For a Tamil, born and brought up in Tamil Nadu, the neighbouring Puducherry has always been the proverbial ‘La La Land’. Its beaches, traffic-free wide roads, the seaside boulevard, the lethargic atmosphere, the Aurovillians and their ‘universal’ township filled with foreigners hunting for a deeper meaning in life and residents speaking in French at street-side corners every now and then – all of which has given Puducherry a laid-back, unique charm of its own.
But, are the residents of this Union Territory (UT) here content? Rathinam, a photographer said that the UT may look calm on the outside but political upheavals have brought instability and has not helped in bringing good governance to the UT.
Residents felt that Dravidian parties view the UT with a step-motherly attitude. During seat-sharing talks, though the Congress and BJP pay obeisance to DMK and AIADMK, it is the national parties that exercise control over the territory.
It is true that Dravidian parties, which have formed the government in Puducherry in the past, have gradually lost their influence and lack a voice in the Assembly now. The Dravidian parties cannot win more than five seats today, while back in the 1969 Puducherry Assembly elections, DMK won 15 seats, in 1977, AIADMK had bagged 14 seats.
How and why have the regional parties lost their political grip over the UT? And, why has Puducherry turned into a stronghold for national parties?
“There can be only one answer to these questions. It is largely because politicians here keep shifting their loyalties,” said author and journalist PNS Pandian.
Parties by sons of the soil
Before getting into how Dravidian parties lost their influence, it is pertinent to understand how they first became influential in the UT.
Even before the region got its freedom, back in 1881, Puducherry used to send their representatives to the French Parliament. According to Siva Ilango, a political analyst, the natives who got the Puducherry French citizenship were given voting rights due to the efforts of an advocate, Ponnuthambi Pillai.
“That’s how people here entered politics. One of them was Nadu Shanmuga Velayutha Mudaliar, who became influential in electing the representative for next three decades. He used to wield such power that he was able to even get three French Governors transferred from here. The party he ran along with the French was known as Nadu Mudaliar Katchi,” he explained.
“The politics of Puducherry has always been based on personality cults. Though there were many parties founded in this soil, it is cult leaders who shaped the party’s growth,” said Siva Ilango, a political analyst.
Subsequently, between 1902 and 1925, the ‘French Party’ under one of the first Mayors of Puducherry, Henri Gaebele became powerful. It was however criticised for playing dynasty politics and came to be referred as ‘Gaebele Party’. Then came ‘Franco Indu Katchi’, a party by Joseph David Avukka, who had launched one of the mill workers’ unions, this party was nicknamed as ‘David Party’.
The parties such as ‘Selvaraj Chettiar Party’ by the businessmen Chettiar; ‘Chellan Naicker Party’ by advocate Naicker; ‘Subbaiah Party’ by Communist leader V Subbaiah and ‘Goubert Party’, originally called as ‘French India Socialist Party’ by Édouard Goubert, all flourished and grew here. They were identified by one prominent, charismatic individual, who became a cult figure in that political party.
This is why Ilango stated that the history of Puducherry’s political culture has been steeped in personality cults. However, this was also the reason for their downfall, it seems.
“These parties had no other second-line leaders to carry forward their legacy. Because of that they lost their sheen and the party-based, ideology-based politics started to get more attention,” said Ilango.
Politics based on betrayal
Puducherry’s freedom struggle against the French started in 1936. The party ‘Makkal Munnani’ (People’s Front), headed by Communist leader V Subbaiah, was at the forefront of the movement to push for freedom. After India got independence in 1947, the fight for freedom under French imperialism got rigorous and Puducherry got its freedom in 1954. In 1955, an election was conducted for what was then called as a ‘Representative Assembly’ for 39 constituencies.
Both, natives and French citizenship holders in Puducherry voted. In that election, People’s Front won 21 seats and Congress 17 seats. One seat was won by an independent candidate.
In those days, the landlords were associated with the Congress, while labourers were with Communists. It was that time, a referendum was held to decide whether to merge Puducherry with India or continue to be under the French rule.
The referendum could be conducted either through people’s votes or by the votes of the people’s representatives. “The Congress thought if people were asked to vote, they would choose to continue to be under French control. So, it decided to conduct the referendum through the representatives. But there was a problem because they lacked majority. It was a historical mistake committed by the politicians here. A Arulraj, VN Purushothaman, MN Yousuf from People’s Front shifted their loyalties to the Congress,” said Pandian.
Dhanaraman, a CPI office bearer further added to the story. “The then Prime Minister, the late Jawaharlal Nehru, ostensibly feared that a Communist government in Puducherry would be a risk and to prevent the Communists from forming the government, the People’s Front representatives were allegedly made to shift their allegiance to the Congress,” said Dhanaraman, adding that this was all done through Congress leader Kamaraj.
“This is how Puducherry’s political culture was formed. It commenced from betrayal, which continues even today,” added Pandian.
Rise of Dravidian parties
In 1963, Puducherry came under the Union Territories Act. That year, the already existing 39-member Representative Assembly continued as the new ‘Legislative Assembly’ and Édouard Goubert of French India Socialist Party was the Chief Minister. In 1964, the 39 seats were reduced to 30 seats and the first election for the new Assembly was conducted. The Congress had a majority and V Venkatasubha Reddiar became Chief Minister.
It seems even at that time ego clashes over sharing power between leaders from the same party and among the alliances gave way to President’s rule. For instance, the clash between Reddiar and MOH Farook over who would become the Chief Minister, ended the party’s government in 1968.
Five years after CN Annadurai founded DMK in 1949 in Tamil Nadu, S Sivaprakasam established ‘Puducherry DMK’ in 1954. In the 1958 Representative Assembly election, the DMK lost in all the constituencies.
Pandian recalled another slice of history. “So in 1964, when the Puducherry DMK cadres approached Annadurai over whether the party should contest in the Legislative Assembly elections, he did not give them permission. According to Annadurai, Puducherry never came under the ambit of the basic Dravida movement. He always considered Puducherry as a French province,” he said.
Meanwhile in 1967, the DMK came to power in Tamil Nadu and Annadurai died in 1969. That year, DMK under M Karunanidhi’s leadership formed an alliance with Goubert and contested the Puducherry Assembly elections. It won 15 out of the 30 seats.
“Due to the anti-Hindi agitations in 1965, the DMK had earned respect not only in Tamil Nadu but in Puducherry as well. That was the main reason why the party did well in that election,” said Pandian, not before adding that a couple of months before the elections, Farook defected from Congress and joined DMK, reportedly being true to Puducherry’s political tradition.
In 1972, MGR floated his own party AIADMK. The party contested in 1974 Puducherry assembly elections and won in 12 seats. But the government was dismissed following Opposition’s allegation that the Budget papers were leaked before it was presented and President’s rule was invoked.
In 1977, the AIADMK contested in Tamil Nadu Assembly elections and made a clean sweep. In the Centre, Janata Party came to power and Morarji Desai became Prime Minister. In the same year, the AIADMK contested in the Puducherry assembly elections and won 14 seats and formed the government in July.
“Like in Tamil Nadu, MGR’s star power worked here too. This was not surprising considering that both the regions share a common language and culture,” said Ilango.
A merger that wasn’t
In 1978, there was talk that Puducherry may be merged with Tamil Nadu. This information was floated after Morarji Desai interacted with the media and said that Centre is mulling the merger of smaller states with the larger ones.
It is a well-known fact that when Desai served as Finance Minister in Nehru’s cabinet, he was against spending separately for UTs. When he became a Prime Minister, he planned to merge the UTs with the states. Interestingly, MGR was also buying that argument.
“MGR has reportedly said that the medicine (merger) can taste bitter but helpful (for Puducherry),” said Ilango. He reasoned that MGR could have supported this move because he allegedly looked down on Puducherry.
Following the merger news, there was a huge opposition against the Centre and the state governments. Though the AIADMK was in the power at that time in Puducherry, most of the leaders and party cadres who belonged to the UT opposed this merger. Meanwhile, the AIADMK government was dismissed in November 1978.
In January 1979, the political parties called for an agitation against the merger. They asked the people to avoid Republic Day functions organised by the government and consider the day as ‘Day of Sorrow’. On January 26 and 27, Puducherry witnessed violence and police firing, amidst curfew.
“There are conflicting reports on the number of people who died in that violence. Some claim it as 13 but the official records show just two. The agitation is considered as Puducherry’s second freedom struggle,” said Pandian, who wrote the book ‘Ooradangu Uththaravu‘ that details this incident.
After the huge opposition, Desai dropped the idea. It made a huge dent in AIADMK’s fortunes in the 1980 Puducherry assembly elections. It was defeated and DMK rose to power.
However, AIADMK came back to power again in the 1985 elections. They gave more seats to the Congress and the alliance formed the government. After MGR’s death in 1987, it was DMK’s turn to gain power in 1989.
“But there were no charismatic or influential leaders in the DMK unit in Puducherry. Besides, the political instability, defections and the dependence on the Centre (a big setback for the parties which fights for state autonomy), drove Dravidian parties to reportedly consider Puducherry as a kind of burden. So post 90’s, they show no interest in Puducherry, and Congress started to regain power in the UT,” explained Ilango.
Though N Rangasamy (founder, All India N Rangasamy Congress), the son of the soil has founded AINRC, it is still seen as a breakaway group from the Indian National Congress.
Seenu Tamil Mani, an environmental activist does not concur with the view that AINRC is linked to the Congress. “It has no values or ideologies similar to Congress. Like in Tamil Nadu, where most of the parties add ‘Munnetra Kazhagam’ as suffix to their parties, here people use the word ‘Congress’ as suffix whenever they form a political party,” said Tamil Mani.
“The Congress should have brought back Rangasamy into its fold, discounting inner party rivalries. It missed the chance,” concluded Ilango. Clearly, Congress has missed the boat here but if Puducherry’s history is anything to go by, they may just be back, sooner or later.