Amid Congress' Numbers Crisis, Rahul Gandhi In Puducherry Ahead Of Polls

Mr Gandhi's visit comes amid a potential crisis of numbers for Chief Minister V Narayanasamy's government, which could lose its majority just weeks before elections

Congress MP Rahul Gandhi met fisherfolk and college students during his day-visit to Puducherry

Puducherry:

Congress MP Rahul Gandhi is in Puducherry today - he began the day by meeting fishermen, whom he praised as "farmers of the sea" and with whom he expressed a desire to travel on one of their forays into the Bay of Bengal - to launch his party's campaign for Assembly polls due in May.

As he met members of the fishing community today, the Lok Sabha MP said, to considerable applause: "..there is only so much one can understand by asking questions... I need one favour from you. Next time I come, I want to go with you in the fishing boat to see what you experience."

He also pitched the idea of a union ministry for fishermen and women; there is, though, already a Fisheries Department that is headed by Union Minister Giriraj Singh.

Mr Gandhi also interacted with college students, to whom he said "no youngster should allow anybody to frighten them into silence... this is their power".

"If you're shutting up the nation, frightening people and not allowing them to talk, you're destroying the nation's character and destiny. No youngster should allow anybody to frighten them into silence. This is their power," he said.

The comments are significant in the light of widespread outrage over the arrest of 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi, who has been charged with sedition in connection with the farmers' protest and the creation of a document meant to "spread disaffection against the Indian state".

Mr Gandhi's Puducherry visit comes amid a potential crisis of numbers for Chief Minister V Narayanasamy's government, which could lose its majority just weeks before elections.

Four senior Congress leaders have quit in the past 30 days. A Namassivayam and E Theeppainjan resigned on January 25. Malladi Krishna Rao and John Kumar quit this week.

A fifth - N Dhanavelou - was disqualified last year for alleged anti-party activities.

After the resignations, the government and the opposition are both at 14. Crucially, the Congress has just 10 seats, leaving it one short of the majority mark, which is now 15.

A defiant Chief Minister Narayanasamy has dismissed talk of a crisis.

Today he told NDTV: "Our government is not in the minority" and accused the BJP of poaching MLAs and repeating its tactics in trying to "topple democratically-elected governments".

A potential Assembly crisis aside, Mr Gandhi's visit also comes a day after Rashtrapati Bhavan, on the advice of the centre, withdrew Kiran Bedi as Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry.

The late-night order has been widely seen as a political move by the BJP to negate the Congress' primary campaign platform and further weaken them ahead of elections.

Sources also said the BJP was aware that some of the ex-Congress leaders who had joined them recently were none too keen on Ms Bedi, as was its own ally, the AINRC.

Mr Narayanasamy and Ms Bedi have waged a long-running feud.

He has repeatedly accused her of scuttling Puducherry's development at the behest of the centre, and, last night, hailed her sacking as "a victory for the people", and claimed that at least one of the MLAs who had quit had done so because Ms Bedi was "blocking his projects".

The Congress won 15 Assembly seats in 2016, including that of the Speaker. It took power with support of the DMK and an independent candidate. The opposition AINRC has seven, the AIADMK has four and there are three nominated members of the BJP.