THE dramatic success of the Congress in Arunachal Pradesh may have come at a cost — a trust deficit appears to have emerged between its central leadership and Pema Khandu, the former rebel now installed as chief minister.
Khandu’s leadership, and at least three major decisions he has taken since staking claim to power five days ago, are now being viewed with suspicion by many within the party’s central leadership.
Khandu was made chief minister after the Supreme Court on July 13 annulled President’s Rule, which was imposed in the state following a split within the ruling Congress, and restored the government led by Nabam Tuki.
Tuki made way for Khandu, who enjoyed the support of 30 rebel MLAs in a 60-member House, on directions from the party’s leadership.
But Congress leaders in Delhi have since been viewing Khandu’s moves with increasing anxiety, starting with the appointment of another rebel Chowna Mein as deputy chief minister without a green signal from the party high command. Mein is a powerful Buddhist leader backed by at least 12 rebel MLAs.
Khandu also replaced Nabam Rebia, a close associate of Tuki, as speaker with Tsering Norbu Thongdok, previously the deputy speaker. The party’s central leadership is also upset that Khandu has not included any of Tuki’s loyalists in the new Cabinet.
The worrylines have emerged at a time when the Congress appeared to have played its cards astutely to use the Supreme Court judgment to its advantage, taking two pragmatic decisions in the two days that followed.
To begin with, it persuaded Tuki, who didn’t enjoy the support of the majority of Congress MLAs, to resign before the floor test in the House. It wasn’t an easy task, and not just because Tuki had fought the legal battle at his own expense. He had been backed since the crisis broke out last December by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.
The party was quick to accept Khandu’s offer to bring back the rebels and restore its rule, with or without Kalikho Pul, the rebel chief minister who had ousted Tuki and joined the Peoples Party of Arunachal (PPA) with support from the BJP-led NDA.
In effect, the Congress shut the door on any chance that an “adversarial central government” may have had of any political or Constitutional intervention to fill a possible political vacuum.
The result: A Christian chief minister was replaced by a Buddhist one, which holds much significance in the “sensitive border state”.
If that was one phase of this great political game in Arunachal Pradesh, the big question that remained largely unanswered was this: what brought Khandu and his group back in the Congress fold on July 15?
The Indian Express has learnt that this decision was influenced by legal opinion the rebels obtained from senior advocate P P Rao in New Delhi, two days after the Supreme Court judgment.
According to sources, while the judgment did give an ethical edge to the Congress party, the rebels kept their options till at least July 15, the day before Tuki had to prove his majority in the House. By then, the Congress and the BJP had sensed that Pul, the original rebel leader, had lost majority support within the group of 30, and that Khandu and Mein were the men to chase.
Khandu, meanwhile, played his cards well, keeping in touch with BJP and Congress through July 13 to July 15. Up to July 15, sources said, he was in touch with Pul; Himanta Biswa Sarma, the BJP’s northeast in-charge and former Congress leader in Assam; and other top BJP leaders, including Ram Madhav, its general secretary, and even Amit Shah, its president.
It was at this crucial juncture that Rao’s legal opinion came into play. The question he answered was this: would the Supreme Court hold as valid the move by the 30 rebel Congress MLAs to join the PPA and form a government under Pul?
Rao’s opinion, accessed by The Indian Express and based on Constitutional provisions governing disqualification of elected members on grounds of defection, was clear: when the Supreme Court restored the position of December 15, 2015, it meant that the 30 rebels remained Congress MLAs; if they defect, they may be disqualified under sub paragraph (1) of paragraph 2 of the tenth schedule.
The die was cast, and the Congress moved in swiftly, outsmarting Amit Shah’s team and accepting, even if reluctantly, Khandu’s leadership.
BJP sources claim that Khandu had toyed with the idea of forming a government with the party’s help. But the party dithered over dumping Pul, and Khandu, who wanted to escape disqualification at any cost, shook hands with the Congress.
It’s been nearly 10 days now since the judgment, but the state of play in Arunachal remains open.
Congressmen in Itanagar are yet to get Rahul Gandhi to support Khandu in the same way as he did Tuki. Those who are unhappy with Khandu’s selection as chief minister feel that his nomination has loosened the high command’s grip over the state government.
But another section argues that Tuki could have lost the floor test and embarrassed the party. “What is the point of winning the legal battle but losing power?” asked a Congress leader.
Then again, waiting and watching on the sidelines is the BJP-led NDA. Speaking to The Indian Express, Himanta Biswa Sarma, now a BJP minister in Assam and chairman of the NDA-backed North East Democratic Alliance, said: “Whatever has happened was due to legal issues. The Arunachal story is not over, yet.”