The battle for a UT and BJP’s South ambitions
- BJP is hoping that its NDA alliance of AINRC, AIADMK and itself along with the three nominated members will be able to come to power against the Congress – DMK combine.
Of all the state polls for which results would be known on May 2, the least amount of national attention is on the union territory (UT) of Puducherry. Understandable as it is a relatively small assembly of not more than 33 members and sends just one MP to the Lok Sabha.
For most non-residents, mention of Puducherry conjures up images of a laid-back holiday destination or of the unique architecture of the French quarter – a legacy of its colonial past – or of the eponymously named Aurobindo ashram.
The physically disjointed UT located on the South East coast of India is unique in several ways. Of its four districts, Yanam abuts Andhra Pradesh, Karaikal to Tamil Nadu and Mahe is on the opposite Western coast adjacent to Kerala.
While it is Tamil Nadu politics that casts the most influence in the UT, Yanam typically elects a Telugu speaking representative and Mahe sends a Malayalam speaker. Puducherry is thus a smorgasbord of several South Indian cultures. Power in Puducherry has alternated between Congress and the two main Dravidian parties – DMK and AIADMK. Sometimes Congress and a Dravidian party have ruled jointly in an alliance depending on the political dynamics in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
The run-up to the assembly polls has seen a lot of political drama in the UT. The Congress government led by party veteran V Narayanasamy fell just as it was about to complete its full-term.
Next, the Centre removed Kiran Bedi, the pugnacious and controversial lieutenant governor who had a running feud with the state government during her tenure.
Being a UT, the L-G and by proxy the Centre, has a significant say in the day-to-day affairs and politics of the place.
The additional charge of the UT now vests with Telangana Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan, a former TN BJP state unit chief before assuming her current constitutional position.
The fall of the Narayanasamy government in Puducherry ensured that for the first time ever, Congress was not in power in any part of South India, either on its own or in an alliance.
This is a significant blow, as historically South India has been the springboard for Congress’s national revival whenever the party has faced tough times in other parts of the country.
BJP which has been a non-player in the UT till recently is sniffing an opportunity. With its local partners All India NR Congress (AINRC) and AIADMK, it hopes to come to power for the first time in Puducherry as a key ‘player’ and not a mere ‘adjunct’ to an ally.
Inspite of the ‘All India’ in the NR Congress name, it is a faction led by N Rangaswamy a former Congress CM who rebelled and broke away from India’s Grand Old Party to form his own, when he was removed as the CM. AINRC though says the NR in its name stands for ‘Namthu Rajiyam’ (our kingdom).
BJP is hoping that its NDA alliance of AINRC, AIADMK and itself along with the three nominated members will be able to come to power against the Congress – DMK combine.
Inspite or probably because of being labelled in the past as a ‘cow-belt’ party with its influence mainly in North and Western India, the BJP has been on a mission to expand its footprint in South India. Party supporters often point out that of the 130 Lok Sabha seats in South India, BJP today has 29 MP’s against the 26 of Congress.
However, 25 of the BJP’s 29 southern MP’s come from Karnataka, its beachhead in the South, and the party is assiduously working to expand its area of influence. Both in Kerala and TN – the two other states in South which go to polls – BJP’s attempt to emerge as a significant player is yet to yield results.
In Puducherry, though, it sees a major opportunity having attracted a number of defectors from Congress and DMK including some legislators in the outgoing assembly. The BJP in the Modi-Shah-Nadda era does not believe in taking any election lightly, even if it is for a UT and is going all-out to win the polls.
While the final contours of alliances and who gets how many seats are still being worked out in both camps, BJP might want to keep a wary eye on its partner AINRC.
Unlike some of its allies, AINRC is not ideologically committed to the NDA though it has been a part of it since 2014.
The DMK, in spite of its existing alliance with Congress in both TN and Puducherry, is wooing AINRC. The AINRC, on its part, is unhappy that NDA has not unequivocally declared that Rangaswamy would be the CM if the alliance comes to power. It may be thus open to other alternatives.
This inter-play of power dynamics make the outcome of the polls in the UT interesting, even as BJP seeks to paint Puducherry saffron for the first time.
(Venkatesha Babu is a senior journalist and analyst with a keen interest in politics, economy and culture of Southern India)