On July 13, as the Northeast Democratic Alliance met in Guwahati, the Supreme Court redefined the constitutional role and responsibilities of a governor by declaring unconstitutional the governor’s discretion in advancing the Assembly session. The political crisis in Arunachal has its roots in the dissident activities within the Congress, that started almost immediately after the 2014 general election. These activities intensified after 21 Congress MLAs led by Kalikho Pul came out openly against the “autocratic” rule of then chief minister Nabam Tuki. The rebel Congress legislators had the support of 11 BJP MLAs and two Independents. On November 19, the state BJP served notice for the removal of Nabam Rebia, a cousin of Mr Tuki, as Arunachal Assembly Speaker. On December 9, a message was sent by the governor to the Assembly advancing the dates of the meeting of its sixth session by nearly a month.
In the meantime, the Speaker disqualified 14 of the rebel Congress MLAs a day before the governor-summoned session. On December 16, the day of the session, the Assembly building was locked, that prompted deputy speaker T.N. Thongdok, a member of Mr Pul’s team, to hold the session in a community hall, where Mr Rebia was “impeached”. A day later, a no-confidence motion was moved against the Congress government led by Mr Tuki. The governor’s order was challenged by the Speaker, Mr Rebia and Bamang Felix, Congress chief whip, in the Gauhati high court. The governor’s action was stayed in an interim order, later vacated by the same court. Subsequently, a special leave petition was filed before the Supreme Court, that was heard by a Constitution Bench.
The bench reserved its verdict on the question of powers to summon or advance an Assembly sitting on February 22. It allowed the formation of new government headed by Mr Pul, and the People’s Party of Arunachal government managed the state’s affairs till the Supreme Court ordered status quo ante “as it prevailed on December 15, 2015”. The Supreme Court, with its “set the clock back” verdict, has directly or indirectly indicted governor Jyoti Prasad Rajkhowa and Speaker Nabam Rebia to some extent. The Speaker didn’t follow the principle of natural justice (by not serving notice) while disqualifying the 14 MLAs. Also, he took the action when the resolution for his removal was pending.
However, on the ground, the delayed Supreme Court verdict didn’t change anything, except trigger some new political developments. The “restored” chief minister had to resign due to a lack of numbers. It paved the way for the election of Pema Khandu, who was with Mr Pul, as the new Congress Legislature Party leader. Mr Tuki’s resignation as chief minister seems to have strengthened the BJP’s case that the “political high drama was created by the Congress itself”. The party has been maintaining Mr Tuki was running a minority government. Political analysts maintain post-verdict political developments have punctured (or could puncture) the BJP’s “Congress-mukt Bharat” campaign. The BJP, through NEDA, was negotiating its path for a “BJP-only” Northeast. Mr Tuki, the deposed (later restored) CM, claimed the PPA MLAs who attended the NEDA meeting in Guwahati were kept in a five-star hotel by BJP president Amit Shah and minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju.
The office of governor has become an instrument to score “political points”. The Arunachal governor would not have acted unilaterally. It also brings into question the role of the Speaker, who has absolute authority on the question of disqualification of members in the Assembly. By the time the Speaker’s ruling faces judicial scrutiny, political equations would be created in favour of the ruling party or the Speaker’s chief minister. In the midst of the power struggle in the Congress, the Speaker accepted the “resignations” of MLAs Wanglam Sawin and Gabriel D. Wangsu. They insisted that their “resignation was obtained under duress along with the resignation of 15 other MLAs”, but the Speaker chose to accept only their resignation.
The July 13 judicial pronouncement has ensured double victories for the Congress: part-judicial and part-political. The Supreme Court verdict may have been anticipated in certain quarters, but the overnight change of Congress-turned-PPA legislators back to Congress was a surprise element in this political drama. BJP leaders and strategists may have been left aghast and angry. Is it because of the weak state of the BJP leadership that this political drama unfolded, putting an obstacle in its “grand strategy”?
The reasons may be many, but faith and confidence in politics and in the state’s politicians have been eroded tremendously. Mr Khandu’s induction as chief minister was another surprise element. Why Mr Khandu? There is no definite answer, but people say his wealth gives him a lot of clout, and that matters in Arunachal politics. The new CM is putting on a brave face with his “Team Arunachal” approach. He would know well he has many obstacles to cross. His immediate concern will be to reconcile at least three groups in the Congress: the Tuki camp, the Pul group and his own supporters. One will have to see how all these groups will be represented in his council of ministers.
Mr Pul, in his brief stint as CM, has created a space for himself in the hearts of people with his personal touch. Chief minister Khandu must adopt similar measures in order to gain the people’s confidence. The “aggrieved” BJP leadership may even try to scuttle much-needed Central funds for development schemes. Arunachal Pradesh being a “special category state” depends on Central grants-in-aid for up to 90 per cent of its funds. Was it the fear of disqualification that brought Mr Khandu and his friends back to the Congress? The answer may be both affirmative and negative. Above all, it was their insecurity (not being assured BJP tickets in 2019) that prompted them to return to their parent party.
For the BJP, the Arunachal chapter is not going to be closed all that easily, without hitting back hard. Political commentators will be surprised if there is no structural change in the leadership pattern of the state BJP. It is widely expected that Mr Pul may replicate what Himanta Biswa Sarma did for the BJP in Assam. People’s attention will now be focused on the next move of the BJP....