Puducherry’s wonderful Lieutenant Governor, Govind Singh Gurjar, died yesterday of a heart attack. This is a tragic day. To understand just how awful — in its civic dimension, and not just on a personal level — consider how impossibly rare it is for an Indian politician to be plausibly garlanded with the epithet “wonderful”.
In a system where corruption, narcissism, laziness, ignorance, and incompetence are the sine qua non of political life, Govind Singh Gurjar was an astonishment: a politician whose greatest joy seemed to be doing well for the people in whose trust he served. He worked tirelessly to understand the nuance and complexity of the issues before him and, having decided on a course of action, would set the machinery of his administration in motion without temporizing. In the venal cesspool of Pondicherry government, the LG had but one aim: to help the Union Territory fulfill its obvious, abundant promise. Sadly, he leaves us at a time when that objective looks to be effectively, and perhaps irrevocably, snuffed by the greed and thoughtlessness of political-business-as-usual.
Puducherry is not a state; its four, tiny noncontiguous regions, representing former French holdings in India, are aggregated as a Union Territory, under the direct administrative control of the federal government in Delhi. The LG is Delhi’s top-dog in Puducherry, and never a Puducherry native. Govind Singh Gujar, for example, hailed from Rajasthan. This outsider status is double-edged sword. On the one hand, the LG is not a product of Puducherry’s horrific, inbred political corruption. He neither owes patronage within the local parties, nor is enmeshed with the monied interests whom have long-since bought-and-paid-for our politicians and government bureaucrats. On the other hand, most LGs couldn’t have cared less for Puducherry. Between 2006 and 2008, for example, the office was held by the appallingly apathetic Mukut Mithi of Arunachal Pradesh. He spent little time in the Governor’s Palace in Pondicherry and, by all accounts, was utterly disengaged from his official responsibilities. He quickly became frustrated with the relative lack of opportunities for graft — that market having been effectively locked-up by then Chief Minister N. Rangaswami — and ultimately resigned in order to pursue more lucrative political office in his native state. Govind Singh Gujar was, once again, exceptional. He loved Pondicherry town, seeing both its vestigial exquisiteness and the ways in which sleaze, greed, and ineptitude were destroying what remained of its remarkable natural and cultural legacies. He studied Tamil language to feel more a part of the place, engaging a private tutor every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. He funded initiatives to preserve and promote the disappearing architectural vernacular of Pondicherry, re-engaging with UNESCO, whose overtures to make Pondicherry a World Heritage Site had been systematically ignored by local politicians who feared that such recognition would interfere with their ability to push-through ruinous development projects for personal gain. He rewarded the work of NGOs and volunteers who labored to make Puducherry great, often against the grain of the political establishment.
I had the very great privilege of meeting and working with the LG on a number of occasions and never ceased to be impressed by his warmth, humor, intellect, clarity of vision, steadfastness, and personal integrity. It is distressingly fair to predict that Puducherry will not see his like again in the foreseeable future.