A volte-face in Arunachal

Print edition : September 24, 2004

Gegong Apang's decision to rejoin the Congress ahead of the October 7 Assembly elections in Arunachal Pradesh transforms the political situation in the State into a difficult one for the BJP.

in Guwahati

THERE are no permanent foes or friends in politics; only permanent interest. This maxim was more than reiterated in Arunachal Pradesh with the State's longest serving Chief Minister Gegong Apang deciding to end his year-long honeymoon with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and rejoin the Congress, along with his Cabinet colleagues, ahead of the October 7 Assembly elections. Apang's decision came as a jolt to the BJP as the party was looking forward to riding the crest of his popularity. Although Arunachal Pradesh became the first State in the northeastern region to be governed by the BJP, it was made possible only by the merger of the Apang-led coalition with the party in August last year.

Gegong Apang at a media conference in New Delhi.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Apang announced his latest decision at a press conference at the All India Congress Committee (AICC) headquarters in New Delhi. "It is a homecoming for all of us. It is the Congress party alone which has always had a presence at the grassroots level in Arunachal Pradesh," he said. Expressing confidence that the Congress would emerge victorious in the October elections, Apang said, "We would like to clarify that there would be no groups or factions in Arunachal Pradesh Congress as our only leader is Sonia Gandhi under whose direction and guidance we will all work for the party's victory."

According to party insiders, although Pradesh Congress Committee president Mukut Mithi was initially said to be opposed to Apang's return, the former Chief Minister reconciled later at the intervention of the high command. Mithi also ensured that Apang's return was smooth by quipping at the press conference that the "past has been buried and we are looking to the future". Mithi accompanied Apang from New Delhi to Naharlagun to a rousing welcome by Congress workers. Mithi had earlier alleged that the Naga rebel group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah faction), which has a strong base in Tirap and Changlang districts of the State, hatched a conspiracy to dislodge him from power in 2003 by directing all the 12 legislators from the two Naga-dominated districts to withdraw support to his government.

In fact, Mithi gave an "oust Apang cry" with the support of Ministers who had shifted loyalty after Apang dropped them during the exercise of downsizing the Ministry in July. The new Cabinet recommended the dissolution of the Ministry to Governor V.C. Pande, who dissolved the House on July 6. The Congress MLAs led by Mithi, along with the dropped Ministers, went to the Raj Bhavan the following day and demanded that the Governor either withdraw the notification or impose President's Rule in the State to ensure free and fair Assembly elections. Although the Governor recommended imposition of President's Rule, the same night he wrote another letter to the President stating that he had invoked Article 356 under "duress". The Congress had called a 24-hour-bandh to press the Centre on their twin demands of recall of the Governor and imposition of President's Rule.

It took Mithi and other PCC leaders only a few days to reconcile with the person they had identified as their enemy No.1. Similarly, within hours of severing ties with the BJP, Apang condemned the party. "We were with the BJP with great difficulty. It was suffocating because of the differences in ideology. We feel happy now after returning to the Congress, which has a secular outlook," Apang said. Accusing the previous National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre of not fulfilling a single promise of undertaking development works in the State, Apang said, "Now that the State is slated to go for elections, people, particularly political workers, have started questioning our wisdom to continue our alliance with a party that not only has narrow political thinking but has failed to fulfil its commitments."

A 37-member Ministry headed by Apang was sworn in after the Mukut Mithi-led Congress government was reduced to a minority on July 27, 2003 after 31 of the 58 Congress MLAs, including 17 Ministers, resigned from the party. The breakaway MLAs formed a legislative group, Congress (D), named after its president Kameng Dolo. They also formed the United Democratic Front (UDF) and elected Apang their leader. Apang, who ruled Arunachal Pradesh for 19 years from 1980 to 1999, was the lone non-Congress member in the 60-member Assembly. He headed the Arunachal Congress, which he formed after breaking away from the Congress in 1996.

The BJP has billed the elections as a fight between "money power and people's power". V. Satish, the party's leader in charge of the region, said the party's main poll plank would be to "end political instability in Arunachal Pradesh and provide a clean, efficient and transparent government". "The Congress has money power but we have the people's power. The people of Arunachal Pradesh are fed up with `Aya Ram, Gaya Ram' politics. So our election campaign will focus on political stability," Satish told Frontline. He dismissed the suggestion that Apang's decision to rejoin the Congress would affect the party's poll prospects. "This has not come as a surprise to us as the Congress has always been trying to pull down the BJP government," Satish said. He also pointed out that even during the 1999 Assembly elections, the BJP was able to contest 21 seats and win 30 per cent of the votes by relying on its own workers. "Now with an extensive network in almost every nook and corner of the State, the party is in a position to contest all the 60 seats to defeat the Congress," the BJP leader said. The BJP is expected to finalise the list of candidates on September 11.

Describing Satish's remarks as self-consolation, Mithi said that the BJP had failed to win a single seat in the 1999 elections and that it would repeat the dismal performance. He said the main poll plank of the Congress would be all-round development of Arunachal Pradesh. "The people of Arunachal Pradesh will know for themselves that the Congress never banked on money power. We will adhere to the poll-related expenditure ceiling fixed by the Election Commission. Since the Congress is in power at the Centre the State would be able to derive more financial benefits if there is a Congress government in the State too," he said. Mithi is confident that the Congress will be able to increase its seats tally.

Mukut Mithi.-V. SUDERSHAN

However, the Congress is still undecided whether to make the issue of Chakma-Hajong refugees, which dominated the past elections, a poll plank this time. "Issues other than the development of Arunachal Pradesh will be decided only after a threadbare discussion at the party forum as the return of Apang and his Cabinet colleagues have made it imperative to evolve a poll strategy in consultation with each and every leader of the party," Mithi said.

The Congress wants to ensure that only candidates with a winning chance are fielded. Apang told partymen that he could not guarantee that all members of the previous House, who were now in the Congress, would get the ticket. Mithi said a committee would assess the chances of the ticket-seekers in each constituency and recommend the names to the high command.

However, with the presence of two power centres, Apang and Mithi, the Congress will have the hard task of preventing a split in the event of the party's victory and a contest over the choice of Chief Minister. Apang, however, downplayed the issue saying that "now all the Congress leaders will fight the elections united." and that he only wanted "to see to it that the party returns to power with a thumping majority".

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