The timing couldn't have been better for the Congress. For a while, it looked like things were going so bad that it was managing to lose states that didn't even have elections – Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, with murmurs from Manipur and Meghalaya next. But then the Supreme Court in May upended the Bharatiya Janata Party's efforts to take charge in Uttarakhand and on Wednesday it did the same in Arunachal. Suddenly, the Congress is back in power in both states and, moreover, can use the Supreme Court verdicts to attack the BJP's political tactics.
A landmark judgment from the court saw it completely dismiss all the decisions of Arunachal Pradesh's governor last year, which allowed a BJP-supported rebellion to depose Congress Chief Minister Nabam Tuki and his government. The court ordered status quo ante, effectively restoring the Arunachal Pradesh government to the position it was in before President's Rule was declared. This means Tuki will be chief minister again.
However, this victory might not be enduring for the Congress. Tuki will take charge as chief minister again, but the rebellion has not dissolved. This means the Congress only has 26 Members of Legislative Assembly in a house of 60. There are 21 rebels, 11 BJP MLAs and two independents. For the moment that might mean a minority Congress government until it has to survive a floor test. This is why Tuki is calling on the rebel MLAs to return to the Congress fold.
But the decision is significant for the Congress from a narrative standpoint too. It performed terribly in elections earlier this year and was facing the prospect of being isolated on the Goods and Services Tax Bill in the upcoming Monsoon Session of Parliament. Now suddenly it has wind in its sails, with favourable judgments on BJP's political tactics in both Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh.
The Congress was casting about for an issue with which it could stall the upcoming session. It even attempted to bring up a Rs 45,000 crore telecom scam that sank rather quickly. Now it has something to grab onto. The Supreme Court has aided this too with some particularly harsh words about the actions of Arunachal's governor, BJP-appointee JP Rajkhowa.
The Supreme Court's judgment says that Rajkhowa's actions were unconstitutional. "We are of the view, that it needs to be asserted as a constitutional determination, that it is not within the realm of the Governor to embroil himself in any political thicket," the court said.
"Any action taken by the Governor, based on disputations, with reference to activities in which he has no role to play, is liable to be considered as extraneous. It is not for the Governor to schedule the functioning of the Assembly. It is also not in the Governor’s domain, to schedule the agenda of the House. The Governor has no role with reference to the ongoings in the Assembly. The Governor must keep away, from all that goes on, within the House."
A concurring opinion from Justice Madan B Lokur, covering the interaction between the Governor and ministers from Tuki's government says:
"That interpersonal relationships of constitutional functionaries are carried out with such a complete lack of cordiality and gay abandon is indeed unfortunate. The result is a thrashing given to the Constitution and a spanking to governance. It is precisely to avoid this that the Constituent Assembly invoked the 'principle of responsible government'."
The verdict has given the Congress a reason to call for Rajkhowa's resignation. It also comes on the same day that BJP President Amit Shah was set to launch the North East Democratic Alliance, a collection of political parties aimed at overthrowing Congress governments in the region. The Supreme Court judgment will no doubt dent the NEDA's confidence, but its underlying reason for existnce – years of Congress neglect – will not disappear just because of an adverse judgment.
The real loser here is Prime Minister Narendra Modi's legal team. From lawyer-politician Arun Jaitley to Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, the government has plenty of legal acumen as well as contacts with the judiciary. Yet it has had a difficult time making headway, both in terms of actual arguments as well as in its attempts at reforming India's judicial processes. No wonder Law Minister Sadananda Gowda had to make way for Ravi Shanker Prasad in the most recent Cabinet reshuffle.
Yet another adverse judgment calling its actions unconstitutional brings up the question: Does Narendra Modi's legal team know what it's doing?