Respite for Congress in Arunachal Doesn’t Mean Nabam Tuki Can Rest

Whether the rebel MLAs leave their new party to rejoin the Congress and help Tuki form his government is not clear yet. Without that, Tuki will not have the numbers.

Nabam Tuki at Arunachal Bhavan watching the live telecast of Congress leader Kabil Sibal’s press meet just after the SC judgment. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Nabam Tuki at Arunachal Bhavan watching the live telecast of Congress leader Kabil Sibal’s press meet just after the SC judgment. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

New Delhi: Never had Arunachal Bhavan on New Delhi’s Kautilya Marg seen so many journalists descending on it as it did this Wednesday morning.

The line-up of OB vans aside, a marathon session of interviews from multiple news organisations from across the country kept the Congress stalwart from Arunachal Pradesh and the man of the moment – Nabam Tuki – busy. Dressed in a white shirt and trousers, he appeared only too happy to soak in his joy at the “victory” – and the unprecedented media attention.

In interview after interview, Tuki thanked the Supreme Court for “not only reinstating my government but also restoring the democratic set up of the country where a government elected by the people just can’t be dismissed by the Centre by arbitrarily imposing president’s rule.”

On Wednesday morning, hearing Tuki’s plea for reinstatement of his government – which was dismissed on January 26 this year with the imposition of  President’s Rule –  a five-judge bench of the apex court ruled in his favour, stating that the status quo ante prevailing on December 15, 2015, should be restored in the northeastern state.

The apex court’s ruling obviously pointed at what happened a day after December 15, leading eventually to the imposition of president’s rule. In what was widely seen as a move to help the Congress rebels topple the Tuki government, Arunachal governor J.P. Rajkhowa called an assembly session on December 16. Though as per the Constitution, a state governor should convene an assembly session after consulting the council of ministers, Rajkhowa called the session without following that process. In fact, he unilaterally advanced the January 14, 2016 date set for the assembly session called by the council of ministers. Even though the Tuki government opposed the move, Rajkhowa allowed 33 legislators – 11 from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and 20 from the Congress – to hold a session at a community hall in Naharlagun, 10 km away from state capital Itanagar. The governor listed an impeachment move by the rebel legislators against speaker Nabam Rebia as the first item of the session. Deputy speaker Tenzing Norbo Thongduk, in response to the impeachment move, dismissed Rebia as the speaker. Thongduk also reinstated the 14 MLAs Rebia had disqualified under the anti-defection law.

The Supreme Court’s decision has not only set aside the governor’s decision to advance the session to December 16 as “illegal and unconstitutional” but also reinstated Tuki as chief minister and Rebia as the speaker.

From the constitutional point of view, the decision is significant. “The decision is certainly historic because it is also a pronouncement on the  constitutionality of president’s rule, ” said former Lok Sabha secretary general P.D.T. Achary.

Achary told The Wire, “The decision is very close to that of Bommai case where the SC discussed at length Article 356 of the Constitution. That case had a big impact on centre-state relations.” The 1994 SC ruling on the case filed by former Karnataka Chief Minister S.R. Bommai against the Union of India is considered landmark in terms of placing limits on the Centre’s ability to misuse Article 356 – which deals with imposition of president’s rule in a state.

No smooth sailing ahead

I'm back as CM: Letter sent by Nabam Tuki to the acting governor of Arunachal Pradesh

I’m back as CM: Letter sent by Nabam Tuki to the acting governor of Arunachal Pradesh

However, Achary pointed out “practical problems” in the Arunachal case. “I have not seen the judgment but in this case if the rebel Congress legislators have already joined another party to form a fresh government, it may be difficult for Tuki to continue his government.”

Now that he is back as chief minister, Tuki will have to undergo a floor test in the assembly. Of the 47 MLAs that he had, 30 of them are backing the now disqualified Pul government. All of them have joined the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA) floated in March this year by Pul. Two of the 47 MLAs couldn’t join the PPA as they were disqualified by the speaker earlier and were not among the 14 MLAs whose disqualification was stayed by the Gauhati high court in January.

So, that leaves Tuki with only 15 MLAs – 15 short of the halfway mark to gain a majority in the 60-member assembly. Pul also has the support of 11 BJP MLAs.

“I know the judgment is only the beginning and not the end of the chapter… We shall be able to decide the next course of action only after going through the judgment,” Tuki told The Wire. He, however, added, “For me, these MLAs are still Congressmen and I am hopeful that since they were elected as Congress candidates by the people of the state, they should return to the party. Otherwise, if a fresh election happens, how will they go back to the people, considering Pul has not been able to bring out any charge against my government yet.” Tuki is “returning to Arunachal soon from Delhi to have a meeting with all the MLAs and see what they want.”

BJP strategy

One factor he will have to contend with is the preparation the Pul camp – with the support of the BJP and the Centre – has made in anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling going against his government.

On July 10, without stating any particular reason, Rajkhowa went on indefinite leave, which led the Centre to appoint Tripura governor and former BJP chief of West Bengal, Tathagata Roy, as acting Arunachal Governor.

“In hindsight, it is clear that the Centre anticipated the SC ruling and didn’t want Rajkhowa to face the flak. But then, it also needed a trusted BJP man at the post to not make it easy for Tuki to prove his majority to continue his government,” said a Guwahati-based newspaper editor on condition of anonymity. He also said, “Now the biggest worry for the Pul camp is how to keep the MLAs from joining back Tuki. In that context, don’t think the BJP’s decision to launch the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) in Guwahati on the same day of the judgment was a coincidence. On the sidelines of the launch, BJP president Amit Shah met Pul. Obviously BJP has a strategy on how to ride the tide.”

Pul attended the NEDA meeting in Guwahati on Thursday as the leader of the PPA, a part of the BJP’s latest alliance with the regional parties from the Northeast. So did the former Congress MLAs.

Said an Arunachal MLA from the Tuki camp, “With the excuse of attending the NEDA meeting, the BJP leadership and Pul called all the MLAs to Guwahati to keep a watch on them, fearing that they would get in touch with Tuki after the judgment. We are waiting to see how successful they are in their plan. “

Whether those MLAs will leave the new party to rejoin Congress and help Tuki continue his government will become clear in the coming days but what Tuki’s counsel and Congress leader Kapil Sibal said at a press meet in the Congress headquarters in New Delhi just after the apex court’s ruling pointed at the ugly play of politics and money power that the Arunachal episode involved.

Sibal said, “We submitted in the court a tape where a BJP leader asked a businessman to give money to pay the rebel MLAs. He also said that the prime minister and the home minister know about it. It is important to investigate who that leader was and who was that businessman.”