Pondicherry, the capital city of the Union territory of Puducherry, looks a lot like Chennai, except it is bereft of posters and banners hailing politicians. There is not much activity at Chief Minister N. Rangasamy’s Thelarshpet residence either. Clad in white cotton shirt and dhoti, the 65-year-old president of All India NR Congress (AINRC), known as makkal mudhalvar (chief minister of the masses) among followers, is about to embark on a journey to visit temples and seek blessings for forging a winning alliance before the polls on May 16. “I will announce my party’s decision in the next two days,” he tells THE WEEK as he hops on to his official car. “Please wait. There is still time for elections.”
The AIADMK, which had a tie-up with the AINRC in the last elections, has decided to go it alone this time. It is contesting all 30 constituencies—23 in Puducherry, five in Karaikal district (near Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu) and one each in Yanam district (near East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh) and Mahe (a municipality near Kannur in Kerala).
The Congress, the main opposition party, has joined hands with the DMK, just as in Tamil Nadu. As per the agreement, the Congress will contest 21 seats and the DMK, nine. Top Congress leaders in Puducherry, including party president A. Namasivayam, former Union minister V. Narayanasamy and former chief minister V. Vaithilingam, are busy identifying winnable constituencies.
The People’s Welfare Front (PWF), which includes the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and two Left parties, is in disarray, much like it is in Tamil Nadu. The PWF had started its campaign last October, but talks of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) joining the alliance upset the seat sharing.
The DMDK wants more than the four seats allotted to it. “We will not accept any number less than seven,” said A. Selvaraj, its secretary in Puducherry. Sources, however, said the party had agreed to lower its demand to six constituencies of its own choice. “We have given our wish list to our party high command in Chennai and we will make a formal announcement soon,” said Selvaraj.
The fifth side in the fray is the BJP, which is struggling to find a foothold in Puducherry. It was hoping to enter into an alliance with the AINRC, but Rangasamy kept it waiting. The BJP then gave an ultimatum, and when it was also ignored, the party announced its first list of 16 candidates. Sources in the BJP, however, said it was still open to an alliance with the ruling party. Apparently, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, led by former Union minister Anbumani Ramadoss, is also waiting for a green signal from the AINRC.
With multiple alliances fighting in all constituencies, Puducherry is witnessing a fierce electoral battle for the first time in its history. The Union territory was a Congress stronghold till 2011, when the Rangasamy faction broke away and formed the AINRC. Today, the Congress in Puducherry, much like in other states, is faction-ridden.
Congress leaders, however, insist that they are united. “There aren’t any factions in the Congress,” said Namasivayam. “The people of Puducherry will vote for the Congress-DMK alliance because of anti-incumbency factors and the likely influence of Jayalalithaa [in Puducherry] if her AIADMK is voted to power [in Tamil Nadu].”
Namasivayam, who may become chief minister if the Congress-DMK alliance comes to power, is Rangasamy’s nephew. “Family and relationship don’t matter here,” he said. “I have been anointed as the leader of the party in the state and my duty is to lead it to victory.”
Analysts say the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu will have a great influence on the elections in 23 constituencies in Puducherry. Mahe has traditionally favoured Left parties, and Yanam is a Congress bastion.
For Rangasamy, Puducherry’s longest serving chief minister, returning to power would not be easy. Since beginning his third term as CM in 2011, he has been dogged by controversies and scandals. Opposition parties say he has failed to deliver on the welfare and development fronts. “Development is the main plank of campaigning in Puducherry,” said Narayanasamy of the Congress. “Rangasamy has failed to deliver. There is no growth in the state.”
The best bet for Rangasamy was to join hands with the AIADMK. But then, he antagonised Jayalalithaa in 2011 by breaking their pre-poll agreement to accommodate her party in the cabinet. In fact, Jayalalithaa accused Rangasamy of backstabbing. At a meeting in Puducherry on April 25 this year, she called Rangasamy a traitor. “If the Congress is the enemy, the NR Congress is the betrayer,” she said. “Rangasamy has cheated not only the AIADMK, which supported him to win the polls in 2011, but also the people of the Union territory. Vote him out and elect us. I will ensure that Puducherry gets a special status and that the Rs 6,400 crore owed by the UT [to the Union government] is waived.”
With no viable electoral alliance in sight, the AINRC is likely to go it alone. But Rangasamy seems unperturbed. He seems to be banking on divine help to win the polls. A day after the election date was announced, he set out to the jeeva samadhis (memorials) of his spiritual gurus—Appa Paithiyam Swami in Salem and Azhukku Swami at Vettaikaranpudur in Tamil Nadu. In the past 40 days, Rangasamy has visited more than a dozen temples. “We will seek votes based on our welfare schemes,” he said, “and what we have delivered in these five years.”
THE PUDUCHERRY CAKE
30—the number of elected members of the Puducherry assembly
16 MLAs belong to the ruling All India NR Congress
7 MLAs belong to the opposition Congress
AIADMK has 5 MLAs; DMK has 2
Number of voters: 9,27,034 (8,05,124 in 2011)
Number of polling stations: 913 (815 in 2011)