The turf war between Raj Nivas and the elected government in the Union territory shows no sign of blowing over. It has taken a heavy toll on the implementation of various schemes. A sustainable solution lies in the ability of the two primary seats of power to chart out a conciliatory, and consultative, rather than confrontational, approach
Unprecedented scenes were witnessed recently when Puducherry Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy and his Cabinet colleagues launched a dharna in front of the Raj Nivas, ratcheting up a long-standing standoff with Lieutenant Governor (L-G) Kiran Bedi over her alleged authoritarian ways.
The stir dragged on for days, grabbing national attention and drawing support for Mr. Narayanasamy from several regional and national political leaders. Ms. Bedi, meanwhile, left for Delhi and, on her request, an over 400-strong RAF contingent cordoned off the site of the protests. She advanced her return, presumably on instructions from the Centre, to try and thrash out a settlement.
Eventually, on February 18, nearly a week after he started the dharna, Mr. Narayanasamy emerged from marathon talks with the L-G to announce that he was temporarily calling off the stir on the basis of some assurances from Ms. Bedi.
- In October- November, 2016, Lieutenant Governor (L-G) Kiran Bedi strikes down a cabinet file seeking financial sanction for distributing free rice to all ration cardholders as done by the previous N.R. Congress regime. She directs the government to restrict the scheme to below poverty line cardholders
- On January 2, 2017, Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy issues an order restricting officials from using social media for official communication in retaliation to the L-G's practice of issuing instructions to officials on WhatsApp
- In March 2017, after Speaker V. Vaithilingam issues a direction to the government to transfer the then Commissioner of Puducherry Municipality R. Chandirasekaran, who was considered close to Ms. Bedi
- On April 5, 2017 Lt Governor’s Secretary G. Theva Neethi Dhas is summoned by the Assembly Privilege committee for contempt proceedings.
- On July 4, 2017, L-G administers oath to three BJP leaders chosen by the Centre as nominated members in the Legislative Assembly
- On November 2018, the CM issues a standing order declaring a circular issued by the Finance Secretary on getting prior approval of the L-G for release of grant-in aid as “null and void.” On the same day, Finance Secretary issues a note stating his inability to implement the standing order issued by CM
- On January 4, 2019, An all-party delegation led the Chief Minister stages a dharna in New Delhi seeking Statehood and Ms. Bedi's recall
- On February 13, CM launches an indefinite agitation in front of Raj Nivas, demanding a reply to a letter where he raised 39 demands
- On February 14, Ms. Bedi leaves for New Delhi, escorted by Central paramilitary forces On her request, RAF contingent deployed in city
- On February 18, the CM withdraws his agitation after Ms. Bedi agrees to a few of his demands
Though the immediate flash point for the Raj Nivas dharna was Ms. Bedi’s failure to act on a list of about 39 subjects of priority referred by the government, it was only the tipping point in the protracted turf war playing out in the Union Territory over the last couple of years.
The back story
The central protagonists in this tussle — Ms. Bedi, the first woman IPS officer and a Ramon Magsasay awardee, and Mr. Narayanasamy, a veteran Congress leader with vast experience as a former Union Minister — assumed office within days of each other: Ms. Bedi assumed charge of Raj Nivas on May 29, 2016 and Mr. Narayanasamy was sworn in on June 6.
As soon as Ms. Bedi settled into her role, she made it abundantly clear that she was not going to sit back as a figurehead, functioning merely on the advice of the elected government. She would carry out weekend inspections, hold regular Open House grievance meetings at the Raj Nivas, and convene meetings with secretaries of various departments.
It wasn’t long before her proactive style triggered an avalanche of criticism from the political administration that she was engaging in “overreach”, “overriding the powers of an elected government” and “making a mockery of democracy”.
The seeds of the first major confrontation were sown in October-November, 2016, when the Cabinet moved a file for for distributing free rice to all ration cardholders as was done by the previous All India N. R. Congress regime. Ms. Bedi struck down the proposal by directing the government to restrict the free rice scheme to below poverty line (BPL) cardholders.
As correspondence on the issue went back and forth between the Legislative Assembly and Raj Nivas, Minister for Public Works A. Namassivayam and Minister for Welfare M. Kandasamy called on Ms. Bedi to sort out the issue. After deliberations, it was decided to provide 20 kg of free rice to BPL cardholders and 10 kg to above poverty line cardholders, though the government’s decision was to provide 20 kg to both categories.
The free rice scheme issue continues to rock the relationship as there is always a delay in obtaining financial sanction for monthly rice distribution, with the L-G insisting on conducting a survey to weed out salaried and income tax paying recipients from the list.
The free rice scheme controversy resurfaced last year after the Civil Supplies Department started Direct Beneficiary Transfer for remitting money to the bank accounts of beneficiaries at the insistence of Ms. Bedi. She maintained that the decision was taken to avoid pilferage and bring more transparency to the scheme.
The first time though that the simmering war between the Raj Nivas and the government came out into the public domain was in December 2016, when Ms. Bedi ordered disciplinary action against a Puducherry Civil Service (PCS) cadre officer for posting an objectionable video clip in a WhatsApp group called ‘Prosperous Rural Puducherry’.
The Chief Minister soon thereafter issued a direction to government servants “not to use social media for interaction with seniors, bypassing the administrative hierarchy and routine official channel”.
Ms. Bedi cancelled the order and urged officials to continue using social media for communication — a practice in vogue even now. As the war of words between the two of became more frequent, the bureaucracy and the police found themselves in a dilemma, often faced with contradictory orders from the two power centres, and not being able to comply with one without invoking the wrath of the other.
In March 2017, Speaker V. Vaithilingam issued a direction to the government to transfer the then Commissioner of Puducherry Municipality R. Chandirasekaran, who was considered close to Ms Bedi. This was after members belonging to the Congress and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam complained about how the Commissioner had been working “against elected representatives with the support of Ms. Bedi”.
The Privilege Committee of the Legislative Assembly also decided to initiate proceedings against the officer after a complaint was lodged by AIADMK legislator A. Baskar.
The already souring relationship worsened after the L-G’s secretary G. Theva Neethi Dhas issued a note conveying Ms. Bedi’s decision to revoke the order issued by the then Chief Secretary Manoj Parida placing Mr. Chandirasekaran on compulsory wait following the ruling given by Speaker. The decision of Mr. Parida to implement the Speaker’s ruling would place him in thefiring line till his transfer to Delhi.
The ruling Congress hit back by initiating contempt proceedings against the L-G’s secretary. He was even summoned by the Privilege Committee for disobeying the ruling given by the Speaker.
The tense relationship between the government and Raj Nivas hit a new low in July last year after Ms. Bedi’s decision to administer the oath of office to three BJP leaders appointed by the Centre as nominated legislators to the House. She administered the oath on the night of July 4, hours after the three members met the Speaker requesting him to administer the oath.
Mr. Vaithilingam subsequently returned a file to the L-G stating that he could not accept the members as he had not received any communication from the “competent authorities” on the three names. Ms. Bedi had sent the file urging the Speaker to extend all facilities to the nominated members, including rooms, vehicles and identity cards. The members were not allowed entry into the House till the Supreme Court upheld the High Court’s judgment on the issue of appointment of the nominated legislators.
In January this year, the ruling Congress-DMK combine decided to take the fight against Ms. Bedi to the national capital after the L-G refused permission to distribute Pongal gifts to all ration cardholders ahead of the festival. A delegation of 21 political parties, including Congress, DMK, CPI(M), CPI and VCK, staged a day-long protest at Jantar Mantar on January 4.
The nub of the issue
At the heart of the turf war is the interpretation of Articles 239 (administration of Union territories), 239A (creation of legislatures) and 240 (powers of the President to make regulations for Union territories) of the Constitution.
Mr. Narayanasamy’s oft-articulated position is that while there are similarities and differences between Delhi and Puducherry, the latter is governed by provisions laid out in the Rules of Business of the Government of Pondicherry, 1963, mandated through a Presidential notification in exercise of the powers conferred by Article 239 and the proviso Article 309 of the Constitution.
According to him, law and order, land, finance and services are with the Council of Ministers in Puducherry and the law makes it binding on the L-G to act in accordance with the advice of the government. The L-G’s concurrence is mandatory for 13 items listed in the Rules of Business — those that raise questions of policy, which are likely to affect peace and tranquillity, those that are likely to affect the interests of any minority community, SCs and Backward Classes — while other matters can be decided by the Council of Ministers.In her defence, Ms. Bedi states that she has always acted “within the bounds of her Constitutional powers” and has alleged that the ruling establishment had turned against her, as she played by the book.
The rule book
Ms. Bedi’s counter punch to allegations of overreach derives from clarificatory notes issued by the Union Home Ministry. The MHA (January 27, 2017) stated that “from a conjoint reading of the rules, it is clear that the Administrator is to play an integral role in the policy-making as well as the day-to-day affairs of the Union territory of Puducherry.”
“The fact that the Administrator can call for papers from the secretary of a department makes it abundantly clear that the Administrator has the right to interact with the officers and while doing so is discharging his responsibility as the Administrator…. It is pertinent to note that even the office of Chief Minister is obligated to furnish information to the Administrator in certain situations….”
Later that year, the MHA issued another note which “justified the intervention of the L-G in seeking files from the secretaries of departments and interacting with the officers citing Rule 21 (5) of the Rules of Business of the Government of Pondicherry.”
In the question-and-answer format clarification to the letters written by the CM on February 3, 6, 7, 8 and 19, the MHA said the power to dispose of business relating to the department on a day-to-day basis is of the ministers, aided by the secretaries.
“However, equally so there is Rule 21(5) under which the L-G can call for papers relating to any case. Thereafter, there are Rules 50-53 which deal with the situation of a difference of opinion,” it said. The clarification was in response to a query whether L-G, Puducherry had the powers to dispose of business relating to departments on a day-to-day basis “when Minister(s) shall be primarily responsible for the business relating to the departments under Rule 6, sub-rule 2 of the Rules of Business of the Government of Pondicherry.”
Toll on administration
Meanwhile, the turf war has already taken a heavy toll on the implementation of various schemes, including free distribution of rice, allocation of financial aid to SC/ST students, implementation of Voluntary Retirement Scheme to almost defunct Anglo French Textile, Swadeshi Bharathi Cotton mills, distribution of grant-in-aid and development works.
In battleground Puducherry, where neither the Raj Nivas nor the government wants to be a lame duck, a sustainable resolution to the recurring battles lies in the ability of the two primary seats of power to chart out a conciliatory, and consultative, rather than confrontational, approach.
Former Member of Parliament and academic M. Ramadass says: “The archaic and un-amended Union Territories Act of 1963 and the unenlightened and narrow interpretation of the provisions of the Act, coupled with a clash of egos, are at the root of the crisis enveloping Puducherry.”
“Although the Act confers more powers and discretion on the Administrator, it also makes the Council of Ministers accountable to the Legislative Assembly, the custodian of the people,” he said.