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Big trouble in little Puducherry

A battle that nobody won but left behind many wounds... this is perhaps how most would describe the past five years of puducherry govt. But what was it fought over?

Published: 28th March 2021 05:10 AM  |   Last Updated: 28th March 2021 05:10 AM   |  A+A-

ILLUSTRATION: TAPAS RANJAN

Express News Service

PUDUCHERRY: Politics makes strange bedfellows, and stranger rivals. Former Puducherry Chief Minister V Narayanasamy learnt that lesson the hard way. Over the last five years as the Chief Minister of the picturesque French-built town, the Congress veteran had to fight more people from his own party than the Opposition. He spent more time waiting for welfare schemes of his government to be approved by the Raj Nivas than anybody before him in that position. Now, it’s his political career that is at the crossroads. For this time, Narayanasamy is not contesting elections in the Union Territory.

Narayanasamy, probably, did not anticipate this when Congress won the elections in 2016. The Grand Old Party had secured 15 of the 30 seats in the Territorial Assembly, and had the support of two DMK and one Independent MLAs. But, while party-workers in the UT eagerly awaited the announcement of local political hero, A Namassivayam, as the head of the government, the high command sprung a surprise. It suggested, rather announced, the name of Narayanasamy, who had served as a Central Minister twice in the successive UPA governments. The heartburn caused by that decision simmered until the cataclysmic split in the party, almost five years later.

Benign beginning
Despite the heartburn, things seemed to have settled down soon after Narayanasamy assumed office, after being elected from Nellithope. The government’s strength grew after the Thattanchavady bypoll. An NR Congress legislator was disqualified, and the seat was won by a DMK candidate. But, before all that, even before Narayanasamy assumed office, Puducherry got a new high profile Lieutenant Governor — Kiran Bedi. Expectations among the people were high. India’s first female IPS officer and a seasoned Central Minister were going to run the UT. It didn’t take long for those tall expectations to come down crashing.

The mood after Narayanasamy
won Nellithope bypoll; 

Rather than work ‘together’ as L-G and CM, they fought each other on several counts as loyal members of two warring parties — BJP and Congress. Welfare schemes, payments, benefits, were all starting to get stalled. Promises remained on paper. Civic amenities and requirements were neglected. Growth of Puducherry, one the most-popular tourist destinations in the South, started to take a beating. Finally, four years and 261 days later, when the Congress government was ousted and L-G Kiran Bedi removed, most Budgetary announcements remained unfulfilled.

Narayanasamy blamed Bedi, for having stalled government proposals and delayed other measures by “unnecessarily” referring most of the plans to Centre. Citing details, he claimed that she had sent over 50 files to Centre, an unprecedented measure by the L-G’s office. “Funds were very much available. But, schemes could not be implemented because the L-G, with the support of officials and BJP-led Central government, stalled the schemes devised by the elected government,” Narayanasamy charged. Now, the very same BJP leaders are trying to paint these failures as lapses on the part of Congress government.

Bedi, however, had her own reasons. She maintained that her decisions were made in the larger interest of the UT. Amid all this high-octane drama, Leader of Opposition, N Rangasamy, maintained golden silence. He chose not to fish in troubled waters, for his own government had faced multiple hurdles from the then L-G Virendra Kataria’s office, though not of this level.

Policy paralysis
The schemes that were hurt are many. Congress had promised to give free rice as part of its election assurances. That scheme could not be implemented as Bedi converted it into a Direct Benefit Transfer model, citing Central rules. While the government pointed out that other States were giving free rice to its populace, and that there was a need for it in the UT, Bedi alleged that there were irregularities in the procurement and distribution processes.

Another issue was non-payment of salaries to staff members of loss-making public sector units, and the closure of three textile mills. The CM accused the L-G for not approving the salaries for PSU employees, despite there being provisions made in the Budget. The L-G, meanwhile, said there was a lack of finance and wanted the PSUs to generate their own revenue for sustenance. While Narayanasamy tried to revive the three textile mills, and offer a voluntary retirement scheme to its employees as part of a downsizing exercise, Bedi shut them down based on recommendations made by the B Vijayan Committee.

Similar was the aided-schools fiasco. While the government wanted finance to be provided to schools to pay the teachers, Bedi wanted the schools to first submit their accounts, based on which the quantum of State contribution towards payment of salaries would be decided. The results of these conflicts were disastrous for the general public. School employees went without being paid a single penny for a good 14 months. Many jobs were at stake because of the decision on PSUs. The poor and lower middle-class were directly affected.

Even government recruitment became an issue. The government wanted to recruit youngsters for a whopping 2,000 posts. The process, however, could not be completed due to the delay caused by administrative tangles. In the case of police jobs, for instance, the government had proposed a one-time relaxation of the upper age limit from 22 to 24 to benefit more youngsters. However, this was not approved by the L-G. The CM immediately referred the matter to the Ministry of Home Affairs. After considerable time had lapsed, the MHA overruled Bedi and approved the government proposal. Even then, the recruitment process could not be completed as Bedi suspended the physical tests citing changes in procedure.

The issues subsequently got worse. Even basic works like laying of fresh roads could not be done. An Rs 80 crore road-laying work using NABARD loans was not executed over differences that cropped up on the Puducherry Schedule of Rates.  Finally, the proposal for granting 10 per cent reservation for government school students in medical admissions also did not materialise, as Bedi, instead of granting approval, forwarded the matter to the Home Affairs ministry.

Paisa problems
While schemes piled up at one end without being implemented, the UT government was staring at a major financial constraint. Central grants had come down substantially, and were just 25 per cent of the total Budget which is even lower than for States. Had Puducherry come under the purview of the Central Finance Commission, it would have received an additional Rs 3,139 crore in the last four years, pointed out Narayanasamy. As a result, loans were piling up and pending. The UT was paying an annual interest of around Rs 700 to Rs 900 crore. The grants under Centrally sponsored schemes and central sector schemes, which used to be 80 to 100 per cent, had been reduced to 60 per cent (similar to States). On top of it all, Covid battered the finances.

The government hiked local area development funds from `1 crore to `2 crore in 2017, but the money was not released until the fag end of its tenure. Legislators, who rely on that money to execute works in their area, found their accounts blank. New beneficiaries could not be included in the old-age pension schemes, free patta scheme, or housing subsidy scheme, due to financial constraints.

Triple threat
Even while questions were being raised about the autonomy of Union Territories, and Centre’s imposition of control, the issue of nominated MLAs came as a direct threat to democratic structures. In July 2017, three BJP members were nominated as MLAs, without taking the recommendation of the elected government. Even as the CM was fighting the Centre on this issue, the L-G by-passed the Assembly Speaker and administered the oath of office to these members on July 4. She ensured their entry into the Assembly despite resistance from the government, by making a precondition that the Appropriation Bill (Budget) would be presented in the House only after the trio was allowed inside.

The matter was settled in court, but Narayanasamy accused Bedi of running a parallel government in the UT. But, statements aside, nothing was going Narayanasamy’s way. He reached out to the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, moved courts, but nobody came to his rescue. The officials continued to work in tandem with the L-G’s office, fearing consequences. Left without much choice, Narayanasamy resorted to a dharna in February 2019, outside the office of the L-G. He had a list of 39 proposals for which he was demanding approvals. In January 2021, he held another dharna. He called on the President and apprised him on the situation, appealing for Bedi to be recalled. But, these measures hurt the Chief Minister, rather than bought him the sympathy of his own party-men.

Ego, he-go, she-too-go
Many felt that he was functioning more as a Congress leader and less as a Chief Minister. Elected legislators felt helpless, and could see dissatisfaction rising among the public. They wanted Narayanasamy to shed his ego and go the Arvind Kejriwal way to attract voters without confrontations with the L-G. Narayanasamy, however, could not get over the issue. He maintained that the roadblocks imposed by Bedi were politically motivated. As elections grew closer, the DMK distanced itself from Congress. Rumours were abuzz that the party would contest alone.

Narayanasamy wanted to fight the elections on the Bedi poll plank, and make it his rallying cry for Statehood. But, there weren’t many, rather any, takers for that within the party. After the disastrous five years, not many legislators were keen to face the public sporting the Congress symbol. They slowly started looking for other options. They walked right into the BJP’s gameplan. Senior, mid-level, and junior leaders fled as Congress watched helplessly. With the job done, Kiran Bedi was removed as the L-G of Puducherry. Months later, she was honoured by the President of India with a ‘baton of honour’ for her service to the UT.

The three nominated legislators drove the last nail into the coffin of the elected government. The rest, as they say, is history. As for the future, it remains to be seen whom the people of the UT consider the real victim of the situation. Is it the Congress or they themselves? Whom do they consider the hero? Was it Kiran Bedi, or they themselves to have survived the last five years? The ballot will answer these questions.

SCHEMES THAT FAILED TO TAKE OFF

Free rice to ration card holders instead of cash through DBT

Distribution of free sarees and dhotis during Deepavali and Pongal to poor and Adi Dravidars

Health Insurance for all by extending Ayushman Bharat Scheme with State funds

Annual MLALAD fund limits increased from Rs 1 crore to Rs 2 crore, but no funds released

50 per cent seat reservation for students in private medical colleges under government quota

10 per cent reservation of seats for government school students in admissions to medical courses

Recruitment for over 2,000 posts in police, fire service, cooperatives, electricity and other government departments

Laying of major roads in Puducherry and Karaikal at Rs 80.40 crore

Inclusion of new beneficiaries for welfare scheme under old age pension, housing scheme and others

Projects under Smart City scheme

Grant of funds to 33 aided schools not approved
Local body elections, following tussle over the appointment of State Election Commissioner
Pending arrears of seventh pay commission to government employees

Flood revetment wall in Yanam

Reviving textile mills

Govts that completed their full term

Congress govt led by MOH Farook from 1985 to 1990
Congress govt of V Vaithilingam from 1991 to 1996
NR Congress govt led by N Rangasamy from 2011 to 2016
The Congress govts of 2001 and 2006 completed their tenures, but under two different CMs -- From 2001 to 2006, it was P Shanmugham and N Rangasamy, and from 2006 to 2011 it was N Rangasamy and V Vaithilingam

Govts that fell before completing tenure

The DMK-CPI govt, led by MOH Farook, which assumed charge on March 17, 1969, fell on Jan 3, 1974, after the CPI withdrew support

The AIADMK-CPI govt of S Ramasamy in 1974 lasted all of 22 days, before legislators defected en masse

S Ramasamy assumed charge again in July 2, 1977, but the government fell on Nov 12, 1978

MDR Ramachandran govt of the DMK assumed charge on January 16, 1980, fell on June 24, 1983

MDR Ramachandran assumed the office again on March 8, 1990, but the govt fell on March 31, 1991

The DMK-TMC-CPI govt of RV Janakiraman, which assumed charge on May 26, 1996, fell on March 21, 2000, after the TMC withdrew support

With govts falling frequently, the Centre had proposed merger of Puducherry with neighbouring States, but it was prevented with agitations. Only after the Anti-Defection Law came into existence, governments in Puducherry saw some stability

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