Puducherry, also known as Pondicherry, is perhaps best known for a fictional chocolate castle. In Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka built a chocolate castle for the erstwhile Prince - the castle unfortunately melted. In real life, Puducherry has no chocolate castle but it does have a uniquely interesting political climate and history (it comprises what was French India in colonial times). Now that the Union Territory is heading to the polls, we wanted to explore it a bit more.
First off - the Union Territory aspect. India currently has 8 UTs and 28 states. Membership in either group is far from permanent - just two years ago, the former state of Jammu and Kashmir was turned into a Union Territory and bifurcated. The biggest difference between a UT and a state is the elected government’s level of control. All states in India have governors appointed by the central government but in five of the union territories, they are the only government. In the other three, Puducherry, Jammu and Kashmir, and the National Capital Region (NCR aka Delhi), there is a governor but there is also an elected assembly with a Chief Minister (and cabinet colleagues). These three exist in a kind of almost statehood - the governor has some responsibilities but the rest are shared with the elected officials.
Puducherry is also unique amongst the five states and UTs that went to the polls this year - it is the only one without an incumbent government. The state is currently under President’s Rule which means the Governor is responsible for running it. Puducherry was put under President’s Rule a few weeks ago - the incumbent Chief Minister lost a vote of confidence and was forced to resign.
Before that though, the state was led by Chief Minister Velu Narayanasamy of the Indian National Congress. The Congress won the 2016 election and the campaign was headed by A Namassivayam. On the other side was N Rangasamy who also has had something of an interesting career. Rangasamy started his career in the Indian National Congress but resigned from the party in 2011 to open his own shop - called the All India N.R. Congress. In the polls that happened a few months later, Rangasamy won enough seats to form the government but he was unable to repeat the performance five years later and the INC won with Velu Narayanasamy being made Chief Minister.
However, in the lead up to the 2021 polls, it was fairly clear that all was not well within the Congress coalition. In January, a Congress minister, who was in charge of the Congress campaign in 2016, resigned from the party and took one of his followers with him. This was followed by more MLAs resigning in late February. Puducherry has a small assembly of 33 seats and all these defections brought down the government. The BJP saw no reason to try to form a government because of how quickly elections were coming - hence, President’s Rule.
The 2021 elections are being contested by three main coalitions. The first two are well known to this newsletter’s readers - they are the UPA (helmed by the Indian National Congress along with the DMK along with more minor players) and the NDA (helmed by the Bharatiya Janata Party along with the All India NR Congress as well as the AIADMK). The third coalition can be described as none of the above - there are a handful of parties running unaffiliated campaigns and while they may get a seat or two, it will probably come down to the Congress or the BJP led alliance. Both of them have something to gain but also something to lose.
The Congress has a lot more at stake this time around. For starters, Puducherry was their last government in southern India which was traditionally a Congress stronghold. This is an important consideration which has weighed heavily on Puducherry and other South Indian elections. Additionally, the Congress has argued that the voters are with them since their coalition collapsed due to MLA rebellion and this is a chance to prove that argument has teeth.
The BJP also has a lot to gain but not as much to lose. Their campaign (and alliance) benefits from the former Congress Chief Minister (now heading the AINRC). It also benefits from having the former head of the Puducherry Congress who was responsible for delivering the state to his old party in the last election.
Polling shows the BJP led alliance with a narrow lead over the Congress. Polls however are not especially reliable in India and both the BJP and Congress are projecting a victory. If the NDA does pull it off however, it seems likely that the Chief Minister will be the head of the AINRC which is unique - usually the BJP led alliances end up with Chief Ministers from the same party.
This is not an election with long term implications for the Lok Sabha unlike other assembly elections. The territory as a whole only has one seat in the Lok Sabha which means it probably won’t be one to watch for control of the government in 2024. It does however have implications for the BJP in south India - for them to be a truly pan-India party, they need to win in places like this too. It seems they’ll be able to pull it off in Puducherry
The next newsletter will focus on a wider look at all the Assembly elections across India, as various states move into the late phase and India deals with COVID. Newsletter will also include an op-ed by Anang: Can India be truly ‘Aatmanirbhar’ after COVID?
Further Reading on the elections in Puducherry:
What else we’re reading:
Unpacking the US Navy's FONOP in India's EEZ - Indialogue
Entering Steppelandia: population 7.7 billion - Razib Khan