While Kalikho Pul insists he will form a “Congress government” with the help of BJP MLAs, the Anti-Defection Act may derail his plans.Politics is a strange game of numbers, of combinations and permutations. The crisis engulfing Arunachal Pradesh is a ripe example of this.
With the Supreme Court reportedly refusing on February 16 to restrain Arunachal Governor JP Rajkhowa from swearing in a new government, thereby clearing the decks for the Union Cabinet to recommend revoking President’s Rule to Rashtrapati Bhavan on February 17, rebel Congress leader Kalikho Pul is now the apparent Chief Minister-in-waiting, all thanks to his ability to gather the numbers.
Within hours of the Union cabinet clearing the decision to lift president’s rule, however, the Supreme Court stayed any change in the status quo till it is able to take a call on the status of 14 rebel MLAs.
Interestingly, it is also most likely due to this game of numbers that Pul is still calling himself “a Congressman”, even though the Congress leadership in New Delhi has been vehemently calling him and 19 other party legislators supporting him rebels.
“I am still in the Congress Party. When I form a Government in Arunachal, it will be a Congress Government,” Pul told The Wire on Wednesday. “While 11 BJP legislators will support the Government unconditionally from outside,” he said, “two independents (Paknga Bage and Tsering Tashi) will be a part of the Government.”
In the 60-member assembly, Pul needs the support of 30 legislators to have a majority. With 19 Congress MLAs, 11 BJP legislators and two independents, Pul has 32 members backing him, while former Chief Minister Nabam Tuki has only 26 – the reason why Pul and his supporters went to Raj Bhawan on February 15 to stake claim to form the next government. With the Governor sending a favourable report to the Centre the next day, the Union Cabinet went ahead and recommended lifting of President’s Rule from the State to usher in a new Government.
However, there is another set of numbers that can topple the apple cart of Pul. As per the 10th Schedule of the Constitution (Anti-Defection Act), a group of elected members can be disqualified from the assembly on the grounds of defection to another political party if they fall short of two-third of the original group. Clearly, Pul doesn’t stand a chance there as he has the support of only 19 Congress MLAs while Tuki has 26 by his side.V Narayanswamy, Congress leader and party-in-charge in Arunachal, said, “He may continue saying he is in the party but how can he act on his own without consulting the party high command on forming a government? The numbers that he has apparently gathered to support him is not recognised by the party headquarters. If he goes ahead, clearly the anti-defection law will apply to him. It will be unconstitutional. He doesn’t have those numbers. They will all cease to be assembly members.”
The bigger issue for the Congress, however, is Pul taking the BJP’s support to form a “Congress government”, the reason why Narayanswamy said, “We can’t engage with him in talks.”
“How can we talk to a person who is sitting with BJP?” he asked.
Pul reiterated, “The BJP is supporting only my leadership and has nothing to do with the Government otherwise. The Government I want to form is a Congress Government.”
It is not that the party high command has not engaged with Pul in talks. On February 8, Pul and the dissident members met Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi.
“The meeting with Mr. Gandhi was positive. He wanted the two folds of Congress in the State to become one. We have no problem with it but that can’t happen under Tuki because many MLAs have lost regard for him because of his corrupt ways. After I form the Government, Congress can be one again in the state,” said Pul.
In an informal chat with the media a day after the meeting, Gandhi, though, refused to divulge any details. In reply to a question by this correspondent, he was matter of fact, “They wanted to meet me, so I did.”
Meanwhile, Pul has said he had previously sought an appointment with Gandhi. “After Arunachal Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC) arbitrarily expelled me from the party on the suggestion of Tuki in April 2015, I camped in New Delhi for three months to meet both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to put across my case. I didn’t want to leave the party and wanted to use the clause of appeal in the party rules but I was not given an audience.”
So Pul went to the court. “There have been many cases of corruption against Tuki since 2006. I was against his corrupt rule, so I resigned from the State Cabinet in August, 2014, and again in September, 2014, but the CM refused to accept my resignation both the times. Then, in December 2014, he just dropped me from the Cabinet, though I have nothing against it as it is the privilege of a CM. But when he got me expelled from the party in April, 2015, I went to the leadership but to no avail. So I challenged the APCC decision in the session court, Itanagar. After the court gave a ruling in my favour, APCC went for appeal to the Gauhati High Court which put a stay on the session court order. So I am still a Congressman and plan to remain so.”
With the SC clearing the way for the governor to invite Pul to form the new state government, a delegation of senior Congress leaders met President Pranab Mukerjee to urge him to turn down the Centre’s impending recommendation to revoke President’s Rule. Now that it has formally been recommended, the ball lies in the president’s court.
While the arch rivals are keeping their fingers crossed hoping the president acts in their favour and Pul hoping he remains “a Congressman”, Narayanswamy contended, “Finally, the constitutionality of the issue will have to be decided by the Supreme Court.”