Defection by 34 Congress legislators in Arunachal Pradesh leads to the toppling of the Mukut Mithi government and the return of Gegong Apang as Chief Minister, amidst allegations of insurgents having played a role in the drama.
MASS defections are nothing new in the northeastern States. The Congress(I) government in Arunachal Pradesh led by Mukut Mithi was reduced to a minority on July 27 when 34 legislators quit the party to join hands with former Chief Minister Gegong Apang and floated a new political platform, the United Democratic Front. The UDF formed the government with Apang as Chief Minister.
This development is significant as elections to the State Assembly are barely a year away. It was virtually a single-handed coup by Apang, president of the Arunachal Pradesh Congress, who was the lone Opposition member in the 60-member House.
The latest defection drama was similar to a coup that Mithi had staged four years ago. In January 1999, Mithi led a revolt against Apang and a split in the Congress, which forced Apang, who had been Chief Minister for 19 years, to tender his resignation (Frontline, February 12, 1999). Apang, however, denied that his latest move had been made in revenge. "I refuse to describe the fall of the Mithi government as a coup. I would rather describe it as a democratic decision by elected representatives of the people. They have acted as per their conscience," he said.
Immediately after the defection by the Congress MLAs, Apang met Governor V.C. Pandey and staked his claim for chief ministership. To prove his majority Apang paraded before Pandey 34 of the 56 Congress MLAs who supported him. Along with them, Apang also managed to win the support of two independent MLAs and one unattached member of the Assembly, thus increasing his strength to 37, which later increased to 42. The defection was led by former Finance Minister L. Wanglat. He was later elected secretary of the UDF.
IN the 1995 Assembly polls, the Congress(I) secured a majority and formed the government with Apang as Chief Minister. But Apang left the party after differences arose with Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and formed the Arunachal Congress in September 1996 with the support of 54 MLAs.
In the 1998 general elections, the Arunachal Congress allied itself with the BJP. Mithi broke away from the Arunachal Congress and formed the Arunachal Congress(M) the next year with the support of 40 MLAs. Later, the Arunachal Congress(M) merged with the Congress(I) and formed a Congress(I) government headed by Mithi.
Mithi stated that he would not accept Apang's claim to chief ministership and that there should be a trial of strength on the floor of the House. He went a step further by filing a writ petition before the Itanagar bench of the Guwahati High Court, with the plea that the Assembly's tenure be extended. The petition was rejected. The trial of strength in the Assembly turned out to be demoralising for him as his group was defeated 18 to 42.
Apang, who has had a love-hate relationship with the Congress for the past several years, soon after assuming office, announced that he had decided to be part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). He followed up the statement with requests to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister that Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development Sanjay Paswan be sent to Arunachal Pradesh as an observer. Thus Apang sent a message to the BJP leadership that he was all for strengthening his party's relations with the NDA and that he would look up to the NDA for help.
Informed sources said that the BJP leadership in Delhi had pulled strings to ensure Mithi's downfall as he had gone hammer and tongs at the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Issac-Muivah), or NSCN(I-M), which was conducting covert operations in Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh bordering Nagaland. Mithi had been trying to crush the insurgency with the assistance of the Centre. However, the Centre, after it began talks with the NSCN(I-M), reportedly did not pay much heed to Mithi's demands and complaints. Mithi launched Operation Hurricane against the NSCN(I-M) in these two districts a few weeks ago, much to the disappointment of several Congress(I) MLAs with alleged NSCN(I-M) links, and of course his arch-rival Apang, who is close to the BJP. In fact, Mithi had demanded an explanation from the Centre regarding Union Minister of State for Home I.D. Swami's remarks during his visit to insurgency-affected Tirap district that Operation Hurricane was an unnecessary exercise.
Interestingly, the BJP does not have much to gain electorally as it has no MLAs, even though the party has had a unit in Arunachal Pradesh for long. The BJP's proximity and support to Apang is interpreted in political circles as an effort to make inroads into his support base ahead of next year's Lok Sabha elections. Mithi said that a huge amount of money changed hands for his ouster, and Apang denied the allegation.
The Mithi group alleged that the NSCN(I-M), with the Centre's tacit support, used Apang to upstage him. Another factor being cited as a reason was Mithi's move to get three of his Ministers - P.L. Rajkumar, Tingpong Wangham and L Wanglat - arrested on charges of having links with the NSCN(I-M). This made Mithi incur the displeasure of the NSCN(I-M) and the BJP-led NDA government, which is at present on cordial terms with Isaac Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, the rebel leaders who are now in exile in Bangkok.
Rajkumar, who was sacked following his arrest, was reinducted into the Cabinet by Mithi on the condition that he should turn approver. This coincided with the Mithi government's threat to book Apang for the latter's alleged links with the NSCN(I-M).
Disturbed over the fall of the Mithi government, Congress president Sonia Gandhi held an emergency meeting with party secretary Oscar Fernandes, who is in charge of Arunachal Pradesh. It is learnt that they also discussed sending an emissary to Arunachal Pradesh for discussions with Mithi.
The Congress leadership, which believes that the NDA has begun resorting to the "narrow politics of dislodging Congress governments for petty gains", fears that similar moves may be made in other Congress-ruled States such as Manipur and Meghalaya. Steps are being taken to pre-empt any such move.
THE ouster of the Mithi government led to an uproar in Parliament. The NDA tried to defend Mithi's ouster as a normal case of change of guard in Arunachal. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said the allegation by the Congress(I) that the Centre is soft-pedalling the Arunachal issue did not hold water and that the Prime Minister should not be dragged into the controversy.
Veteran Congress(I) leader Arjun Singh remarked that the Centre had turned a blind eye to repeated requests by Mithi that he needed assistance to tackle the insurgency problem. Arjun Singh also said that the Centre had downplayed the insurgency issue even when being told that insurgent groups were trying to destabilise politics in Arunachal.
Pranab Mukherjee, another senior leader remarked in the Rajya Sabha that the Centre was playing with fire and that the insurgency problem in the northeastern States needed to be dealt with firmly. He alleged that the Congress government in Arunachal Pradesh had been removed because of its efforts to crush insurgency.