Only the Congress can defeat the Congress in Kerala, party vice-president Rahul Gandhi said this month at an election rally, an observation that also holds true for Puducherry.
The party seemingly shot itself in the foot during the 2011 polls in the Union Territory administered by the Centre that also has its own elected government. N Rangasamy, one of the Congress’s tallest local leaders, rebelled, formed his own outfit and defeated his erstwhile party, with a little help from J Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK.
Rangasamy won 15 of the 17 seats he contested and formed the government with the help of an independent MLA in the 30-member house.
But once he achieved majority, Rangasamy ditched Jayalalithaa, refusing to share power as was widely anticipated during alliance talks, triggering an angry diatribe from the Tamil Nadu chief minister.
But an indifferent Rangasamy befriended the BJP and central government, entered into a tie-up for the general elections under the NDA umbrella, an arrangement that still holds at the Centre. However, when the Puducherry CM faced a political crisis in getting his nominee elected to the Rajya Sabha last year, he managed to get the support of five AIADMK MLAs.
Four legislators from his own party, the All India N R Congress (AINRC), revolted and said they would not support the CM’s candidate. It was then that Jayalalithaa co-opted Rangasamy’s nominee as her party’s candidate for the Rajya Sabha from Puducherry and that’s how N Gokulkrishnan was elected.
The political situation in this former French colony that was once a Congress bastion is fluid with parties still waiting for alliances to firm up. The Congress has tied up with the DMK, following a deal in Tamil Nadu, but with a difference — in Puducherry, the Congress is the dominant partner.
DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi is keen that the Congress ropes in the Pattali Makkal Katchi outfit in Puducherry to take on Rangasamy who may come to an understanding with the AIADMK.
Unlike in some other states, in Puducherry, the Congress is seen as a functioning opposition party that is ready to take up people’s issues.
“Whether it is pursuing a file in the secretariat or help with a government scheme, people are getting assistance from a few Congress leaders,” said S Ramanthan, a private sector executive.
There is some disappointment among locals over the five-year rule of Rangasamy, which the Congress hopes to exploit in the election campaign.
“The administration has collapsed, there’s all-round failure of the government, increase in joblessness and rise in prices. The common man is groaning under a heavy burden and the government is not performing,” said senior Congress leader and former Union minister V Narayansamy, a possible CM candidate with the party’s state chief A Namachivayam also in the race.
The Congress will highlight all the negatives — under development, poor infrastructure, closure of industries on the economic front and prevailing lawlessness, he said.
The ruling AINRC does not face a leadership challenge with Rangasamy firmly holding the reins. Admitting that there were administrative constraints as well as financial issues since Puducherry is not a full state, senior party leader and Lok Sabha lawmaker R Radhakrishnan said the chief minister had achieved remarkable progress working within the limitations.
“Yes, we have tried our best to achieve full statehood for Puducherry, but so far efforts have not succeeded,” he said. “We are in the NDA. We do not have a confrontation with the Centre, which is a good thing as far as central help for the UT is concerned.”
He dismissed Opposition charges and said people were aware of what the government was doing.
“There is even free medical education for the weaker sections, which is not available anywhere else in India,” he pointed out.
Prof NK Jha of Puducherry University said voters too would consider the ruling party’s ties with the coalition in power at the Centre.
But the two major rivals, the Congress and AINRC, are also wary of a clutch of smaller parties that have come together to form a coalition, some of them contesting the polls here for the first time.