Though Arunachal Pradesh has had a history of political instability, the events of the last eight months have been extraordinary. And last week, in a span of just three days, the state saw the making and unmaking of two chief ministers, with a third poised to take over as chief minister.
Infighting in the state Congress was evident even before the May 2014 Assembly elections that were necessitated after the Congress-led Nabam Tuki government dissolved the legislative Assembly six months before its tenure ended. The Congress won that election.
But Arunachal Governor JP Rajkhowa, a BJP-appointee, moved to take advantage of the fractured Congress the next year when he advanced the legislative Assembly session by a month – from January 14, 2016, to December 16, 2015 – without the advice of the state Cabinet.
Governor acted “illegally”
The governor’s action plunged the state into political turmoil and led to a short stint of President’s Rule, which was imposed on Republic Day, and lifted in February, to enable a new government headed by dissident Congress leader Kalikho Pul to take charge.
The splintered Congress in the state and the clueless All India Congress Committee in Delhi could not keep up with the swift moves of the governor and the Bharatiya Janata Party's central leadership. Eventually, crying foul, the Congress went to the Supreme Court.
The crisis was no ordinary one with possible implications for other states.
A Constitution Bench led by Justice JS Kehar, which heard the matter last Wednesday, unanimously quashed Rajkhowa’s decision to advance the Assembly session and decide the order of business. It ruled that the governor’s decisions were “illegal”.
Saying that Governor Rajkhowa was not an “all-pervading super constitutional authority”, the court restored status quo ante (the way things were before) in the state as on December 15, 2015.
The ruling effectively restored the Tuki government and dismissed Pul’s four month-old BJP-backed People’s Party of Arunachal government.
Pul in trouble
The ruling, ironically, came on a day Pul was in Guwahati attending the launch of a BJP-backed North East Democratic Alliance by party president Amit Shah. The Alliance has on its agenda the eviction of the Congress from all governments in the North East.
Following the verdict, Pul said he was confident that there was no threat to his government as he still had the numbers – more than 40 MLAs in the state’s 60-member Assembly.
But Pul should have accounted for the fickleness of his colleagues.
By the time, Pul reached state capital Itanagar from Guwahati after an eight-hour journey by road along with his MLA colleagues, including 11 from the BJP, the situation had changed.
An official said that Pul had gathered his MLA flock at a hotel but they vanished one after another, forcing him to check out too; he was the last one to leave.
What had happened was that overnight, Congress MLAs, acting on the advice of the All India Congress Committee, had decided that Pema Khandu, a 37-year-old political novice, would replace Tuki, who was reinstated as chief minister on Wednesday following the court verdict. Pul was nowhere in the picture.
Khandu met acting governor Tathagata Roy on Saturday and staked claim to form the government showing that he had the support of 45 Congress legislators and two independent MLAs. Khandu was sworn in as chief minister on Sunday.
A political novice
It remains to be seen how Khandu, the son of former Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu, who died in a plane crash in 2011, navigates the complicated political scene in the state.
To start with, he hasn’t really faced a political opponent during elections – he’s been twice elected unopposed from his father’s constituency from the time he was forced into politics after his father’s sudden death. He has, however, earlier served as minister of tourism and water resources.
Already battered by rain-induced landslides, blockades and floods, and with little faith in their politicians, Arunachalis are not expecting Khandu’s government to miraculously improve their lot.
But a little bit of stability would not hurt.
For that to happen, the Congress high command needs to learn how to keep its slippery team of MLAs together, as though the BJP has retreated wounded, it is unlikely to retire so soon from the state – the three years till the next state election is a long time in Arunachal Pradesh politics.
The governor, who was at the receiving end of the damning Supreme Court judgment, is reportedly on medical leave. It will be interesting to see whether he makes a honourable exit or stays put as BJP’s keeper in the northeastern state.