It was ironic that the Union government chose Republic Day to promulgate the contentious order clamping president’s rule in Arunachal Pradesh. If the purpose was to neutralise the case in the Supreme Court, that was a cynical response to concerns over constitutional propriety. Whichever way the court now resolves the issue, the deeper questions of constitutional morality cannot escape us. Besides these, the developments starkly bring out the all-round failure of institutions — the institutions of speaker and governor have both taken a downward turn in the Arunachal episode.
These developments are yet another reminder that we need to take a hard look at institutional mechanisms. What is happening in Arunachal is by no means new — the BJP is not the first sinner. In fact, the developments in Arunachal should help us take a non-partisan view of the issues precisely because they impart a sense of déjà vu. Speaker after speaker of state legislatures has been entangled in allegations of partisan behaviour, hurting the functioning of the House. The anti-defection provision is the foundation of these allegations in more than one case — something that should prompt us to drastically review the provision itself. Ever since it came into being, the anti-defection provision has done more harm than good to the cause of democracy. It could well be disbanded altogether.
With the Arunachal governor’s discovery that the cow was one of the factors that led to the law and order situation in the state, the office of governor has reached a new low — governors have been partisan indeed, but this time, the report of the governor has sought to confuse political crisis and ideological position. That discovery also deflects attention from the many procedural and technical issues arising from the rebellion in the Congress legislature party and the speaker’s prompt disqualification of the dissident members. Yet again, this episode indicates that if there is any institutional mechanism that requires most urgent repair, it is the office of governor. Needless to say, mere moralising as was done in the Sarkaria Commission report would not suffice.
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But let us not get into the technicalities of the unsavoury developments in Arunachal, or apportion blame. Beyond the legal questions as to whether the speaker was right in disqualifying the rebel MLAs or whether the governor needed to precipitate the crisis by advancing the session, we need to assess the core problems in the way we negotiate the architecture of democracy. The SC may settle the specifics of this current crisis one way or the other, but it can hardly resolve the larger malaise.
The problem in Arunachal is as much about politics as about procedures and constitutional norms. Let us not, therefore, hide behind the Bommai ruling or take refuge behind the eminently ineffective anti-defection provision. Arunachal represents the failure, yet again, of political parties. The Congress’s inability to settle internal disputes and the BJP’s haste in not only felling the government but also possibly swelling its ranks with Congress dissidents are symptomatic of that political failure.
It would require a more serious investigation to unravel the untold story of how and why a substantial section of Congress MLAs chose to rebel against the party and the CM. We know that factionalism in the state Congress was brewing for some time. The party let that continue. Moreover, it is evident that internal mechanisms do not exist in the Congress to sort out such problems. Quite frequently, the party faces either of two problems: The state-level leader, often the CM, becomes so powerful that internal negotiations are just not possible — Arunachal seems to fall in this category. Or, there are state leaders not able to function effectively because of rampant factionalism. The Congress in Punjab has witnessed this again and again in the recent past. Karnataka, too, is fast moving in this direction. Stories of the central leadership during the Indira-Rajiv era instigating “rebellion” against state leaders abound. Since then, the central leadership has tried at times to imitate them, and at other times, the leadership has been a hapless witness to what happens in the states. This was seen in Andhra Pradesh after Y.S.R. Reddy.
Much harm to the party has come through these inadequacies. Before it happened in Andhra, one only has to remember how in the 1990s, the Congress simply let two of its more capable state-level leaders leave and form separate parties — the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the NCP in Maharashtra, besides many others who left and subsequently came back to the party. Arunachal is a small state with limited strength in the Lok Sabha, and so, limited capacity to impact national politics but the core issue — the inability to sort out internal differences — remains the same.
This is, however, not a comment on the post-Indira-Rajiv leadership. The real issue is the way the phenomenon of the party is understood by practitioners themselves. In that sense, the problem is not confined to the Congress. For instance, why should the BJP be keen on not only having the Congress MLAs defect but also on possibly bringing them into the party? By accommodating a large group within the party, the BJP would, of course, win the numbers game, and may even form the government and get some share of power for its workers in the far eastern corner of the country. But what does it tell us about the way the BJP plans to expand? This porousness is a known feature of our parties. Parties do not have any gatekeeping mechanisms to ensure they expand mainly on the basis of new recruits being attracted by their programmes. Instead, poaching is the more common strategy when a party desperately wants to make political inroads in a state. Neither the Congress nor the BJP desists from poaching as a strategy to intervene in pre-existing power equations. However, while they may upset the power equations, this strategy further weakens the functioning of the party in the long run.
So, Arunachal is a reminder of two things: One, the failure of institutional mechanisms is eroding our democracy; and two, it is becoming increasingly difficult to expect democratic sagacity from our political parties. Both reminders coming as a follow-up to Republic Day is indeed sobering — and worrying.