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Puducherry’s Endless Political Battles
2019 Polls

Puducherry’s Endless Political Battles

Kavita Kishore

With the Congress having the ballot and a BJP leader as the Lieutenant Governor, the drama never ebbs

On Wednesday, the people of Puducherry were witness to a slightly unusual form of protest, with Chief Minister V Narayanasamy sleeping on the street outside the Raj Nivas in a bid to persuade Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi to end what he terms a “dictatorial” style of functioning.

Puducherry Chief Minister V Narayanasamy slept outside Raj Nivas on Wednesday night as the dharna continued
Puducherry Chief Minister V Narayanasamy slept outside Raj Nivas on Wednesday night as the dharna continued

While this protest itself may be different, the feud between the two of them has resulted in mud-slinging both online and offline for over two years.

One of the main triggers of this current protest was the enforcement of the compulsory helmet rule in Puducherry, ordered by the Lieutenant Governor on February 11. On the very first day it was implemented, the police were set to issue summons to over 11,000 people, and had issued spot fines to a ‘few hundred,’ according to a statement issued by Senior Superintendent of Police Rahul Aiswal.

The move, however, came under a lot of flak from politicians in the Union Territory. The Chief Minister alleges that he announced a two-month awareness campaign on the need to wear helmets earlier this month, but instead of starting the campaign, the Lieutenant Governor put pressure on the police to implement the rule. “The LG does not have the power to make such unilateral decisions,” he says.

Chief Minister Narayanasamy signing files using light from a mobile while sitting in dharna outside Raj Nivas
Chief Minister Narayanasamy signing files using light from a mobile while sitting in dharna outside Raj Nivas

In response, Bedi issued a statement saying that she was “doing my duty as per the needs of the people,” speaking to press persons in Chennai on Thursday. She then spoke of the CM’s wife dying in a road accident without wearing a helmet. “He himself is a victim, and he comes in the way,” she charged.

The helmet rule has been one that even Narayanasamy’s government attempted to implement in 2017. “At most, the rule lasts for a day or two, after which it loses steam,” a senior police official said. This time, while the rule remains suspended, it has managed to spark a major protest.

Chief Minister Narayanasamy and cabinet colleagues sit in dharna outside the LG’s official residence Raj Nivas

The main crux of the protest, however, is to demand that the Governor stop stifling the government’s functioning by her ‘dictatorial’ ways, says Narayanasamy. The Chief Minister, with the support of the ruling Congress-DMK coalition, had issued a letter with 39 demands, including the release of funds for various government schemes announced in the budget. “These schemes are all for the welfare of the people. While the announcement of the helmet rule is definitely an issue, it is not the main reason for the protest,” he clarified to The Lede.

While the helmet rule is the current spark that lit the flame, the feud between Bedi and Narayanasamy has been simmering under the surface ever since they assumed office in mid-2016, within a month of each other. Immediately after she assumed office, the Chief Minister issued a statement of cordial relations between the two, but it was soon revealed that this was not the case.

The first major tussle between the two was in January 2017, when Bedi suspended a Puducherry Civil Services officer for allegedly sending obscene videos to a WhatsApp group. This led to Narayanasamy issuing an order banning any official communications through social media. While this issue was the first to come out in the open, officials and cabinet members say that their problems started much earlier.

“Ever since she came to power, Bedi has been issuing orders, conducting audits, and introducing schemes without informing the elected cabinet. This has led to several problems over the years, and the government coming to a standstill,” Parliamentary Secretary to Chief Minister K Lakshminarayanan alleges.

The next big uproar was in July 2017, when Bedi swore in three nominated MLAs, all from the Bharatiya Janata Party – BJP’s Puducherry President V Saminathan, party treasurer KG Shankar, and educationist S Selvaganapathy. The Assembly Speaker V Vaithilingam refused to accept the nominations, and the matter escalated. According to veteran journalist K Rajasekhar, this issue dragged on for months, with the government objecting to the swearing in of nominated MLAs who have prior political affiliations. In response, Bedi alleged that the Government of India was entitled to nominate three members to the Union Territory’s Legislative Assembly, which is what she did, he adds.

A writ petition was filed before the Madras High Court with a plea to declare the nomination of the three BJP MLAs, and subsequent gazette publication by the Central Government on July 4, 2017, as unconstitutional. In March 2018, the court dismissed the writ petition, and held that the Speaker was not right in refusing to accept the nominations. In December last year, the Supreme Court also upheld the nominations, effectively putting an end to the matter.

Through 2018, relations between the LG and the CM appeared to take a turn for the better. Narayanasamy even translated Bedi’s speech at a function. The two were seen in other functions together as well, and no major issues erupted last year. “There were always small problems over files being held in the LG’s office, but overall, it was a fairly smooth year,” Rajasekhar said, adding that the only losers were the public. “Almost no new schemes were implemented, and overall, there has been no progress in the Union Territory. All of this is a result of the two not getting along,” he said.

One of the main bones of contention between the elected cabinet and Bedi is her use of social media platforms like Twitter and online communication platforms like WhatsApp to reach out to the public and officials. “A lot of sensitive information is shared over these platforms, which could jeopardise the government,” Narayanasamy told The Lede.

With this current protest, however, Narayanasamy seems to have taken to Twitter himself. Both Narayanasamy and Bedi have been expressing their views on the platform. “Amazing. The HCM wants a reply on demand by a dharna and a siege of RajNivas. And continues it even when an appointment has been given. Law makers or lawbreakers?” reads one of Bedi’s tweets.

In response, Narayanasamy condemned Bedi’s move to call in paramilitary forces to escort her out of her residence. “What was the need for calling 400 RAF personnel when we were sitting on a peaceful dharna, that too for attending private function for yourself promotion & publicity stunts?” (sic)

Lieutenant General of Puducherry Kiran Bedi leaves Raj Nivas this morning under shelter of paramilitary forces
Lieutenant General of Puducherry Kiran Bedi leaves Raj Nivas this morning under shelter of paramilitary forces

“Bedi has been an extremely visible Lieutenant Governor. She communicates with officials and the media through Twitter, WhatsApp, and also holds sessions with the public to address her grievances,” veteran journalist K Rajasekhar says. “While this is not a bad thing, there is a sense that it stems from this need for publicity. The media is called for almost every trivial function at the Raj Nivas, and she usually travels with photographers and videographers,” he adds.

Puducherry has a history of clashes between the Lieutenant Governor and the Chief Minister. Very rarely do they see eye to eye, Rajasekhar concludes. “The only difference is that this one has been much more vocal, and the proponents have been openly antagonistic to each other,” he says.