Cong Puducherry Crisis & Politicisation Of Constitutional Offices 

A former Lt Governor of Puducherry, Lt Gen (Retd) Bhopinder Singh, explains the high-octane drama playing out.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Image of Puducherry’s location on the map, and BJP & Congress’s symbols, used for representational purposes.
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For some time now, the idyll of Puducherry has been simmering with political dissonance that posited the Raj Nivas against the elected representatives, much like in Delhi.

The contentious subject of cooperative federalism has an added context in ‘half-states’ like Puducherry or Delhi, where matters pertaining to land, police and public order are not in the control of the elected government, and are instead reposed with the Home Ministry of the Government of India, via the gubernatorial office of the Lieutenant Governor.

This tenuous constitutional wiring gets exacerbated in situations where the state government is different from the one in the centre, though it plays out even when both the governments are the same, as was the case with Sheila Dixit’s Delhi Government, during the UPA tenure.

A Bitter Turf War

Sadly, Puducherry had been mired in a bitter turf-war between the two offices, that is unprecedented in its intensity and inelegance. From free-flowing vitriol and personalised accusations on social media, physical dharnas to court cases, it was as if the traditional role of the ruling-opposition parties was between these hallowed offices.

The delicate constitutional necessity of healthy checks-and-balances between the LG and the CM office, had given way to an open one-upmanship that belied the constitutional supremacy of one, over the other.

The gubernatorial role of the ‘constitutional conscience keeper’ — that deploys restraint, sobriety and tact — was taken over by a spirit of activism, with partisan slants.

The distasteful flare-ups were recurring with the elected government, also sparing no efforts in upping the ante by accusing the LG as a ‘BJP agent’ (after the LG had inducted the only 3 nominated members of the BJP into the assembly, without the approval of the CM). The free-for-all certainly did not behoove the impeccable personal and professional credentials and experience of the LG and the CM in question, as the tinderbox of Puducherry was rife with barbs from both sides. Public display of ‘activism’ against each other unconvincingly compensated for much-needed socioeconomic development.

What Led to the High-Octane Drama?

Stakes in the ensuing drama got magnified in recent times with the impending state assembly elections, slotted for May 2021. Given the geographical contiguity of Puducherry to Tamil Nadu, the Tamil regional parties along with the Congress dominated the political landscape. As one of the few remaining Congress-led states in the country, coupled with the BJP sensing a first real opportunity of staking claim either by itself or with a regional/local alliance in the forthcoming elections, the political field truly opened.

To that extent, a certain recalibration within and amongst the parties themselves, is fair par for course.

However, the recent phenomenon of a ‘mass exodus’ of elected members or senior functionaries switching political sides, as also witnessed in West Bengal or earlier still, in Manipur, Goa, Madhya Pradesh etc, has arrived in sylvan Puducherry.

The ruling dispensation has seemingly lost the majority in the 33-member assembly with the resignation of four elected members of the assembly, bringing their tally down to 10, including the Speaker (with another 3 members of an alliance party and one independent), whereas the opposition has 14 MLAs.

Despite the brave front put up by all parties, the stage is set for the sort of political management that is usually not in keeping with the finest tenets of democracy.

Strengthening the Narrative of Partisanship

Even the earlier-than-due removal of the Puducherry LG has presumably political considerations, as she had already tenured 4 years and 264 days. It is widely speculated that the sudden move to remove the LG was to deny the ‘martyr syndrome’ on the embattled Congress establishment in Puducherry, as its publicly established face of opposition resided not really in the state assembly, as much as in the Raj Nivas.

It could also potentially make the crossover of some members defecting from one side to the other, more palatable by not having to acquiesce to a face that they themselves had been bitterly opposing, from the start of the current government.

This serendipitous deflection which coincides with the breaking of ranks in the ruling dispensation, has all the perceptible hallmarks of election planning for May 2021. Clearly there were no constitutional/administrative concerns with the LG office as far as ‘Delhi’ was concerned, so the move could only be political. In case the former LG of Puducherry is entrusted with some alternative constitutional or partisan responsibilities, it will further strengthen the narrative of partisanship.

What Overt Politicisation Disturbs

However, more than partisan politics itself, which is given to the rumble-and-tumble of flexible commitments, the more pertinent question — of the politicisation of institutions and constitutional offices — looms.

While it is certainly true that all appointees to constitutional posts bear the political ‘approval’ of the dispensation of the day — the onus and expectation to shun the political past and in debt if any, and strictly abide by apolitical rectitude hereinafter, is on the said individual.

Such overt politicisation disturbs the constitutionally mandated balance of ‘pacifist’ and ‘activist’ moorings between the constitutional head and the elected head, with usurpations, appropriations and interferences.

An almost similar narrative is playing out in West Bengal with the uneasy and fractured relationship between the two offices, just as the state face a similar assembly election.

This is certainly not a new phenomenon as the role of the constitutional offices has come in for credible questioning against all political dispensations, however perhaps the tenor and extent of such railing overreach had never assumed such proportions.

These are truly trying times of socioeconomic distress, especially against the backdrop of the pandemic, which was particularly severe in Puducherry. Unfortunately, it seems that partisan politics — which are naturally given to the basest of instincts — has triumphed over the need for stability and dignity, as an air of diminishment of democracy prevails.

The competing agendas for May 2021 may not be about alternative plans and policies, as much as about posturing, manipulations and engineering. Puducherry and the nation deserve better than what the political optics and augury suggest.

(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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