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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 40 New Delhi September 24, 2016

Murder of Democracy in Arunachal Pradesh

Saturday 24 September 2016

by V. Bijukumar

Politics in Arunachal Pradesh assumed a new turn in the context of the mass migration of Congress MLAs, including its Chief Minister Prema Khandu, to the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA), a regional outfit set up with the support of the BJP. When 43 Congress MLAs joined the regional party, the Congress strength in the Assembly was reduced to one as the former Chief Minister, Nabam Tuki, remained the lone Congress MLA. In the 60-member State Assembly, whose current strength is 57, the status of two MLAs, Wanglam Sawin and Gabriel D. Wangsu, is pending with the Speaker on the issue of disqualification. With the death of Kalikho Pul, the former Chief Minister, the emergence of the PPA as the single largest party is a political victory for the BJP.

The current course of events in Arunachal can be viewed as a logical continuation of the political developments taking place in the border State since the end of the previous year. For quite some time, dissident activities both in the Congress party and government had been growing and the Central leadership of the party adopted a lukewarm attitude towards it leading to further aggravation of this situation. In December 2014 Nabam Tuki dropped Kalikho Pul, the Health and Family Welfare Minister, in a Cabinet reshuffle. Amid mounting anti-party activities in the State, that posed a challenge to the government, the Congress expelled Pul alleging anti-party activities in April 2015.

In the beginning of the year, the BJP orchestrated defection in the ruling Congress party that saw political instability in the State culminating in the resignation of the Nabam Tuki Government and the House was kept under suspended animation. Subsequently, President’s Rule was imposed under Article 356 on the recommendation of the Union Cabinet citing constitutional failure in the State. On February 19, 2016 the dissident Congress leader, Kalikho Pul, finally overthrew the Tuki Government with the outside support of the BJP. Although the Congress had the support of 47 MLAs in the 60-member House, 21 of them supported the rebel leader, Pul, who later formed the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA). By encouraging defection, overthrowing the incumbent government and installing a new government led by the rebel Congress leader with its outside support, the BJP scored over the Congress in the border State.

However, in a major setback to the BJP and the Central Government, the Supreme Court on July 13 ordered restoration of the Congress Government under Nabam Tuki, saying the “clock should be turned back”. It quashed the decision of the Governor, Rajkhowa, in February this year as a violation of the Constitution. The Supreme Court order had made the Congress jubilant and it termed the verdict as the victory of democracy in the State and a setback for the BJP’s effort to dislodge the Congress regimes in India. However, the Governor set July 16 as the deadline for proving majority in the Assembly though Tuki sought at least ten days’ time for proving the government’s majority. Though Chief Minister Tuki was confident of winning the trust vote by appealing to the dissident party MLAs to support his government in the confidence motion, the Central leadership smelled the upcoming dangers to the party in the State under the leadership of Tuki. On the eve of the trust vote in the floor of the House, the Congress party decided to change its Chief Minister taking into account the mood of the dissident MLAs. The replacement of Tuki by the young Prema Khandu, the son of former Chief Minister Dorgee Khandu, not only saved the Congress Government which had to face the crucial trust vote but also put hurdles to the anticipated BJP-orchestrated defection and resolved the political instability for the time being. The change of guard in the Congress Legislature Party in Arunachal Pradesh temporarily solved the political crisis brewing in the aftermath of the reinstatement of the former Chief Minister, Nabam Tuki. It was viewed that the truce in the Congress in Arunachal Pradesh would be a personal setback for Amit Shah, Himanta Biswa Sarma and Kiren Rijiju and their strategy towards the Congress regimes in the region. The reinstatement of the Congress Government with the change of guard in Arunachal Pradesh, it was thought, would check the BJP’s attempt to dislodge Congress regimes both in Manipur and Meghalaya for the time being. However, after a gap of two months the State witnessed yet another political drama by the Congress MLAs merging with the PPA, thereby not only posing a challenge to the Central leadership of the Congress party but also providing a morale booster to the BJP.

In Arunachal Pradesh, the BJP has a history of orchestrating defections in the Congress party, bringing down Congress regimes, supporting rebel leaders to form governments with its outside support, and also merging splintered political factions with the BJP. Perhaps, the party’s first ever attempt to destablise Congress governments in the North-Eastern States goes back to 2003 with the Arunachal Pradesh experiment. In July 2003, during the Vajpayee-led National Demo-cratic Alliance (NDA) Government, the dissident Congress leader, Gegong Apang, toppled the Mukut Mithi-led Congress Government with 34 Congress MLAs and became the Chief Minister of the State under the newly floated United Democratic Front (UDF), which later merged with the BJP. However, in 2004, when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government came to power at the Centre, Apang rejoined the Congress party and contested the next election under the Congress symbol.

After this failed experiment, the BJP built up its strong base in Arunachal Pradesh, and over the years its vote-share has increased by making inroads into the electoral base of the Congress. In the 2004 general election, the party could win both the seats in the State with a vote-share of 53.85 per cent. Although in the subsequent general election in 2009, the party lost both the seats to the Congress and its vote-share was reduced to 37.17 per cent, in the 2014 general election it wrested one seat from the ruling Congress with a vote-share of 46.62 per cent. In a major jolt to the ruling Congress in the State, Kiren Rijiju, the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs and the BJP’s prominent face in the North-East, wrested the Arunachal West constituency from the Congress This spectacular victory in one of the two seats in the State gave added advantage to the NDA in the region. In the State Assembly elections held along with the general election 2014, the BJP won 11 seats with a vote-share of 30.97 per cent in the 60-member Assembly against its performance in 2009 when it could secure only three seats. The Congress won 42 seats with a vote-share of 49.9 per cent and the People’s Party of Arunachal won five seats and independents two.

The BJP’s current effort to install the PPA-led government with its outside support has to be seen in the larger context of its politics in the region. Though the BJP’s attempt to dislodge the State Congress Government began soon after the general election in 2014, this got further accelerated in the aftermath of the Assam Assembly elections in which the BJP formed its first ever government in North-East India. For instance, the recently floated North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), under the convenor-ship of Himanta Biswa Sarma, was trying to dislodge the Congress Government in the State by encouraging defections by alluring the MLAs with positions and money to achieve Amit Shah’s goal of a ‘Congress-free’ North-East. It needs to be underlined that in States like Manipur and Meghalaya the BJP, under the NEDA, is in a mood to dislodge the Congress governments by encouraging defections.

The political developments in Arunachal Pradesh have a bearing on other Congress-ruled States in North-East India. Political pundits opine that after the enthusiasm generated in the BJP by its emphatic victory in Assam and the reinstate-ment of a government with its outside support in Arunachal Pradesh, the BJP’s next target is Manipur. It has to be mentioned that hoping to secure political power in the 2017 Assembly elections in Manipur, the BJP is alluring a section of Congress legislators and preparing a roadmap to topple the Congress Government in Manipur, led by Okram Ibobi Singh, that enjoys the support of 47 members in the 60-member Manipur Assembly. In the two Assembly constituencies where by-elections were held in November 2015, the BJP candidates defeated the ruling Congress candidates and thereby opened its account for the first time in the State. In the Thangmeiband Assembly constituency Khumukham Joy Kishan Singh and in the Thongju constituency Bishwajit Singh of the BJP defeated the Congress candidates adding another feather in the former’s cap in the State. In the civic elections too, the BJP emerged as a potent force in the State. In the January 2016 municipal and nagar panchayat elections, the BJP won 62 seats in the 278-member municipal council. In the elections held on June 2, 2016 to the 27-member Imphal Municipal Corporation, the BJP emerged as the second largest party winning 10 seats after the Congress which could secure only 12 seats. The emerging trends show that the BJP is emerging as an alternative to the Congress both in the rural and urban areas keeping its goal of capturing political power in the State in the February 2017 Assembly election.

The political developments in Arunachal Pradesh may evoke an impact on the politics of Meghalaya too. It has to be noted that the BJP is desperately looking for overthrowing the Congress-led Mukul Sangma Government. As a prelude to make the State free from the Congress, the BJP is showing much interest in the internal squabbles in the State Congress led by former Chief Minister D.D. Lapang. There are reports that in the Garo region, the National People’s Party of late Purno Sangma is alluring the Congress MLAs to dislodge the Mukul Sangma Government.

The author is an Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawa-harlal Nehru University, New Delhi.