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How Delhi Shot Itself in the Foot in Arunachal Pradesh

Messing around in Arunachal can only yield negative outcomes and dent the image of BJP and the Centre.

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On Sunday, 24 January, the Cabinet held a surprise meeting. Chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it recommended that President’s rule be imposed on the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Since the mid-1990s, the Supreme Court, alarmed by the frequency with which state governments had been toppled during the 1970s and 1980s, cracked down on this practice. A landmark ruling in 1994 now makes it extremely tough for New Delhi to topple popularly elected regimes in states. But more about that later.

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Snapshot
  • In early December, Congress CM Nabam Tuki sacked his finance minister Kaiko Pul on charges of graft.
  • Pul stoked dissidence, claimed he can form a govt with his 21 rebels and 11 BJP MLAs.
  • Arunachal governor egged on the deputy speaker as well as some rebels, by advancing the assembly session from 14 January to 16 December.
  • The ruling faction refused to accept his diktat, arguing that only the Speaker, a Tuki loyalist, has the authority to call a session.
  • Rebels are now trying to usurp the Speaker’s authority by propping up his deputy.

How the Rebellion Began?

Messing around in Arunachal can only yield negative outcomes and dent the image of BJP and the Centre.
Speaker Nabam Rebia “voted out” by 33 legislators and dissident Congressman was “elected” chief minister. (Photo: PTI)

The BJP-ruled Centre claims that Congress-ruled Arunachal is in the throes of a ‘constitutional crisis’. The Congress says this is bogus – the entire ‘crisis’ was a small matter of inner-party disaffection, which could have been sorted out easily if the governor JP Rajkhowa, a BJP-appointee, had not muddied waters there.

But what really happened in Itanagar, capital of Arunachal, which shares a 1,126-km disputed border with China? Well, it all began early December, when Congress Chief Minister Nabam Tuki sacked his finance minister Kaiko Pul on charges of graft. Since then, Pul has been stoking dissidence against his former boss.

After elections in 2014, the Congress won 42 out of a total 60 assembly seats, enabling chief minister Nabam Tuki to form a government easily. Today, Pul claims that the numbers of his rebels stand at 21, and he expects to form a government with the help of BJP’s 11 MLAs.

Into this crisis, waded-in Rajkhowa. The governor egged on the deputy speaker as well as some rebels, by advancing the assembly session from 14 January to 16 December. The ruling faction refused to accept his diktat, arguing that only the Speaker, a Tuki loyalist, has the authority to call a session. The rebels have since decided to overlook such Constitutional niceties and are trying to usurp the Speaker’s authority by propping up his deputy.

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Imposing President’s Rule

Messing around in Arunachal can only yield negative outcomes and dent the image of BJP and the Centre.
Senior Congress leaders in a meeting with President Pranab Mukherjee. (Photo: PTI)

President Mukherjee has every right to be cautious before he signs on the dotted line.

Under the Constitution, President’s rule can be imposed on state governments under Article 356 – a proclamation of ‘state emergency’. This was evoked during the 1971 Bangladesh war of liberation, the 1980s agitation in Assam, during the Punjab crisis of the same decade, in several northern states after the Babri masjid demolition in 1992 and in Jammu & Kashmir and several northeastern states over the years.

However, in 1994, the Supreme Court issued a famous judgement in the so-called SR Bommai case, which severely circumscribed the power of New Delhi to topple state governments at whim. In 1994, a nine-judge constitutional bench, led by justice Kuldip Singh, made it clear that the only place to determine majority of an elected government is on the floor of the House.

It also made decrees imposing Presidential rule subject to judicial scrutiny. The Court also kept the option of reversing the decree, if it was satisfied that the imposition of Central rule, overthrowing an elected government, was malafide or lacked adequate justification.

Over the years, the Bommai judgement has been further strengthened. Today, the President can step in only under extraordinary circumstances. For example, when there is complete breakdown of law and order, or the authority of elected lawmakers has vapourised, or in case of a constitutional crisis in a state.

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Cooperative Federalism

Arunachal, arguably, does not fall into any of these categories: a simple intra-party dispute has been blown up by governor Rajkhowa into a confrontation between New Delhi and an elected state government.

Mukherjee is aware of the limitations on his powers. The Bommai judgement and subsequent refinements have sought to strengthen federalism – the sharing of powers between Centre and states, in favour of the latter.

A major check on Central overreach is this – today, President’s rule, once declared, has to be ratified by both Houses of Parliament within two months.

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BJP’s Parliamentary Battle

The BJP lacks a majority in the Rajya Sabha. It is almost certain to lose the Parliamentary battle to ratify President’s rule in Arunachal two months after Mukherjee chooses to sign the decree.

After the Bommai judgement and other judicial strictures on Presidential and Central powers, Mukherjee knows the dice will be loaded against him in court.

This is not a time to feel envious of President Mukherjee. If he signs the decree, it is almost certain to be overturned in Parliament. Non-BJP parties, including powerful regional outfits, are alarmed by the BJP’s activism on Arunachal. Delhi’s AAP chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has already termed it a “murder of democracy.” Others are sure to follow suit.

A defeat in Parliament will not only dent perceptions of the ruling BJP coalition, but also the image of the President. A defeat in the Supreme Court will be a painful body blow to both.

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Get on With Governance

Messing around in Arunachal can only yield negative outcomes and dent the image of BJP and the Centre.
File photo of President Pranab Mukherjee with PM Modi. (Photo: PTI)

On the other hand, a refusal to sign the decree will pit President Mukherjee against the ruling BJP regime in Delhi. We have seen such spats before, between prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Zail Singh, for example. The outcome has never been pretty.

The bigger message is for the Narendra Modi regime in Delhi and the BJP, led by his protégé Amit Shah. The economy is in a shambles, inflation is creeping up, growth is slowing, markets have crashed and joblessness is rampant. These are real issues for the government to tackle.

The BJP faces four tough polls within months, in Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where it stands little or no chance of forming government. The next year, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Gujarat and some other states will hold elections. The BJP should direct its energies towards this.

Messing around in Arunachal Pradesh can only yield negative outcomes and dent the image of BJP and the Central government. There are few, if any, perceivable gains. Drop the idea and get on with governance.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist)

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