One of the last citadels of the Congress in the south — Puducherry, collapsed a month before the union territory goes to polls. And like always, curtains came down on the grand old party’s government due to inner-party contradictions, a few resignations, and some nudging (speculated as such) by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which watched the drama unfold as the Gandhi scion, Rahul Gandhi was kickstarting the party campaign in the region.
While Congress leaders hit back and blamed the BJP for grazing into their pastures as they have done craftily in many of the Congress-ruled states in the past few years, in the cut-throat political landscape ultimately who wins and stays afloat is what matters. Be it Sikkim or Madhya Pradesh, poor management of its flock by the Congress and master strokes of poaching have brought the Congress on its knees and the party out of the corridors of power more than once.
BJP’s move to remove former IPS-turner-politician Kiran Bedi, who was appointed by the BJP itself, also has had significant speculation on how the party wants to exert control on the area with elections around the corner. Kiran Bedi has been historically perceived to work as an efficient administrator rather than a hard core politician though former Puducherry CM V. Narayanasamy was always blatant about his apprehensions that she was working in tandem with the centre to destabilize his government.
The politics of Puducherry is linked closely to Tamil Nadu as well, where elections have been announced, making it more than a reason for BJP to closely monitor the Union Territory. BJP has been taking steps to build their own narrative in the space with Narendra Modi even getting his Covid Vaccine shot on the 1st of March at AIIMS from a Puducherry nurse.
BJP’s credo of ‘Congress-Mukt Bharat’ is still piping hot for the mandarins in the ruling party as they leave no stone unturned to unsettle arch-rival Congress.
Brick By Brick Account: What happened in Puducherry?
On February 24, as per an official announcement by the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, President’s Rule was imposed in the Union Territory of Puducherry after 30 years. Just a few days before this, on February 22, the Chief Minister of the U.T., V. Narayanasamy resigned ahead of a trust vote which was scheduled to take place, after his government had lost the majority mark in the assembly.
Let us trace back to January 25th, when the first INC Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) tendered his registration and initiated the downfall of the Congress-led government in the UT. The first resignation which rocked the INC led government in the state was that of former PWD Minister A. Namassivayam who is considered to be the second-in-command to the Chief Minister on January 25. He joined the BJP just days after. Shortly after, another MLA, E Theepaindan also resigned and joined the BJP.
Following this, on February 15, the Health Minister Malladi Krishna Rao also resigned, which brought down the strength of the INC in the Legislative Assembly to merely 11 seats. This is because the INC had already disqualified an MLA, N. Dhanavelou for anti-party activities in July 2020. Just a day after, MLA A. John Kumar also announced his resignation just hours before the visit of the party leader Rahul Gandhi. Amid the ongoing political crisis, on the same day (February 16), President of India, Ram Nath Kovind also announced the removal of Puducherry lieutenant governor Kiran Bedi from her post.
As a result of this, opposition parties, led by the leader of the opposition in the UT submitted a petition seeking a floor test. They argued that the ruling coalition had slipped below the majority mark required in the assembly (17), and both sides now had equal strength (14 each). Telangana governor Tamilisai Soundararajan who holds the additional charge of the UT, ordered a floor test — A floor test is a motion initiated by the government seeking to know if it enjoys the confidence of the legislature, by February 22.
On February 21, just a day before the floor test was scheduled to take place, two more MLAs, including K Lakshminarayanan from the INC and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) Venkatesan resigned from their posts. At the time of the floor test, the ruling Congress and DMK alliance had 12 members left in the assembly, while on the opposition side, the AINRC had 7 MLAs, the AIADMK had 4, while the BJP had 3 MLAs (all nominated).
With a defeat seeming inevitable, Puducherry Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy and his cabinet resigned ahead of a trust vote on February 22, following which President’s Rule has been imposed in the UT, till the Assembly Elections are held on April 6 and subsequent results are announced on May 2. In a matter of fewer than 30 days, the Congress lost control of the only government it had in South India.
“Congress-Mukt Bharat”: Understanding the BJP Factor
The V. Narayanasamy-led government in Puducherry had a comfortable majority with 19 members in the 33 member assembly. Even the disqualification of an MLA by the party for anti-party activities in July 2020 did not make much of a difference to their position. However, just in the course of a month, 6 MLAs resigned from their seats. The reasons given by the MLAs varied: some said they were being sidelined by the party, while some said they wanted to give more time to their family. However, more than the reasons given by the legislators, what raised suspicion was the timing of resignations, all tendered within a month.
Puducherry, which has traditionally been a Congress stronghold, holds only one Lok Sabha seat. Despite this, the national attention given to the UT by both National parties can be explained by the fact that the only INC led government in South India was in Puducherry. In 2016, during the Assembly Elections held in Puducherry, the INC and DMK alliance won the elections with 15 and 2 seats respectively.
Many political commentators are saying that the recent defections by MLAs are part of the relentless ongoing “Congress-mukt Bharat” (Congress-free India) plan of the BJP. After the fall of their government in Puducherry, all of South India is now “Congress-mukt”, unless the national party can stage a comeback in any of the upcoming elections in Kerala, Puducherry, and Tamil Nadu.
As per political observers, it is key to note that two more MLAs quit in the UT within days of Rahul Gandhi’s visit, who was going to launch the Congress’ election campaign. Many say that this could be considered a reflection of the fact that even the national leaders of the party have failed to motivate party members to stay. As far as the BJP is concerned, the Puducherry episode has added to their narrative that the Congress is failing due to its leadership style and poor organizational strength.
As per political analysts, in a similar manner, the BJP has successfully brought down nine state governments in seven years of its rule, including in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Days after the downfall of the government, during a visit to the UT, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the people of the country were rejecting Congress. While it will be seen whether or not the people of Puducherry will choose to elect a Congress government yet again, undoubtedly, the BJP has successfully created a grave doubt about their ability to govern amongst voters ahead of assembly elections in four key states and a UT.
-Shiv Sehgal & Shreya Maskara /New Delhi
Contributing Reports by Damini Mehta
From Polstrat, a non-partisan political consultancy which aims to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.