The pretty, coastal Union Territory of Puducherry, which was the seat of high-political drama recently, seems to be all set to back N Rangasamy, chief of All India NR Congress (AINRC) as their next Chief Minister. The people in this UT, largely dominated by the Vanniyar community, favour the NR Congress though they may harbour reservations about the BJP.
Besides Vanniyars, the UT consists of other castes such as Mudaliars, Dalits and the fishing community. Along with Dalits and fishing communities, a section of Vanniyars and Mudaliars are all set to dump the Indian National Congress (INC) but not its allies –the DMK, VCK and CPI. So, the traditional votes for the Congress (which is facing a major anti-incumbency wave here) in this UT, are expected to be scattered among its allies.
While the NR Congress is contesting in 16 seats and parted with 9 seats to BJP and 5 to AIADMK, the INC is to contest in 14 seats and handed out 13 seats to DMK, and one seat each to VCK and CPI. The remaining one seat has been given to an independent candidate. Together, they have formed the Secular Progressive Alliance.
Political observers in Puducherry felt that INC’s seat allocation itself proves they have no hope of winning the elections.
Muthukannu, a trade unionist from the Nellithope constituency pointed out, “The INC is contesting two seats less than the NR Congress. The former chief minister V Narayanasamy has not been given a seat this time, maybe the INC high command took the anti-incumbency mood here into account.” But, according to Muthukannu, many promises made by the INC government were not fulfilled during their tenure.
The Narayanasamy government had increased the house tax, solid waste management tax, drainage tax, etc., but they did nothing to better the lot of people here and this has made them unhappy with the Congress.
Personality cult over caste
Like in Tamil Nadu, the people of Puducherry too vote on the basis of caste, said Mangaiyar Selvan, founder, Meenavar Viduthalai Vengaigal, an organisation working for the welfare of the fishing community here.
“All political parties in Puducherry have appointed Vanniyars in key positions. That’s why Rangasamy is more popular among the people than Congress leader and former Chief Minister V Narayanasamy, who is a Nadar, a community which is a minority here,” he said.
But Puducherry people are displeased with Narayanasamy as well. “The anti-incumbency factor is another strong reason why people will not vote for the Congress this time,” said Seenu Tamil Mani, an environmental activist.
Mani however had a reason why Narayanasamy’s hands were tied when it came to developing the UT. According to him, when Rangasamy was Chief Minister between 2011 and 2014, Narayanasamy was serving as a Minister of State in the Centre between 2009 and 2014.
With the funds allotted to the UT from the Centre, Rangasamy used to often hand out freebies to the people. It was that time Narayanasamy, allegedly using his powers, reduced the allocation of funds to Puducherry and curtailed Rangasamy’s freebie spree, through the then Lieutenant Governor AK Singh. This move backfired on Narayanasamy, when he became the Chief Minister, and he was unable to give a major facelift to the UT in the last four years.
The constant bickering between former Lt Governor Kiran Bedi and Narayanasamy too blocked any progressive schemes to be implemented here, added Mani.
While factors like caste and anti-incumbency are in Rangasamy’s favour, the personal influence or cult status of a politician also reportedly play a significant role here.
The UT is home to a large number of trusts run by individuals. During birthdays of the trust’s founders or during natural disasters or any other public festivals, money, clothes, tailoring machines, etc., are distributed. Over time, these welfare dole outs worth some thousands of rupees earn these individuals a lot of respect and they become powerful.
Muthukannu pointed out, “This helps them when they enter politics. For example, leaders like A John Kumar (who was earlier with INC and now in BJP), M Vaithianathan (who was earlier with AINRC and now in INC), G Nehru (who was earlier with AINRC and now contesting as an Independent) all wield such influence.”
When Namassivayam kept moving parties from DMK, MDMK, TMC and then to INC, his supporters voted for him regardless of the party he belonged to. “Now, since he has now shifted to BJP, his voters will vote for the saffron party,” predicted Muthukannu.
It is the personality cult which matters more, he said, adding that the candidate’s political party or its politics or promises made by the parties in their manifestos are only secondary factors.
Rangasamy too may pull in the votes of Mudaliars, who are a dominant community in Kadirkamam constituency since he has done a lot of work to develop that area.
“If he contests from there, Rangasamy can win without campaigning,” said Mani, a resident of Kadirkamam constituency.
Why PMK is not stronger here?
Interestingly, the PMK, a Vanniyar-based party which has the power to shake up both the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu and has a strong bargaining power, has an insignificant presence here. The party which was given only one seat in the NR Congress alliance despite demanding three seats, later decided to contest the elections alone and filed nominations in 10 constituencies. However, on March 22, they withdrew their nominations and will not be contesting in this election.
But why is the PMK unable to make deep inroads into Puducherry?
“It’s simple. Since every other party in the UT are teeming with members from the Vanniyar community, there is no need for a separate Vanniyar party,” said Selvan.
It was only in the 1990s that caste has become a major factor in the UT’s politics. In fact, it had become a deciding factor to form a government. This was largely due to PMK’s entry into the scene.
“The party used to conduct constituency-wise conferences and tried to consolidate Vanniyar votes. But PMK is unable to harvest that consolidation today, and leaders like Rangasamy and Namassivayam have taken over,” added Selvan.
The PMK Puducherry unit however confessed that they have been assured by the BJP that they will be given posts once the NR Congress-led alliance come to power.
The AIADMK had allegedly promised them two seats if they got seven seats. But they got just five. The AINRC also promised that if they get 18 seats, they would give them two seats, but they got only 16 seats.
K Dhanaraju, convenor, PMK Pudicherry unit revealed, “We then asked for one nominated MLA post. But BJP had said even these posts have been committed to other leaders, who defected from other parties like Congress and DMK. So, the BJP has promised to give at least three Boards like Pudicherry Power Corporation, Social Welfare Board to us, when they come to power. In these boards, a non-MLA can be posted as Chairman.”
On asked if PMK is losing its relevance in the UT, Dhanaraju replied, “ We sacrificed for the welfare of the alliance. Otherwise, though the region has many Vanniyar leaders cutting across the parties, they won’t be loyal to those parties till the end of their life. They shift loyalties but PMK leaders are not like that.”