On May 2, the National Democratic Alliance consisting of the All India NR Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party won 16 of the 30 seats in the Union Territory of Puducherry in the recent Assembly polls.
This was a simple majority in the Assembly, paving the way for the first NDA government in the former French colony in South India.
However, what has transpired since the Assembly election results came out has stirred the political circles in Puducherry, leading to accusations from Opposition parties that the BJP was trying to pull the rug from under the AINRC and capture power on its own.
Though the AINRC is the senior partner in the alliance, the results have put the party in a fix. It managed to win only 10 seats. In contrast, the BJP, which in the run up to the polls pulled in several leaders from the Congress and other political parties, put up a strong show by winning six seats, an unprecedented performance for the party in the Union Territory.
Almost immediately after the elections, the BJP demanded its share of the pie, with the party staking claim for the post of deputy chief minister and two other cabinet berths.
In the meantime, the Centre rushed to nominate three members to the Assembly, an exercise that is usually carried out only after the MLAs elected through the polls take office. In effect, these nominations have increased the BJP’s strength in the Assembly to nine.
While the BJP has denied any rift in the alliance, the Opposition has demanded the withdrawal of the nominations.
Under the Union Territories Act, the President has the powers to nominate three MLAs to the Puducherry Assembly, which elects 30 members.
This provision in the Act has a long history. In 1962, the then French colonies of Pondicherry, Karaikal, Yanam and Mahe were clubbed together to form the Union Territory of Pondicherry. Initially, the Centre wanted a wholly nominated Assembly for the newly formed union territory. However, it faced stiff opposition in Parliament for this move. Eventually, the law said that the Puducherry Assembly will have 30 elected MLAs and three members nominated by the Centre.
This issue of nominated MLAs to the Puducherry Assembly was the subject matter of a three-judge verdict from the Supreme Court in December 2018. The previous Congress government had moved the court in appeal claiming that it was not consulted by the Centre before appointing the three members after the new Assembly was elected in 2016.
The Supreme Court held that the Centre need not consult the Union Territory government for the nomination. It also held that the nominated MLAs had the powers to vote in the Assembly, which was one of the reasons that led to the fall of the Congress government earlier this year just before the scheduled Assembly polls in April.
The BJP has now used this power to nominate MLAs to bolster its strength in the Assembly.
While it won only six of the 30 seats, by virtue of nominating three members, its effective strength has gone up to nine members.
In the Assembly elections, the numbers were split between the parties in the following manner: the AINRC won 10 seats, the BJP and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam six each, the Congress two and independents six.
Apart from the three nominated MLAs, the BJP now has the support of three independent members as well, who have openly come out in support of the party. The other three independents have put their weight behind the AINRC.
After these changes, the BJP has the backing of 12 MLAs and the AINRC 13. Together, they hold 25 of the total 33 seats in the Assembly, if the three nominated MLAs are also included in the calculation.
What has led to a churning in Puducherry is the manner in which the BJP has gone ahead increasing its numbers.
It was only on May 7 that N Rangasamy, the leader of the AINRC, took oath as chief minister. No minister was sworn in along with him, which means the Puducherry Cabinet currently consists of only the chief minister.
Within days of assuming office, Rangasamy was tested positive for Covid-19 and was admitted to a hospital in Chennai for treatment. The Assembly has not met to allow for the newly elected MLAs to take oath. The Centre, meanwhile, rushed to nominate three MLAs to the Assembly on May 10.
The Opposition has slammed this move. In a statement on Wednesday, DMK general secretary Durai Murugan hit out at the decision to nominate the MLAs even before the elected MLAs could take over. He said that this has given way to fears that the BJP was trying to capture power through the backdoor and urged the Centre to withdraw the nominations. Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader Thol Thirumavalavan went one step ahead and said the AINRC should see through the BJP’s game and not make the historic blunder of allowing BJP to capture power in the union territory.
The Congress claimed the BJP’s decision would result in the fall of the newly-elected government.
Following the three nominations, a party would need 17 MLAs to sustain the government.
A senior AINRC leader, who spoke to Scroll.in on condition of anonymity, said that the party was closely watching the developments but there was no need for worry as the BJP has accepted their leader Rangasamy as chief minister. “Once Ayya [Rangasamy] comes back from the hospital, everything will be sorted,” the leader said.
The BJP has also demanded the post of deputy chief minister, which Rangasamy has been reluctant to accept, pointing out that there was no precedence for such a post in the union territory and it is not clear if the laws allow it.