Pema Khandu will stay on as chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, but now as leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, having joined the party along with 33 MLAs of People’s Party of Arunachal, giving him a majority in the 60 member legislative assembly. Khandu had earlier become chief minister when he joined the PPA with 43 members of the Congress party in September 2016.
The BJP has thus got its second state government in the North East. But it is a victory that does nothing for the saffron party’s credibility in the region. It won no elections. It chose instead to outmanoeuvre a regional partner in the North East Democratic Alliance to form government.
The BJP’s ascent crowns a year of intrigue and instability in Arunachal. The Congress government headed by Nabam Tuki faced insurrection as members of the legislative assembly broke away and tried to form a government with the support of BJP MLAs. It precipitated a crisis which brought on president’s rule on the state. When it was lifted, the dissident MLAs, headed by Kalikho Pul and backed by BJP legislators, laid claim to forming the government.
Pul won the vote of confidence in the House. Then, along with 30 rebel Congress MLAs who had backed him, he joined the People’s Party of Arunachal, which is also part of the North East Democratic Alliance. On July 16, the Supreme Court “set the clock back”. It declared the decisions taken by the state governor, leading to the formation of the new government, unconstitutional. It restored the Congress government headed by Tuki.
Tuki, however, resigned before he could stand for a floor test, paving the way for Khandu, who became leader of the Congress legislature party and the new chief minister of the state. Weeks after he was asked to step down as chief minister, Pul was found dead in his house.
In September, Khandu joined the PPA, taking 43 MLAs along with him, only to be suspended in December for alleged “anti-party activities”. Now Khandu has joined BJP, along with 33 MLAs, giving him a majority in the 60 member legislative assembly.
An unelected victory
Arunachal Pradesh’s transition from a Congress to a BJP state may not reflect actual changes on the ground. The party’s advance into power has been through intricate political deals struck with elected representatives rather than the represented.
Over the past year, the BJP has gone from being in the opposition to lending outside support to the government to being an ally of the party in power to being the party in power. The BJP’s central leadership has also been accused of using the office of the governor as a conduit of influence, manipulating the course of events in the state.
Accusations of wrongdoing aside, this transition does not have the robustness of a political change brought about by an election. What happened to that vital part of the democratic process where a party makes a pitch to voters and they choose or reject it? Voters in Arunachal Pradesh elected a Congress government in 2014, they now have the BJP.
Neither do the developments in Arunachal bode well for the BJP’s plans of expansion in the North East. Last year, the saffron party won Assam for the first time by cobbling together a “rainbow coalition” of ethnic regional parties, ranging from the Asom Gana Parishad to the Bodoland People’s Front to Rabha and Mising groups.
It sought to replicate the model across the states of the North East, inaugurating the North East Democratic Alliance soon after the Assam election. This was a diverse group of parties, often with conflicting interests, brought together under the aegis of the BJP. It was an ambitious experiment in a region riven by competing identity politics and claims to land, where almost every ethnic group has imagined itself as a separate nation.
But the BJP managed to hyphenate its own ideology and agenda with these varied local assertions. The People’s Party of Arunachal, formed in 1977, was one of them. It began life as an organisation that strove to be an alternative to national political parties and free “its people from the Bondage of High Commandism”. That a party with such a strong regional identity could be pressed into an alliance with the BJP is testimony to the saffron party’s powers of persuasion.
Yet the BJP has now given short shrift to its alliance partner, backing the very candidate it had expelled. The events of the past week suggest that the BJP does not value its rainbow colations very highly. They suggest that it is not afraid of being seen as a national party that stamps out regional assertions as it lays claim to power. In the long run, this could damage the party’s prospects in the region.