High drama again

Print edition : October 14, 2016

Pema Khandu with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi in July, soon after taking over as Chief Minister. Photo: PTI

Nabam Tuki, the former Chief Minister who is the lone Congress MLA in Arunachal Pradesh now. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

The tables are turned on the Congress in Arunachal Pradesh as Chief Minister Pema Khandu, who was preferred over previous Chief Minister Nabam Tuki in July, exits to join an ally of the BJP.

ON September 16, barely two months after a Supreme Court ruling restored the Congress government in Arunachal Pradesh, Chief Minister Pema Khandu left the Congress and joined the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA), taking 43 MLAs with him. The government did not fall, but the ruling party was changed. The PPA, formed in April 1977, is now a major player in the North-Eastern Democratic Alliance (NEDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The State has been in the grip of political crisis ever since the late Kalikho Pul was removed as the Minister of Health and Family Welfare in a Cabinet reshuffle by Chief Minister Nabam Tuki in December 2014. Earlier that year, Tuki had come back as the Chief Minister after the Congress swept the Assembly elections, winning 42 of the 60 seats with a vote share of 50.79 per cent. It was an important win for the Congress in a year pretty much dominated by Narendra Modi.

Deprived of his portfolio, Pul accused Tuki’s government of corruption and financial mismanagement. The Congress expelled Pul in April 2015, citing anti-party activities. Backed by the BJP and two independent members of the Assembly, Pul led a revolt by 21 Congress MLAs, including Pema Khandu, the present Chief Minister. On December 9, Governor Jyoti Prasad Rajkhowa ordered the Assembly session to be brought forward by a month: it was to be held on December 16 instead of January 14. Tuki’s government locked the Assembly building. Pul responded by holding a “makeshift” Assembly with 33 MLAs at another venue on December 16 and 17. Amid high drama, the rebel Congress MLAs elected Pul the Chief Minister after “impeaching” Speaker Nabam Rebia. The political instability that followed led to the imposition of President’s Rule under Article 356 on January 26, 2016. The Centre cited reasons of constitutional breakdown in the State.

This was the second time that President’s Rule was imposed in the State after it was granted full statehood in 1987. There followed bitter recriminations between the Congress and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). On February 19, President’s Rule was lifted. The same day, the Supreme Court rejected the Congress’ plea for a floor test in the Assembly, and on February 20, Pul was sworn in as the Chief Minister.

But on February 22, the Supreme Court reserved the verdict on the batch of petitions dealing with the Governor’s discretionary powers to summon or advance Assembly sessions. Then, on July 13, the apex court said that the Governor’s decision to advance the winter session of the Assembly was unconstitutional and ordered the restoration of the Congress government. It was a moment of triumph for the Congress, especially in view of the drubbing that it had received in Assam in May. On July 14, Acting Governor Tathagata Roy asked Nabam Tuki to prove his majority in a floor test by July 16. On July 15, Tuki met Roy to seek a deferring of the floor test by 10 days, but Roy declined.

All the 30 MLAs of the PPA, including Pul, who had started the revolt within the Congress, returned to the grand old party, fearing disqualification under the anti-defection law. Tuki seemed set to win the trust motion. There were, however, more surprises in store. A few hours ahead of the floor test on July 16, Tuki resigned as Chief Minister and the Congress Legislature Party elected as its leader Pema Khandu, son of former Chief Minister Dorgee Khandu.

Khandu was sworn in by Roy as the Chief Minister. The change of leadership was prompted by the Congress’ desperation to thwart the BJP from making inroads into the State’s politics. The decision to oust Tuki in favour of Khandu seemed to be a pragmatic one at that time. Exactly two months later, it proved to be the Congress’ undoing in Arunachal Pradesh. Khandu has taken all MLAs from the Congress to the PPA, with the single exception of Tuki. The seat that was won by Pul is vacant following his suicide on August 9.

Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju, who hails from Arunachal, dismissed suggestions of the BJP’s involvement in the defection and blamed the Congress for the turmoil in the State. “Congress MLAs are angry with their own leadership, which cannot give time to their own Ministers for a session. No more Congress government in the State of Arunachal Pradesh,” he said.

Governor’s Role

In this long and convoluted political drama, the Governor’s position and role was seriously compromised. The NDA government at the Centre appointed Jyoti Prasad Rajkhowa, a former Chief Secretary of Assam, as the 16th Governor of Arunachal Pradesh on May 12, 2015. He replaced Nirbhay Sharma, who was perceived to be partial to Tuki’s government.

Rajkhowa played an important role in the imposition of President’s Rule. He even alleged that his own security was in jeopardy. He asserted that there was a constitutional crisis in the State and that a “jungle raj” prevailed there.

Court issued an unprecedented admonishment to the Governor over his order advancing the Assembly’s winter session and his decision to preside over a makeshift “Assembly” session in a hotel where dissident MLAs impeached Speaker Nabam Rebia. Justice Hrishikesh Roy said the Governor’s decision as “unworthy of a State’s constitutional head”.

Rajkhowa went on leave on June 27 for a surgical procedure. On September 12, 2016, President Pranab Mukherjee removed him from his post.

Defections and the BJP

Mass defection is not a new thing in the region, but the recent one caught the Congress unawares. In 2003, as many as 34 legislators of Mukut Mithi’s Congress government defected to join hands with former Chief Minister Gegong Apang. A new political platform called the United Democratic Front (UDF) was floated, which later merged with the BJP. Apang was elected Chief Minister amid allegations of money laundering. The merger helped the BJP to make inroads into a State in which the party hardly had any presence earlier. When the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came to power after the 2014 parliamentary elections, Gegong Apang returned to the Congress and once again became the Chief Minister.

During the latest political crisis, the BJP consistently fomented trouble by supporting dissident Congress MLAs. In a series of tweets, Pema Khandu said that the decision to join the PPA was taken unanimously by all legislators in the greater interest of the State.

The BJP, on its part, certainly seems to be pursuing its president Amit Shah’s stated objective of striving for a “Congress-Mukt” India, at least in this part of the country. The newly floated NEDA has quickly got into action, getting splintered political groups to come under one wing and instigating defections. NEDA convener Himanta Biswa Sarma said: “The PPA has been a constituent of NEDA from day one, but there are no immediate plans for a BJP-PPA merger.” He blamed the central leadership of the Congress for the crisis in Arunachal.