House of cards: Long backstory to the political developments in Puducherry

After the fall: V. Narayanasamy leaving after submitting his resignation to the Lt. Governor on February 22. Right, at a protest meeting to condemn the toppling of his government.   | Photo Credit: T. Singaravelou

It was all over for the Congress-DMK government in Puducherry when the Assembly convened a special session for a confidence vote on Monday. But that was merely the last straw. The story of how Puducherry’s house of cards collapsed has an origin outside of, and a process longer than, the doomed confidence vote in the Assembly.

On Monday, former Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy launched a diatribe against the Centre and the BJP, alleging designs to topple the government, and Whip R.K.R. Anantharaman raised loud protests over the three nominated BJP MLAs being allowed to vote on the motion. But, on D-Day, all that was required was for the Opposition legislators to show up in the House for the government to bow out.

Before the proceedings reached the stage of a show of hands, Mr. Narayanasamy and the members of the ruling front walked out in a huff after an unsuccessful appeal to bar the nominated MLAs from casting votes. Speaker V.P. Sivakolundhu quickly declared that the government had lost the confidence motion and adjourned the House sine die. The same afternoon, Mr. Narayanasamy and the Council of Ministers met Lt. Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan to submit their resignations.

House of cards: Long backstory to the political developments in Puducherry

Implosion in Congress

In the lead-up, an imploding Congress saw a spate of resignations in a couple of weeks, rapidly dwindling its majority in the House to a point where its defeat in a trust motion was a certainty from the three votes of the nominated MLAs. While Mr. Narayanasamy alleged that these were part of the designs of the BJP to engineer the exit of MLAs through “intimidation and inducements”, the Opposition sought to snuff out the speculation that it had any hand in the collapse of the government and painted the chain of events as the fallout of an internal strife in the Congress.

“The government collapsed under the weight of its own failures over the last five years, so much so that it became untenable for Congress leaders to face the people,” said former Chief Minister and AINRC leader N. Rangasamy.

“The crisis is of the Congress’s own making as its own legislators had lost confidence in the government,” BJP president V. Saminathan said.

The timing of resignation of the six legislators has raised more eyebrows than the resignations itself. Though the reasons trotted out by the legislators ranged from being sidelined in the party to requiring family time, the chain of events suggests the unfolding of a larger game plan to reduce the government to a minority, days before it was due to complete its term.

Spate of resignations

The Congress, which disqualified its Bahour legislator N. Dhanavelou for anti-party activities in July last year, was first rocked by the resignation of former PWD Minister A. Namassivayam, effectively second-in-command in the Narayanasamy Cabinet, on January 25. He joined the BJP four days later. Along with him, legislator Theepainthan put in his papers.

Then, former Health Minister Malladi Krishna Rao announced his resignation on his personal Twitter account and A. John Kumar quit on February 16, as embarrassment deepened for the Congress just hours before the visit of party leader Rahul Gandhi. At that point, the Congress-DMK alliance had 14 seats , including that of the Speaker who could vote only if the number was equal on either side, and the Opposition AINRC, AIADMK and BJP had a similar strength.

Trust vote ordered

On February 18, Ms. Soundararajan, appointed to the post after Kiran Bedi was moved out, directed the Assembly Secretariat to convene the House on February 22 for a vote for the government to prove its majority. The Lt. Governor noted that consequent to the disqualification of one member of the House and the resignation of four others, the strength stands altered: the Congress and its allies are deadlocked with the Opposition, with 14 seats each.

Even at this point, the Congress was keeping up a brave face claiming that at least a few MLAs in the Opposition would not vote to topple a government. The final nail in the coffin was the resignation of Congress legislator K. Lakshminarayanan and DMK legislator K. Venkatesan on Sunday, a day before the vote. This reduced the strength of the Congress-DMK (plus Independent) combine to 12, including the Speaker, who could cast a vote only if the Treasury and Opposition benches were tied. In effect, the government’s fate was sealed after five Congress and one DMK MLA resigned in four weeks — a pale shadow of the 19-MLA alliance that assumed the reins of power in 2016.

Debate over nominated MLAs

The fall of the government has stirred up a debate on both the process of nominating MLAs and the powers vested with them. It can be argued that past governments, including the AINRC regime, had also indulged in partisan choices for these posts — even nominating party functionaries to these posts which were meant to accommodate representatives from civil society. In fact, nominations to the Assembly have been done in 1985, 1990, 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011; on every occasion, the nominated members belonged to one political party or the other. The stark difference was that the three legislators were at present vested with powers on a par with the 30 elected MLAs, including voting rights, by a 2018 Supreme Court ruling.

Historically, when the erstwhile Pondicherry and the enclaves of Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam were merged with the Indian Union following a treaty with France in 1962, the Jawaharlal Nehru government brought a Constitution (Amendment) Bill in Parliament to insert Article 239A in the Constitution. The Home Minister at that time, Lal Bahadur Shastri, had framed the Bill in Parliament, which grouped these territories into the Union Territory of Pondicherry, and inserted Article 239A into the Constitution. The new article empowered Parliament to create a legislature for the Union Territories that could be either fully elected, or part nominated and part elected.

Under the Government of Union Territories Act, 1963, Puducherry will have 30 elected MLAs and not more than three nominated legislators appointed by the Central government. The only stipulation was that government servants not be nominated.

M. Ramadass, former parliamentarian of the AIADMK, pointed out that in 1963, when the nomination of legislators came up for discussion in Parliament, Shastri recommended important guidelines to allay Opposition concerns that it would lead to political appointments.

Shastri reasoned it would be made sure that the nominations were used to appoint people from communities unrepresented in the Assembly through the electoral process and eminent personalities who could add value to debates on law-making.

Radical shift

While the convention has been for the government to forward a list to the Centre and secure clearance, this was breached in significant ways when the Centre, through the Ministry of Home Affairs in June, 2017, unilaterally and without consultations with the Puducherry government, chose two BJP men and a sympathiser-education entrepreneur as nominated legislators.

And, when instead of the Speaker, the then Lt. Governor Kiran Bedi administered the oath of office to the nominees at a hurriedly convened ceremony on July 5, 2017, it triggered widespread protests, with the Congress and the DMK leading a bandh on July 8, along with 24 pro-Tamil outfits, and releasing of the copies of the FIRs in cases pending against two of the nominees. In 2018, the nomination of the three MLAs was challenged before the Madras High Court. The High Court ruling upholding the nomination was then challenged in the Supreme Court. In December 2018, a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court held that no consultation with the Puducherry government was required before the nomination of members and since the 1963 law did not distinguish between the elected and nominated MLAs, they enjoyed powers on a par with the elected MLAs, including voting rights.

Complaints to ECI

When a high-level team of the Election Commission of India (ECI) visited Puducherry earlier this month, parties under the Congress-led Secular Democratic Progressive Alliance flagged their concern that the Centre’s absolute power to nominate three MLAs with voting rights queered the pitch for the upcoming election and had the potential to override the popular mandate.

In a memorandum, DMK Legislature Party leader R. Siva said the Centre’s power to nominate MLAs, now backed by a Supreme Court ruling, would deny equal opportunities to all parties contesting in the election to come to power.

He called for a ban on unilateral appointments by the Centre or a provision in the Act stating the lack of voting rights to nominated legislators.

The CPI, which also raised the issue before the ECI, pointed out that when nominated members were activists of the ruling party at the Centre they could use their vote to topple a government that had the people’s mandate. “The very objectives of parliamentary democracy, elections and people’s representation are being defeated,” CPI State secretary A.M. Saleem said.

Political observers said such a situation has as much to do with the Congress’s complacence in drafting a list of potential nominees well beyond a year in office, as with the BJP’s exploitation of a good faith constitutional convention that was intended to create space in the democratic process for non-/under-represented communities and members of civil society.

In December 2018, a three-member Bench of the Supreme Court upheld the Centre’s prerogative, noting that the nomination to the Assembly is to be made by the Central government by virtue of Article 239A of the Constitution, read with Section 3(3) of the Government of Union Territories Act, 1963. “No statutory rules or any delegation has been referred to or brought on record under which the administrator is entitled or authorised to make nomination to the Legislative Assembly of the Union Territory of Puducherry in aid and consultation of the elected government.” The court granted nominated legislators all rights and privileges vested with elected members. “The statutory provision does not give any indication that nominated members have no right to vote on budget and no- confidence motion against the government,” it held.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling while upholding the letter of the law has ignored the spirit behind its provisions,” said K. Lakshminarayanan, who was Parliamentary Secretary to the Chief Minister before he resigned as MLA, and a petitioner in the case at the Supreme Court. What was a good faith provision had been weaponised by the Centre, he said.

“The anomalous situation has stemmed from the failure of the Centre to amend the rules governing Section 3 (3) of the Government of Union Territories Act,” Mr. Ramadass said. He suggested an amendment to the Act, mandating the constitution of a selection committee to nominate members to the Assembly to prevent controversies and political interference.

Review petition

The Congress is, meanwhile, preparing to file a review petition in the Supreme Court on the issue of voting rights for nominated MLAs. Political analysts said that a review by the top court could bring much-needed specifics to the governing laws as their current form left enough ambiguity that could be exploited by the government of the day at the Centre.

Clarity on both the process of nominations and the rights of these nominated MLAs would ensure that they bring their intended value to the democratic process and preserve the integrity of free and fair elections, observers said.

And as Puducherry heads to polls under President’s rule on April 6, the debate on the voting rights of nominated MLAs and federal powers and constitutional norms will re-occupy the centre stage, should the people’s mandate produce a hung Assembly.

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