Chennai: Though Puducherry’s former Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi had an ignominious exit from the Union Territory, she probably had the last laugh on February 22, when chief minister V. Narayanasamy resigned ahead of a floor test.
Ever since assuming office in May 2016, Bedi – political analysts say – had her daggers drawn at the local government. “It may have been her mandate,” says R. Mani, a senior journalist in Tamil Nadu. “She was sent to disturb the Congress government there, but her activities showed that she wanted to rule the Union Territory directly. She quickly became a liability for the BJP. They did not want her to scuttle their chances with Puducherry, especially when they are trying hard to gain a foothold.”
Bedi’s arrival had fuelled the hopes of citizens in Puducherry. Social activist Gayathri Srikanth was among the many people who were excited. “In her arrival, we saw an opportunity for change.” But over a period of time, Srikanth realised she was wrong. “With her finally gone, we actually feel a sense of relief.”
At the time of her arrival, Bedi had a reputation of being honest, which excited the people. When she took over as LG, Bedi began holding an “open house” every day, which was a welcome initiative. She was also seen cleaning the town, and called police officers to inform them that her focus was on the law and order situation. She made promises which the people felt were exactly what the UT needed.
Soon, this image gave way and her nearly five-year tenure as LG was mired in controversies. Bedi’s confrontational approach with the chief minister on several issues, which also involved the state welfare, put her out of favour with the general public. “We thought she started off well,” says Srikanth. “But we soon found her self-centred and very partisan.”
‘Misused her office’
In several instances, Srikanth says, Bedi ‘misused’ her office for either her own publicity or to promote those who were close to her. “She sought to claim credit for the cleaning of a lake, which was actually done by a few young people in Puducherry. And the internships at Raj Nivas [her official residence] were mostly awarded to those from other states. Very few from Puducherry benefited from such a scheme,” she said.
Srikanth also says that her attitude was not just confrontational but “anti-people”. “She once announced that only villages which were free of open-defecation will be eligible for free rice. But she had to withdraw it after facing a backlash.”
People from various walks of life in Puducherry seem to agree with Srikanth. “When she first arrived, people saw her as a saviour, but then things changed fairly quickly,” a member of the local traders’ association said. “Her removal Bedi has been a long time coming. We kept hearing how she was doing a lot of work for the public, but we never saw any actual improvement,” he said. “A lot of what she did seemed to come out of a desire to be in the news, and most of her large proclamations were made on Twitter, rather than through official channels,” he added.
According to local politicians, her stint in power helped the BJP government at the Centre. A retired politician, and former member of the Indian National Congress, said that Bedi’s term had changed the face of Puducherry’s bureaucracy and police, but not necessarily in a good way.
“Earlier, at least a few of the superintendents of police and other major officials were Tamil-speaking people, mostly from Puducherry. Now, the most important roles have all been filled by North Indians. Even school headmasters have been changed around so that they are from the North. This has led to a huge gap in communication between the people on the ground and the people in power,” he said.
“The Centre realised that if this had continued, it would have been impossible to win the elections, which is why they had to take this decision. Bringing in Tamilisai Soundararajan as the LG is clearly a way to assuage this,” he added.
‘General public was dissatisfied’
“In her efforts to be seen as transparent, she probably overstepped her limits,” says Karaikal-based political observer A.S.T. Ansari Babu, who is also the general secretary of a struggle committee fighting for separate Union Territory status for Karaikal. “The general public was dissatisfied because she was blocking the welfare schemes for them citing transparency.”
At least on two occasions – once in February 2019 and again in January 2021 – Narayanasamy and his colleagues have staged a dharna demanding Bedi’s recall. He had then told reporters that welfare schemes like providing free rice, assistance to students, developmental programmes for fishermen and jobs for the youth were blocked by Bedi.
In his speech before submitting his resignation, Narayanasamy reiterated this point, while accusing the Centre of using Bedi to ‘take away our powers.’
But in an interview to Hindustan Times after her withdrawal, Bedi said she did not block any welfare schemes but that she had “ensured diligence in public spending and transparency and fair deal in welfare assistances”.
“In any case, if Bedi had lasted as long as this government did, it would have been a major setback for the BJP,” Ansari Babu says, referring to the fact that she would have had control of administration until a new government is appointed or elected.
BJP leaders in the UT, some of whom were also upset with Bedi, say her removal was ‘due to happen’. A local BJP leader, who declined to be identified, said, “None of this was a sudden decision. There is a reason the Union government waited so long to replace Bedi, even though the local government and Bedi put together were a disaster for the people of Puducherry.”
“Now that they (the Congress government) have lost the confidence vote, it has all become clear that this (Bedi’s removal) was not an isolated move. More things will be revealed in the future,” he added.
“For the moment, it might look like the BJP has won this round. But this entire saga might have a negative impact on the party during the elections,” the senior-journalist Mani said.
Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist. Kavita Kishore is an independent journalist from Chennai, who writes on politics, environment, education and how they affect people’s lives.