goodwill when she stopped many controversial decisions and deals of the Congress government and struck at the liquor lobby in the state. She barred the sale of liquor during the pandemic, to prevent the influx of tipplers from neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
Acting on complaints from parents, Bedi also went after medical colleges (run by powerful political interests) that sold seats for hefty payments by subverting the norms under the national eligibility-cum-entrance test (NEET).
Narayanasamy, who had many battles to fight as CM, saw her as the main stumbling block in even implementing social welfare schemes. Consequently, his government was seen as doing nothing except building a poll plank against Bedi for overcoming anti-incumbency issues in the next assembly polls.
In fact, Narayanasamy even gave a memorandum to President Ram Nath Kovind on February 10, seeking the recall of Kiran Bedi. Six days later, President Kovind issued an order that Kiran Bedi had “ceased to hold” the office of Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry. With one stroke, the BJP appeared not only to rob Narayanasamy of his one plank but also dump Bedi, who was not even asked to continue in office till her successor was sworn in.
Traditionally, the Tamil Nadu Governor is given additional charge of Puducherry whenever such a situation arises. This is the first time the Governor of distant Telangana has been given concurrent charge. That she happens to be a former president of the BJP in Tamil Nadu who is well-versed in local politics did not go unnoticed.
Bedi’s removal was apparently sought by other players, including the opposition, spearheaded by the ex-CM N Ranganathan-led Congress. They conveyed to the BJP brass that the continuation of Bedi would only serve Narayanasamy and hinder their chances in the polls. Therefore, the curious timing of Bedi’s ouster did raise eyebrows, as did the manner of her removal.
Of course, the Supreme Court had, in the B P Singh v. Union of India case, upheld the President’s power to remove a governor at any time without giving any reason and without granting an opportunity to be heard. But it made it clear that this power could not be exercised in an “arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable manner”.
The Constitution does not spell out how to remove a governor. Hence, Article 156(1), which stipulates that governors (including lt governors) shall hold office during the “pleasure” of the President, is often used to get rid of unwanted governors. The normal practice has been to sound out such governors to resign. Only if they refuse to resign is Article 156(1) invoked.
One does not know whether Bedi was extended the courtesy of being asked to resign, especially after her actions had helped the BJP make a foray into Puducherry. Of course, she may still be given another assignment by the BJP dispensation. For now, she has chosen to be silent on her ouster.
On its part, the BJP is just determined to capture power in this southern Union Territory with the help of regional opposition parties.
The writer is former Senior Associate Editor, Hindustan Times, and Political Editor, Deccan Herald, New Delhi