The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s leadership may have commenced the second phase of Operation Lotus in the Union Territory (UT) of Puducherry with the Centre nominating three party men to the assembly. The move, which came just about a week after election results there, will mount pressure on chief minister N Rangaswamy’s government and his All India NR Congress (AINRC) party, which is a BJP ally. The BJP has now improved its MLA count from six to nine through the nomination route; the AINRC has 10 MLAs in the 30-member (now 33) assembly.
The signs are ominous and the implications clear, especially in the backdrop of the ouster of a Congress government that lost majority just before the elections in the UT. In the previous assembly too, the BJP had three nominated members who could vote on a budget or in case of a floor test.
In Puducherry, the BJP leadership is backing the strategy to have its own chief minister in order to give a psychological boost to its campaign in the South and to create a pan-India image that the party is expanding its footprint in all parts of the country.
The BJP won’t be satisfied with a secondary role in Puducherry. For the BJP, a deputy CM post that it could be allotted will be at best a temporary arrangement, as the party has set its sights on chief ministership. The plan, set in motion when Kiran Bedi was the UT’s lieutenant governor, had been to wean away Congress MLAs from the previous V Narayanasamy government, bring it down and establish a BJP government.
As part of that operation, the Congress administration was checked at every stage and not allowed to proceed even with day-to-day matters, while schemes were blocked by Bedi, who was removed from her post just days before the government collapsed. The image of the Narayanasamy government was weakened systematically and the paralysis was in turn used to paint an ugly picture of misgovernance.
The ambitions of the No. 2 in the Congress cabinet, A Namasivayam, were used by the BJP to wean him away along with a few other MLAs. Just a month before the elections to the UT, Namasivayam initiated the process of resignations from the Congress. Some joined the BJP, but in a curious twist, some preferred to join the AINRC.
In the run-up to the elections, the BJP sought to project Namasivayam as its CM candidate, but the wily Rangaswamy insisted that he would head the government and that the BJP should be happy with a few ministerial berths. As the alliance was threatened, the BJP made a hasty retreat and assured him of support in private, but publicly shied away from endorsing his claim for chief ministership. The BJP was aware that the AINRC had enough muscle to win on its own.
With an uneasy truce in place, even as Namasivayam was sulking, Rangaswamy supporters went on to claim that their leader would form the government. On the other hand, during their election rallies in Puducherry, BJP’s central leadership said the UT would have a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, and made no mention of Rangaswamy. The BJP said the issue of chief ministership would be decided by the new MLAs.
The AINRC went through the motions of an alliance but devised its own strategy to counter the BJP. Rangaswamy adopted the plan of fielding or supporting rebel candidates, particularly against another ally, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). In the results declared on May 2, the Dravidian party suffered a shock defeat in the UT, as all its five candidates were defeated by independents.
A tussle has now emerged between the AINRC and the BJP on controlling these independents. The BJP claims it has the support of three of them, while the AINRC says it enjoys the backing of all independents, except the one who defeated Rangaswamy in one of the two constituencies that he contested.
The race for the control of the assembly has assumed serious proportions, even though Rangaswamy has tested positive for the coronavirus; he had to be admitted to a Chennai hospital for treatment. Officially, the cabinet expansion has been put on hold with the CM in hospital, but political observers also point to the impasse over the possible appointment of a BJP deputy CM.
While Rangaswamy is conscious of the goings-on in the BJP camp, he has tolerated the national party as an ally since he does not want a destabilisation exercise against him. On one hand, he needs the Centre to support his government. On the other, he does not want to give any quarter to the BJP — it will come at his party’s expense — and will try to prevent the growth or dominance of the saffron party.
A cat-and-mouse game is thus being played in Puducherry.
The BJP’s strength of nine members, with the three nominations, means that it is just one behind the AINRC tally. The BJP’s claim of support by at least three independents takes its effective strength to 12, two more than the AINRC. If a couple of Independents stand by the AINRC, its strength too would be 12.
Rangaswamy is known to be evasive and calculating. He had even summoned the courage to defy AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa, jettison his alliance with her party and form a government on his own. Even now, he could have his own plans if he reaches out to the DMK, which has six MLAs and is waiting on the side lines for a political realignment.
Even before the elections, the DMK invited Rangaswamy to join hands and checkmate the BJP in the UT. The Congress too sent out signals that it was willing for a tie-up with the AINRC and the DMK. Such moves could gain fresh ground now. The AINRC and the DMK could have a combined support of 18 MLAs, taking it well beyond the halfway mark. The Congress, with two MLAs, will extend support to such a government. Such a development is possible and Rangaswamy may be forced into a realignment if the BJP continues its pursuit for the CM post.
At the same time, Rangaswamy would be wary of non-cooperation by the Centre, which could affect his government’s performance. A non-BJP government may be starved of funds and approvals.
Puducherry is one state where the BJP feels it is just a couple of moves away from its desired goal. In the coming months, even if ties with the AINRC improve and the BJP gets a deputy CM post, the national party may continue with its machinations and perhaps trigger resignations in the AINRC camp to bring it down to a minority. The AINRC would be then forced to yield the CM post to the BJP.
Will Rangaswamy outsmart the BJP as he did the AIADMK? With new political twists and turns beginning to unfold, the Puducherry script is far from over.