A turf war has broken out in Puducherry, with the elected government pitting itself against Lieutenant Governor (L-G) Kiran Bedi. While tensions have been mounting for some time now, the suspension of a Puducherry civil services (PCS) officer for allegedly sending obscene videos on a WhatsApp group, created by the L-G for administrative efficiency, has now led to open hostility.
On Friday, January 6, Congress MLAs wrote to the Union home ministry seeking intervention against the L-G’s “undemocratic conduct”. “The elected officials were given scant respect, not even involved seriously in addressing local issues which are normally within the domain of the elected representatives of the constituencies (sic),” the letter stated.
This letter was sent directly after the L-G cancelled an order issued by Congress chief minister V Narayanasamy directing government officials to desist from using social media for official work. On January 5, Bedi announced on Twitter, “If Puducherry has to be a progressive UT it cannot be retrograde in communications. Hence @CM_Puducherry’s order stands cancelled.”
According to the original circular by Narayanasamy, who took over as the chief minister in June 2016, his order was in accordance with the Official Secrets Act and guidelines of the information technology ministry. Officers are required to obtain the chief secretary’s permission to use social media for official work. As soon as the CM’s order was issued, a number of WhatsApp groups administered by government officials to interact with the media were shut down.
On January 7, Bedi wrote an open letter to the people of Puducherry and sent it to all media houses in the UT. According to her letter, she has decided to step down on May 29, 2018, when she completes two years in Puducherry. “I am happy to support them [the elected state assembly] as long as the law is not in conflict with a central law.” She spoke of the various complaints against her and explained that her approach was not to punish, but to help perform, inspire and support. “I have spent all my mornings over the weekends on visiting problem areas to bring about solutions, and we succeeded,” she wrote.
She adds that there is a lack of balance between the urban and rural budgeting, which currently heavily favours urban amenities. “I have exercised financial prudence and not allowed any diversion of funds. Despite this, I have had complaints of abuse,” the letter said.
She ends with a promise to leave Puducherry clean, safe and prosperous.
This is the first of many open letters, she said and has pledged to write one every month.
A video and its aftermath
The CM’s circular was issued after AS Shivakumar, registrar of Cooperative Societies and a PCS officer, was suspended for sending an allegedly obscene video to the ‘Prosperous Rural Puducherry’ group, administered by the Raj Niwas, the L-G’s office. A case was registered against the officer, and Bedi ordered his suspension. Shivakumar explained that he sent the obscene video by mistake while attempting to delete it. “Despite an immediate apology, and representations from officials, the LG ordered his immediate suspension without following proper rules,” a senior PCS officer alleged. According to him, the LG should have informed the chief secretary, and the order of suspension should have been issued from the latter’s office after due enquiry.
A case was filed under section 67A of the information technology act dealing with transmission of obscene material over electronic media. Shivakumar was detained at the Orleanpet police station for over 15 hours without the case being filed.
Though the police refused to comment on the detention, a senior police officer said that on the face of it, it looked like the video was sent by mistake. “Within two minutes of sending the offensive video, the official apologised. However, we are investigating the case,” he said.
Bedi’s action in suspending Shivakumar has raised the hackles of government officers, who have rallied against her. The Election Commission stayed the suspension on January 4 stating that Shivakumar was appointed as an electoral roll officer. Its order said the L-G “ought to have taken the commission into confidence and consulted before placing him under suspension”.
There have been persistent rumours of a rift between the CM and the L-G ever since they found themselves at the top posts within a month of each other mid-2016. In fact, within a couple of months, Narayanasamy made it a point to tell the media that things were cordial between them. Bedi, once a star in the Anna Hazare movement, switched to the Bharatiya Janata Party in the run-up to the Delhi assembly election early 2015.
Though the CM’s ban on social media came after the Shivakumar’s suspension, his ministers insist his order was to prevent the undemocratic use of social media. “The Lieutenant Governor has been issuing a number of orders on WhatsApp groups directly to heads of departments, bypassing the secretaries in charge of these portfolios. According to the business rules of Puducherry, a minister is responsible for the actions of the various departments under his ministry; but in many cases, the minister was unaware of the orders that were coming from the L-G. This is undemocratic,” grumbled a minister in the cabinet. While WhatsApp and other social media are useful for communication, official government work cannot be sanctioned through these apps, he added. “Often, permission and orders have been issued through social media. Orders issued through the app cannot be used to release funds for work that needs to be done, and cannot be considered official.”
An unprecedented animosity
The events of the past few days have left the Union Territory in a state of shock. According to Rajasekhar, a veteran journalist, this sort of animosity between the elected government and the L-G is unprecedented. “Never before has a chief minister issued an order based on observations, but even more surprising is a Lieutenant Governor declaring the CM’s order null and void. The government officials and the elected representatives are rallying against the L-G,” he said.
According to the Rules of Business of the Union Territory of Puducherry, when there is a dispute between the L-G and the elected government, the matter must be referred to the Union home ministry, a government official clarified. It is unprecedented, and against these rules, for the LG to issue an order cancelling that of the elected government, he added.
In the meanwhile, the opposition party, AIADMK, has called for the L-G’s removal and the suspension of the cabinet for six months. “The new government and the L-G took charge within a few weeks of each other, and since then, it has been as if there are two parallel governments. Officials are in a state of confusion and there is no work getting done, despite promises and announcements by both the LG and the CM,” AIADMK legislative party leader A Anbalagan told reporters last Friday.
Government employees, too, are bemused. CH Balamohan, president of the Confederation of Pondicherry State Government Employees Association, pointed out that the administration cannot function with two parallel governments. “The Lieutenant Governor has been meeting separately with heads of department and issuing orders for separate programs without the knowledge of the Secretary. Often the orders issued by the L-G are in opposition to the orders of the Secretaries, which has been causing confusion within the ranks,” he said.
Another sore point has been Bedi’s requirement from the time she assumed office last May that government officials report for duty on weekends, and often as early as 6am. “The L-G often conducts inspections early in the morning and on weekends; but for a government official, this is an additional burden,” Balamohan said.
The CM made it clear where he stood when, after the cabinet meeting to discuss Shivakumar’s suspension, he told reporters that the decision to work on weekends was left to officials’ discretion.
Files pending among warring factions
The CM’s colleagues have also taken up cudgels on his behalf. “The Lieutenant Governor has repeatedly flouted rules in a number of matters,” social welfare minister M Kandasamy said. He alleged that a number of files placed before the L-G for consideration by elected representatives have been ignored. “Even in routine matters like the transfer of PCS officers and the dredging of the port to allow fishing, the papers have been lying on her desk for several months.”
Accusing the L-G of flouting rules, he alleged she had convened official meetings at the Raj Niwas even before her appointment was confirmed in May 2016. “Even during the model code of conduct ahead of the by-elections where Narayanasamy contested for the Nellithope constituency, the L-G continued to issue orders to officials,” he said. The Election Commission had issued her a warning in November about this.
Politicians say that despite a flurry of announcements from the Raj Niwas, and periodic inspections by the L-G, there has been no progress in the Union Territory. A number of schemes proposed by the current government have been placed on hold, they allege. “We had proposed that the old age pension should be distributed in the homes of the elderly by bank officials, but the L-G refused permission,” K Lakshminarayanan, parliamentary secretary to the chief minister, said.
Ditto a proposal to purchase rice from local vendors to allow the Union Territory’s free rice scheme to continue. “The State Trading Corporation was unable to supply the required rice, so the scheme has been stopped for the past two months. When we approached the L-G to allow us to buy from local suppliers, she refused permission,” he said. Even a large chunk of the MLA Local Area Development funds has been kept aside to pay arrears on schemes announced in the previous regime, instead of allowing current MLAs to introduce new schemes for their constituencies.
“Elected representatives have an obligation towards their constituencies. Unless they are given appropriate funds and allowed to perform their duties, the electorate is bound to be disappointed in them,” social welfare minister Kandasamy said. He pooh-poohed that several of the LG’s activities were simply media stunts, and no real work was being done.
Journalist Rajasekhar observed that every week the media follows the L-G on her inspections, and every week there was a new announcement. “But so far, there does not seem to be much of a follow-up.”
Veteran CPI (M) leader T Murugan said Puducherry appeared to be in a limbo with no major schemes up and running. “A number of schemes have been announced, including the cleaning of all canals, implementation of beat policing and announcement of the 1031 crime helpline. But there has very little progress on these fronts in the past six months,” Murugan said.
Bedi, though, has her fan club and a number of residents are happy with her. Purushotham, a senior citizen, showered praise on her approachability and the gusto with which she undertakes work. “We can contact her through Twitter, or even visit her at the Raj Niwas to air our grievances. This is a first for us. But even after seven months, there does not seem to be much change in the Union Territory. This could be because there are few people willing to cooperate with her.”
While there has been a deafening silence from Narayanasamy, Bedi has taken to Twitter to have her say. “When a leader wants things done he will promote shared info. When he wants control & dependence he will ensure they r kept divided/deprived,” she tweeted last Friday.
And, for good measure, “I am not in Puducherry to do a job but transform the UT. Make it cleaner, safer, responsive public services, financial prudence & rule of law,” she added.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)