PM’s Puducherry poll barb sparks CM-Bedi tussle over local body elections not held in UT

PM Modi blaming Cong without going into details, says CM; UT govt ‘dragging its feet’ over holding local body polls, says L-G.

A day after Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said there is no democracy in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday hit back. Referring to Congress-ruled Puducherry, he said that local body elections are not being conducted in the Union Territory despite a Supreme Court order.

The Supreme Court order Modi apparently referred to came in May 2018. Elections to panchayat and municipal bodies have not been held in Puducherry since 2011.

N Rangaswamy’s All-India N R Congress (AINRC), a regional party formed after breaking away from the Congress, was in power in Puducherry between 2011 and 2016, and a Congress government is in office since then.

The delay is primarily because the delimitation exercise has dragged on for years. The matter had reached the courts, and there have been multiple judgments by the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court over the years. But in the last two years, a bitter tussle between Chief Minister V Narayanasamy and Lt Governor Kiran Bedi over appointment of a State Election Commissioner (SEC) has opened up a new dimension.

The Sunday Express spoke to both CM Narayanasamy and L-G Bedi.

Narayanasamy said the AINRC was in power when the courts first directed Puducherry to hold the polls in 2012. He said the AINRC was with the NDA and supported the Central government for two years when it was in office after 2014, but “did not take any action (on holding elections).”

In May 2018, the top court directed Puducherry to complete the delimitation process and hold panchayat and municipal polls without delay. The order came on a SLP filed by the Puducherry government against a Madras HC order to hold the polls by June 2015.

And then the tussle began.

In May 2019, a year after the Supreme Court order, Narayanasamy sent a file to Bedi recommending appointment of former bureaucrat T M Balakrishnan as SEC. The L-G returned the file in July, saying he could not be accepted for appointment.

“The Lt Governor wanted to appoint an election commissioner without the government. Under the Village and Commune Panchayats Act, and also Municipalities Act, power is vested with the minister. The L-G is only for clearance,” he said.

Bedi said despite her repeated interventions, the Puducherry government has been “dragging its feet” and not “publishing the delimited wards” before coming up with a name for the post of SEC.

The L-G, she said, is the competent authority to appoint the SEC. “They (government) just picked up somebody and sent a file for approval. It was not by due process. They just picked up their own person,” she said. “I said, you carry out due process (for appointment), publish it in the paper, call for eligible applicants, constitute a committee with three persons including the Chief Secretary and then two from Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Panchayati Raj…they can recommend a name.”

After returning the file, the L-G’s office in July last year issued an open advertisement for appointment of the SEC. Later that month, Puducherry Assembly Speaker V P Sivakozhunthu annulled the advertisement. A day later, the government appointed Balakrishnan as SEC.

Narayanasamy said: “The issue was raised in the Assembly and the honourable MLAs unanimously decided that…because rule-making power is with the legislature. The L-G has no power to prepare rules. (But) the L-G prepared rules…framed the rules herself. The Assembly nullified the rules framed by her. Then the Assembly appointed Mr Balakrishnan, a retired IAS officer who has conducted several elections…”

On December 20, 2019, Bedi issued an order declaring Balakrishnan’s appointment as “void ab initio”. In January this year, Narayanasamy issued an order annulling the L-G’s order declaring it ‘illegal’.

“The L-G removed him from the State Election Commissioner’s post with the approval of the Home Ministry – the Home Ministry interfered in that,” Narayanasamy said. “It was challenged before the court. The court said she has the powers. Thereafter, an appeal has been prepared before the Supreme Court. That is pending.”

Bedi said tat the court had “comprehensively examined the issue and ruled that the Speaker has no role to play”.

“It was an executive action and the L-G has the powers to appoint. The court direction is very clear,” Bedi said, referring to the Madras High Court order in March this year.

In October this year, Bedi issued an order appointing former forest officer Roy P Thomas as the SEC.

But, Narayanasamy said, “He is a forest officer. His appointment was illegal. That is being challenged by another person and is before the court,”.

Accusing the Puducherry government of dragging its feet to see that the elections are held after Assembly polls, Bedi said, “If it (election) is held before Assembly elections it might throw up a very different kind of young, new leadership. A youth, women leadership…. It is a big challenge for them to have it before Assembly elections in May (2021)…. It might throw up some new, independent candidates who could then be a challenge in the Assembly elections. Their effort is to somehow gain time and not hold in before May.”

Narayanasamy said, “The PM, without knowing the background, is saying we have not conducted local body elections. It is quite unfortunate that the honourable PM, without going into details of what had happened, who was responsible for delay, is putting the blame on the elected government without correcting the L-G, who was appointed by the Centre. He is blaming my government…”

He also said the Centre, and the PM, is “watching the unconstitutional and undemocratic manner in which the L-G has been functioning for the last four-and-a-half years here, interfering in day-to-day administration, not allowing the elected government to function according to rules. The Prime Minister is not talking about it. Is it democracy? The L-G interfering in day-to-day administration is democracy?”

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