On January 27, a young girl entered the Chief Minister’s Office in Puducherry and started calling out for the CM fearlessly. Stunned by the sudden commotion, the CM N Rangaswamy himself rushed out of his office room to find out what had happened. The girl had one demand: she wanted to become the Chief Minister. “How long will you be the Chief Minister, I want to be, vacate the seat,” she demanded, according to eyewitnesses.
One would expect any CM in India to either laugh, and walk back into the office, or fire the security officer for the breach. But not NR, as he is popularly known. NR sat the girl down and explained to her that this was a democracy, and that she needed to go to the people and canvass for votes to win and occupy the CM’s seat. Soon enough, NR’s aides intervened and the girl was escorted out.
What this says about the three-time Chief Minister depends on who are you are talking to. For some he is the benevolent, people-loving CM who does his best given the limitations of governing a Union Territory. For many others, he is the laid-back and uninterested CM who has got all his priorities wrong and, without the support of his previous political party, the Indian National Congress, is driving the state to bankruptcy and misgovernance.
NR: The quintessential Congressman under fire
NR is a hardcore Congressman who has modelled his image on K Kamaraj. But in 2008, during his second term as the CM, internal politics in the Puducherry Congress boiled over and he resigned as the CM. In 2011, he made a comeback with the All India Namathu Rajyam Congress, or NR Congress, combining his personal and Congress party’s brand. His party managed to get 15 out of the 30 seats in the 2011 assembly elections (they contested only 17), and with support from an Independent, he ascended the throne of Puducherry’s CM. He left the Congress, but not Kamaraj.
But nearly 5 years later, his party is facing a barrage of criticism.
“It is a failed government,” says DMK’s SP Sivakumar, a former education minister of the state. “It is a government which is run only for one constituency, which is the CM’s constituency of Kadirgamam. The CM does not help people in any other constituency.” Cutting across party lines, even within the NR Congress, there are complaints of favouritism towards the CM’s close circle.
There are several allegations against the government. The Congress and DMK allege that unemployment is high, infrastructure has not been developed, water crisis in coastal areas is not addressed and that the flood relief work has not been good enough. But the two main issues raised by many are the poor financial status of the state and increasing rowdyism.
As of 2015, the Puducherry government had a net debt of Rs. 6080 crore, and was paying a yearly interest of Rs. 528 crore. The yearly borrowings have significantly increased since 2010-2011. Even though the tax revenue was higher than other UTs on paper, the government was not able to actualise the taxes, pushing it further into a financial crisis.
Former CM V Vaithilingam
“He is not bothered about collection of tax,” says V Vaithilingam, the leader of opposition and former CM of Puducherry during the previous Congress regime. “Overdues are really high, and he is not collecting it from liquor and petrol traders,” says Vaithilingam. The planning commission too has pointed out the low collection of dues in the power sector, “The collection efficiency is low due to non-payment of dues by Government Departments and bulk consumers, mainly industries.”
If tax evasion is said to be increasing, so are allegations of the CM not knowing what to do.
“We are dependent on the Union government for our funds. But the problem is the CM does not know how to handle it. He does not know what proposal is to be taken at what time, he does not even attend all the meetings, then how will we get help?” asks Sivakumar. In July 2015, the CM skipped the NITI Aayog meeting with the PM because he had to attend the Kamaraj birth anniversary celebrations in Puducherry. That was the second time he was skipping a meeting with the PM.
Further, there have been allegations of the government misappropriating funds from the savings of government employees to prevent itself from going broke.
On account of law and order too, the CM is facing intense criticism. “There is a complete law and order break down, and the CM is not allowing the police do its work,” says Vaithilingam.
And the worst affected from this seem to be the businessmen. “There are open requests for extortion now. People are being murdered in broad daylight, and these rowdies are not being booked. They are having an easy run,” says S Babu, President of All Pondicherry Plastic Traders and Manufacturers Association.
“We have made several representations to the government, but there has been no proper response,” adds Babu.
As a businessmen however, Babu is also particularly frustrated at what he says is the NR government’s lack of interest in industry. “I know of an automobile retailer who shifted his shop from Puducherry to TN just across the border so he could do better business. And our CM went to inaugurate it! Should he not have stopped the trader instead?” he asks in exasperation.
Amidst all this, there are allegations of nepotism too. While NR himself is unmarried, his nephew, Tamizhselvan is the Chairman of PAPSCO (Puducherry Agro Products and Civil Supplies Corporation) which is also into the sale of liquor (like TASMAC in Tamil Nadu). Another family member, NSJ Jayabal was appointed as the Chairman of the Engineering College (Puducherry) Society. Both alcohol and education are great money-spinners in Puducherry.
“We are doing the best we can”
But in spite of all such allegations, the NR Congress is the strongest political party, and they have answers to all the allegations.
“We have delivered on everything listed in the election manifesto, from pension for senior citizens to education subsidies. Which government in the country has done so much for citizens?” asks V Bhalan, an MLA with the NR Congress, as he takes out a calendar which lists out all the promises which have been ‘fulfilled’. In each page of the yearly calendar, each scheme’s success has been showcased.
The NR Congress has taken the easiest way out of the allegations: freebies. Just like Tamil Nadu, the state government here has announced free mixies and grinders, a Rs. 4000 flood relief package for each family, Pongal Vouchers with free sugar and rice and a subsidized education scheme – Kamaraj Education Scheme – which is very popular among students.
Bhalan too is a Congressman who deserted it for NR, and is pragmatic in his responses. “Yes unemployment is high, but how can the government create jobs for every person who we have educated? Our hands are tied, that’s why we need statehood,” he says.
NR Congress MLA V Bhalan
The demand for statehood is a standard response to many of the state’s problems.
“All the problems you point out are ones we cannot do much about. The law and order machinery is with the LG. We cannot even transfer cops. We cannot bring in investments because we cannot give tax concessions to the investors, only the Centre can. We are not even allowed to have PPP projects without the Centre’s approval, then how can we create jobs?” asks Bhalan in a calm manner.
When pointed out that the CM is not doing enough – not even attending meetings - he shoots back, “We are not even a member of the Aayog. What is the point?”
The one point he does concede is the culture of tax evasion in the state, and that he says is a problem which any party in power will face.
Bhalan however is certain that there is no anti-incumbency. To win over the people, they have turned to freebies and yet another possibly winning idea – spiritualism. “We have done kumabishekams for 25 temples in the state, people are very happy with us,” says Bhalan.
Sources in all parties indicate that a DMK and Congress alliance could be in the offing, especially if it materialises in Tamil Nadu. A DMK-Congress combine could put up a strong show against the might of the NR Congress. The NR Congress too is known to be in talks with the AIADMK for an alliance.
Puducherry has been a Congress bastion throughout, and it matters little what the Dravidian parties do here. But there is a general consensus that there will be no government without an alliance, and the Dravidian parties gain significance due to that. Dravidian parties believe there is huge anti-incumbency against the NR government, but if that will translate into a change in government, remains unclear.