The Union Territory of Puducherry (UTP) is generally known for its French colonial history, its boulevards, beautiful beaches and growing tourism. But Puducherry is more than just a tourist hub.
Owing to its peculiar federal status in the Constitution, Puducherry is facing a political tug of war.
The appointment of Dr Kiran Bedi as the Lt. Governor (LG) of Puducherry has raised questions of democracy and brought political instability to the territory. The elected Government led by Chief Minister V Narayanasamy and the nominated L-G Kiran Bedi have been at daggers, with an all-party delegation even seeking to remove her from her post.
Beginning of the political tug of war
It all started when the Municipal Commissioner, a Bedi loyalist, was transferred by the Speaker following a privilege motion moved by an MLA. While the LG attempted to assert herself by nullifying the order, the matter is now before the Madras High Court. Amid all these developments in the past month, Kiran Bedi has now directly accused CM Narayanasamy of acting extra-legally. Local daily Dinamalar even carried a bizarre news article that asserted that the Chief Minister performed rituals to impede the LG's interference in his government's functions.
The election to the 30-member territorial assembly ended on May 16, 2016, with the Indian National Congress (INC) emerging as the single largest party. Kiran Bedi, who took office on the May 29 began making announcements on various policy matters before the elected government was sworn-in on June 6. Even before she took charge as the LG, she convened a meeting with the top officials of Puducherry. Soon after the swearing in ceremony, she announced at a press conference that the Chief Secretary to the Government of Puducherry had already shared her vision with all the officials in the Secretariat.
Powers well-defined in the Constitution
So, is there any purpose to electing a government in Puducherry? Is the LG entitled to act without even consulting the elected government?
India is a federal state and the powers of the Central and regional governments are well-defined. The Constitution provides for three lists: The Union list in which the Parliament alone can enact laws, the State List in which the State Legislature alone can enact laws and a Concurrent list in which both the Parliament and the State Legislature can enact laws. One cannot usurp the powers of the other, or the judiciary intervenes and strike downs any such actions as unconstitutional and illegal.
Every state has a Governor appointed by the President who acts in accordance to the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers headed by the Chief Minister. Interestingly, the Constitution lists down the âUnion Territoriesâ (UTs) as directly administered by the Indian Union. It provides that âthe UTs shall be administered by the President of India through an administrator appointed by himâ.
But as soon as Puducherry became part of the Indian Republic in 1963, Article 239A was inserted in the Constitution by an amendment. It provided that âParliament may by law establish a legislature and Council of Ministers at Union Territory of Puducherry with such constitution, powers and functions as may be specified in the law.â
Subsequently, by enacting the Government of Union Territories Act, 1963 a legislature with 30 members was established for Puducherry. It is pertinent to note that neither the Constitution nor the Act of 1963 limit the powers of the legislature and Council of Ministers of the UTP about any subject to which âStatesâ have jurisdiction. This is subject to the exception that the proposal of the territorial government exceeding a certain budget cap shall be consulted with the President.
Since the Constitution does not bar the powers of the territorial government, what does the LG do? Section 44 of the Act treats the administrator (LG) of Puducherry like the Governor of States. The Council of Ministers headed by the Chief Minister aids and advises the LG. But the only exception is that when there is a difference of opinion the LG has to refer it to the President. Only when the matter referred to is urgent can the LG do things that he/she deems fit.
No suo motu powers
This makes it crystal clear that the LG can normally act only according to the advice of the Council of Ministers headed by the Chief Minister. Even when a matter is referred to the President, the LG can act independently only if the matter in question is urgent. Therefore, legally at least, the LG of Puducherry does not have any suo moto power except under extraordinary circumstances.
The problem with the people of Pondicherry is that they are down with the popular myth that the government they elect is helpless. This is because successive governments at the Centre have treated the government of Puducherry with a step-motherly attitude whenever parties with opposite political views form the territorial government.
During the campaign to the 2011 Assembly Elections Narayanaswamy, who was then one of the most powerful Central Ministers in UPA, threatened the electorate that if they chose to elect NR Congress (a splinter group from then ruling INC) he will be able to stall the proposals of this government using the exception in law as discussed above.
Subsequently, when NR Congress (NRC) was elected to power, the tiff between LG Virendra Kataria and CM Rangaswamy was testimony to this. The problem was settled as soon as the NDA got back to power at the Centre when one of its components won the election and defeated Narayanaswamy.
Though the media sympathizes with Delhi in the battle between the âelected Kejriwalâ and ânominated LGâ, it fails to report the problem at Puducherry probably because the latter cannot gain them TRPs. Puducherry has a better case than Delhi. Unlike Puducherry, the Constitution, while granting special status to Delhi, restricts the powers of the territorial Government of Delhi with respect to significant âState subjectsâ like âlandâ and âpoliceâ.
Soon after the appointment of Kiran Bedi as the LG, memes mocking the elected government were shared on Facebook without understanding the consequences. Her independent announcements were received jubilantly without any understanding of the dangers to parliamentary democracy.
Whatever is said and done, the LG cannot usurp the powers of the elected government in the Constitution. The actions of Lt. Governor Kiran Bedi reveal that reality does not reflect the law.