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Above: Kiran Bedi at the LG’s office in Raj Nivas, Puducherry/Photo: Wikimedia

The Congress-DMK alliance government in Puducherry is up in arms as Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi tries to assert her role in the administration

 ~By R Ramasubramanian in Chennai

Wading into controversy is par for the course for Kiran Bedi. As a police officer, activist and politician, she has never been far away from it and has retained her yen for controversy in her latest avatar as the Lieutenant Governor (LG) of Puducherry. This time on an issue which is very near and dear to all the major political parties in the Union Territory (UT).

On April 29, Bedi directed the civil supplies department of the Puducherry government to withhold distribution of free rice to villages that failed to implement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. She even set May 31, 2018, as the deadline. But Bedi was forced to withdraw her controversial decision that evening itself because of huge protests across the political spectrum and from several activist groups and the general public in Puducherry.

The LG issued a clarification stating: “…in view of the misreading of the intent of improving the living conditions of the poor in rural areas, I am now withholding the previous communication. To avoid misreading of this intention and in view of the forthcoming commitment made by the UT government that those villages in Puducherry will achieve their respective targets in this regard by June-end, I am happy to give them some more time.”

It may be recalled that the LG has had an uneasy relationship with the V Narayanasamy-led Congress-DMK government in Puducherry ever since the alliance took office on June 6, 2016, exactly two weeks after the BJP government at the centre dispatched Bedi—who came a cropper in the elections to the Delhi assembly—to Puducherry. She carried her confrontationist style from her previous assignments to the Raj Nivas and from day one, there were problems between the government and the LG.

The government did not take kindly to Bedi interacting directly with its officials; she annoyed the government by hitting the streets and issuing orders to officials on what needed to be done. One day, she picked up a broom and started clearing the garbage on the streets. She started four WhatsApp groups to issue orders to officers.

All these were vehemently opposed by Chief Minister Narayanasamy who warned all government officers of dire consequences if they obeyed the orders issued by the LG on WhatsApp. The chief minister also cautioned the entire bureaucracy that issuing orders through WhatsApp-like services was against the rules and regulations of the government.

The contradictory orders affected the officers’ morale. One said: “We are not only confused but also caught in the crossfire between the LG and an elected government.”

Another major confrontation between the LG and the government was the nomination of three MLAs to the assembly. The strength of the assembly is 33, which includes three nominated MLAs. Recently, on the recommendation of Bedi—routed through the Union home ministry—the president of India nominated three persons as members of the assembly. This was challenged by K Lakshminarayanan, a sitting Congress MLA, in the Madras High Court. The petitioner’s main contention was that certain basic procedures were not followed and hence the nominations were illegal and unconstitutional.

After long arguments, the High Court dismissed Lakshminarayanan’s petition and he has now moved the Supreme Court through a Special Leave Petition (SLP). However, it is not clear when the SLP will be taken up for hearing in the apex court.

Quoting the Constitution, Chief Justice Indira Banerjee and Justice M Sundar of the High Court said: “Under Article 163 of the Constitution, the Council of Ministers headed by the Chief Minister of a State is to aid and advise the Governor in the exercise of his functions, except in so far as he is by or under the Constitution required to exercise his functions or any of them in his discretion.”

However, the High Court also said that the governor of a state has wider discretion than the president in view of Sub-Article (2) of Article 163 of the Constitution, which provides that if any question arises on whether any matter is or is not a matter in respect of which the governor is by or under the Constitution required to act in his discretion, the decision of the governor in his discretion shall be final, and the validity of anything done by the Governor shall not be called in question on the ground that he ought or ought not to have acted in his discretion.

The move by the LG had irked the ruling party and its ally, the DMK. The BJP, till then, had a negligible presence in the UT and no representation in the 30-member assembly. The party’s candidates in the last assembly polls did not win any seat.

Bedi, however, maintained that she acted according to the law and there was “no conflict”. Despite this claim, she hastily conducted the swearing-in ceremony on July 4, 2017, leading to further criticism.

The High Court made it clear that the nomination itself was legally valid. “Section 46(2) of the UT Act provides that all executive action of the Administrator, whether taken on the advice of his Ministers or otherwise, shall be ex-pressed in the name of the Administrator. The use of the expression ‘or otherwise’ in Section 46(2) of the UT Act makes it amply clear that the Administrator has independent powers to act and is not bound to act only on the advice of his Ministers,” said the judges.

Except the BJP, all political parties in Puducherry are demanding the immediate recall of the LG. They had strongly opposed it when Bedi warned that the free rice scheme would be stopped in villages where garbage was not cleared and open-air defecation was not 100 percent eliminated. She was then compelled to postpone her decision.

“Today the Lt Governor, Kiran Bedi, is behaving like a queen. A large number of her orders are not only illegal but also unconstitutional,” says Ravikumar, an ex-MLA of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, a Dalit political party. Echoing this argument, DMK MLA SP Sivakumar says that the activities of the LG are un-constitutional. “Kiran Bedi is punishing the people and this shows not only her authoritarian mindset but also her ignorance.”

The BJP, however, supports the LG’s role. “The LG has powers to do many things and she is just doing that. She has not bypassed the powers of an elected government. The nomination of three MLAs was upheld by the Madras High Court. I think, if the Narayanasamy government feels that the LG is overstepping her powers, then the chief minister and his cabinet should travel a few extra miles and convince the governor. But instead of that, they are indulging in a confrontational approach with the LG and I think this will not do anything good for the Narayanasamy government,” said KG Shankar, one of the three nominated MLAs.

Controversies have been part of being Kiran Bedi. It is no different now, despite the high office she holds and the lofty status it bestows on her.

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