Barely two months after the Congress party smugly reinstated its government in Arunachal Pradesh when the Supreme Court declared the President’s Rule imposed by the centre unconstitutional, the party is in the most unbelievable bind yet again. And this time, even the Court cannot do anything about it. In a bizarre turn of events, 43 of the 44 MLAs of the Congress party – including the Chief Minister, Pema Khandu – in the Arunachal Pradesh state assembly have left the party to join the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA). The only MLA left is former Chief Minister, Nabam Tuki, who was dismissed by Congress after the Court verdict in July.
This is a direct victory for the BJP and the NDA government at the centre, since the PPA is a part of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) floated by the BJP and of which PPA is a member. In fact, the original motivation for the MLAs was a desire to become a part of the NEDA. As the events unfolded, Mr. Khandu made a call to NEDA’s convener and BJP’s famous face of Assam – and another Congress defector – Himanta Biswa Sarma, and expressed a desire to become a part of NEDA.
This development marks another goalpost in the wipe-out of the Congress – and even if not the Congress, then certainly the inevitable wipe-out of the Gandhi family. The MLAs and the Chief Minister cited the increasing debt of the state and the need to secure more support as the reasons for leaving. Not surprising given the current elite stature of the party ‘high command’. With this development in Arunachal, it seems that BJP’s promise of a ‘Congress-mukt’ Bharat is being fulfilled at a rather fast pace. The NEDA is working intensively in the North-East to expand its footprint. Combined with the cluelessness, disinterest, selfishness and lethargy of the Congress, the conditions were already ripe for Congress to be removed in the state. In fact, when the Court had pronounced its verdict two months back reinstating the Congress government, the BJP had promised that the ‘Arunachal story is not yet over’. This should also have been apparent to anyone who had followed the Arunachal story closely through last year.
How the Arunachal Story Unfolded
The Arunachal crisis started in 2014. In April 2014, the results of the assembly elections were declared, in which Congress won 42 out of 60 seats, BJP won 11 seats, PPA won 5 seats and independents won 2 seats. When PPA MLAs joined the Congress, the latter’s tally went up to 47 seats in the assembly.
The real crisis started in December 2014, when Kalikho Pul was dropped as the Minister for Health and Family Welfare. Later, he led the rebel faction against Congress, after being dismissed from the party for ‘anti-party’ activities in April 2015. The dropping of Pul shows that any other party – such as the BJP – could not have had an overt hand till that point of time. It was only after a new Governor, J.P. Rajkhowa, was appointed in June 2015, that the centre could have got some space to engineer its own way. It is a common fact, proven time and again in Indian political history, that in a state where the ruling party is in opposition to the party at the centre, the Governor normally acts as an agent of the centre, since the latter’s constitutional role is that of a representative of the centre.
However, the way the events unfolded in Arunachal Pradesh clearly shows that it all started with dictatorship and mismanagement by the state Congress leadership and apathy of the central leadership and the AICC. The 14 MLAs of the Congress rebelled against the party in October-November 2015 only after their members were forced to sign ‘irrevocable resignation letters’ by the then CM, Nabam Tuki, for promoting dissidence within the party.
In response to this dictatorial act, in November 2015, 21 MLAs led by Pul rebelled against the Congress.
And that is when BJP moved in. Seeking to ally with the rebel MLAs, they passed a resolution to remove the Speaker. That is when the intervention of the Governor actually started, in favour of the BJP and the rebels. He advanced the date of the assembly session from January 2016 to December 2015, while the Speaker in a counter-attack disqualified the rebel MLAs.
The rebel MLAs elected Pul as the CM and their disqualification was also stayed by the High Court, making the outcome turn in their favour. But just when the intervention of the Supreme Court started, the centre intervened to introduce President’s Rule in the crisis-hit state, in January itself. Subsequently, in February, the Court decided to allow the President’s Rule to continue, but in July – about two months back – it reinstated the Congress government.
The reinstated government had the rebel faction at its head – who decided to come back within the Congress fold – under the leadership of Pema Khandu, rather than Kalikho Pul. Soon thereafter, last month, Pul committed suicide, steeping the state politics further in mystery.
The Current Status and Implications for Democracy
There is no doubt that not a single political player is guilt-free in what has happened in the state. The reality will be deeply shrouded in mystery and underhanded manipulations. But this is exactly the message that should be conveyed to us through the state politics. As things currently stand, with the latest development, issues like democracy and elections are looking like a weak sham – not because Congress has been reduced from a so-called ‘democratically elected government’ to a defeated loser, but because democracy never existed, right from the beginning.
When the Congress government was dismissed and President’s Rule imposed earlier this year, intellectuals and legal pundits spent their time lamenting the historically draconian use of Article 356 (Imposition of President’s Rule) by the centre. With Congress portraying itself as a weak victim, this class lamented the demise of democratically elected governments under the Modi regime.
But what democracy are we talking about? Our current Parliamentary system of democracy and the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) election system is an organized sham. Under the current system of elections, we elect our government – at the centre or the state – only once in every five years and then the government follows its own agenda, while the FPTP system ensures that governments with plurality vote-share get elected even if the combined vote-share of the opposition is a lot more. This may have changed very slightly in the recent years, with rising awareness and disillusionment among people and their holding the governments accountable, but the change has been too slow and slight and has not impacted the system. What more, this change has led to a commensurate setback in another area – governments have become apathetic centers of mismanagement and joblessness, and this trend is implicit and is as bas as a government that is explicitly twisted in its motives.
Does the Congress in Arunachal Pradesh deserve any sympathy or does it have a right to paint itself as a victim? The answer is no. For, the government and the party were epitomes of weakness and mismanagement, and by being that they were no more fulfilling the “democratic mandate” of the people than the rebel factions that manipulated the events. When the latest developments took place, the Congress “high command” – and the party’s AICC leader in-charge of the state, C.P. Joshi – were unbelievably clueless about what was going to happen.
This apathy has afflicted all ranks of the party and the Congress government. Arunachal rebel leaders – and even those from other states – have been particularly indignant over the fact that they have had to wait 4-5 days in Delhi to meet the ‘high command’ and even then many MLAs do not have access. Just recently, a senior Congress leader from West Bengal has also been contemplating exiting the party. Other state leaders have also rebelled against the party high command since the past one year.
While this rebellion against the party leadership may lead to more intra-party democracy, it translates into anarchy for the larger public, as is the case with Arunachal presently, which is reeling under financial stress and had no support from the Congress party.
Moreover, how do we define democracy in a state whose electoral politics has always been manipulated from above and marred by warring factions and community and tribal rivalries? The state has a tribal population of more than 65% which feels threatened by the Chakma and Hajong refugees from Bangladesh, a sizeable Christian population of more than 30%, with the latter spewing negative campaign about the BJP and the VHP, and, active presence of both militant groups of NSCN and National Liberation Front of Arunachal (NLFA). Electoral democracy came late to the tribal people, with the first elections being held in 1977. Moreover, recent election trends over the years show that people do not freely exercise their democratic rights and are influenced by dictates of militants in districts where the latter are active. According to reports, Congress even joined hands with NSCN militants in 1999.1 Was that democratic?
Electoral politics in Arunachal has been influenced more by alliances, ethnicity and bottom-up or top-down manipulations rather than by free or informed choice of the tribal people. It is easy for us, sitting in Delhi, to make generalizations about the death of democracy, but such generalizations are not based on reality.
When the Congress was not supporting the ‘democratically-elected’ MLAs from the state and the party leadership was refusing to meet them and pay attention to them, then nobody decried it as an insult to democracy. If the party were that sincere about democracy, shouldn’t it have respected the people’s mandate by respecting its elected MLAs or does it think that the unelected high command leadership should rule the people? Did the Congress government then not subvert the meaning of democracy?
The current crisis in the state has just broken out, and Congress has already started crying about the subversion of democracy. The intellectual and legal experts will soon follow and lament the dirty politics in the state. We should be prepared for this political routine.
But the questions raised above are uncomfortable facts about the sham argument of democracy that is again being revived in Arunachal Pradesh and needs to be exposed for what it really is.
- Bath, Nani. 2004. “Victory for the BJP.” Economic and Political Weekly 5531-5532