Congress back in majority in Arunachal, Pema Khandu poised to be next CM

Guwahati: On Saturday, the Congress exhibited rare nimble footedness to replace Nabam Tuki with Prema Khandu as its chief ministerial candidate in Arunachal Pradesh. The change in leadership spurred a rebellion against Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supported Kalikho Pul, with Khandu claiming that he has the backing of as many as 47, including two independents, of the 58 legislators in the state assembly.

Nabam Tuki

Among the MLAs was also former state finance minister Kalikho Pul, whose defection had precipitated a chain of events that culminated in a historic Supreme Court judgment earlier this week reinstating Nabam Tuki’s chief ministership. Pul had defected and formed his own party in February, and became chief minister with the BJP’s support. The rebel MLA had cited inaccessibility of top Congress leaders, including Tuki and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi as the reason for his defection.

The Arunachal Pradesh Assembly has an effective strength of 58 MLAs out of 60. The BJP has a strength of 11, while two are independents. Hours ahead of a scheduled floor test in the Assembly, which Tuki was directed by Governor Tathagat Roy to take, the Congress Legislature Party met and elected 37-year-old Pema Khandu, son of late chief minister Dorjee Khandu, as its new leader.

Tuki proposed the name of Khandu, which was unanimously accepted by 44 MLAs who were present. Speaker Nabam Rebia did not attend the meeting while ousted chief minister Khaliko Pul attended the meeting with the rebel MLAs.

Ahead of the Congress Legislative Party meeting, Tuki met the Governor and told him he was quitting as the chief minister and of the Congress party’s decision to elect a new leader. Khandu, 36, son of former Arunachal CM Dorje Khandu, is likely to be sworn in as the chief minister next week. Governor Tathagata Roy, a former West Bengal BJP leader, has indicated that there will not be a floor test. Dorje Khandu had died in a helicopter crash in April 2011.

The Congress conceded that one reason it had lost control of the government was the high-handed functioning of Tuki, the previous CM. However, the road for Khandu is unlikely to be smooth as the rebels, given their lack of numbers, have conceded defeat for the time being rather than be disqualified under the anti-defection law.

What has happened in Arunachal Pradesh is a replay of the way the Congress lost power in Uttarakhand following defections and later regained it following the intervention of the courts.

The government and BJP today tried to distance themselves from the embarrassment in Arunachal Pradesh. Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju said: “The BJP and the central government have nothing to do with whatever is happening in Arunachal Pradesh. The political instability has been happening in last seven months due to the division within the Congress. We have nothing to do with the internal matter of Congress.”

In Itanagar, Khandu said: “Now there are no differences and the Congress is united at the intervention of Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Vice President Rahul Gandhi.”

A five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court earlier this week unanimously restored the Congress government in Arunachal Pradesh and quashed the Governor’s orders which had advanced the session of Arunachal’s legislative assembly from January 14 to December 16 last year. The apex court quashed all of the directions of the Governor that had precipitated the constitutional crisis in the northeastern border state.

However, the order on Arunachal is unprecedented since it has called for restoring a government even after a subsequent government has taken the oath of office. Earlier this year, first the Nainital High Court and then the Supreme Court had quashed the central rule in Uttarakhand and paved the way for the Harish Rawat-government to be reinstated.

In the wake of the Uttarakhand order, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, himself a noted constitutional lawyer, said in Parliament that “step by step, brick by brick, the edifice of India’s legislature is being destroyed due to judicial activism”. At a press conference a few days later, Jaitley advised the judiciary that it needed to blend activism with restrain and not interfere in the sphere of executive.