Kalikho Pul, a Politician With an Unfinished Mission

Pul’s death can be seen as much as a reminder of what political ambition can lead to as a marker of the dark games our political parties play.

Kalikho Pul at his chief ministerial swearing-in ceremony. Credit: PTI

Kalikho Pul at his chief ministerial swearing-in ceremony. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: He was a man consumed by political ambition. He was a politician in a hurry.

Caught in a political whirlwind that pushed him down an emotional abyss, he decided to take his own life, leaving behind five young children, and a horde of supporters and opponents bound together by utter shock and disbelief.

Early in the morning of August 9, Arunachal Pradesh’s eighth chief minister, 47-year- old Kalikho Pul, killed himself by hanging from a ceiling fan in the official chief minister’s bungalow he was yet to vacate for his successor – fellow Congress rebel turned head of state, Pema Khandu.

Till the end of 2015, Pul was a nobody for the New Delhi-based media. In 2014, after he was ousted by Nabam Tuki from his ministry, he camped at New Delhi’s Arunachal Bhavan for months on end to plead to the then Congress Arunachal in-charge, V. Narayanswamy, to facilitate a meeting with party vice president Rahul Gandhi. He admittedly knew “no Delhi journalist” nor did any “Delhi journalist” bother to know who he was.

They didn’t need to. In the pyramid of daily ‘national’ news, the space for the Northeast is close to non-existent; he stood no chance of cornering any air time or print space.

The national media came to know of Pul only after things began to heat up in the state, December 2015 onwards. Former Assam chief secretary J.P. Rajkhowa, placed in Arunachal as the governor by the Narendra Modi government in June 2015, embarked on an extra constitutional journey to first bring forward the state assembly session and then delineate an agenda that included ousting incumbent speaker Nabam Rebia and electing of Pul as the new leader.

By January 2016, when the Centre announced president’s rule in the state and provoked the Congress to move court, the Delhi-based media began reaching out to Pul – the leader of the 21 Congress dissidents who held the key to the BJP’s aim of forming a ‘Congress mukt‘ government in the state.

The first time I called Pul, in August 2015, he was still a few months away from the national limelight. On hearing his caller tune – the Shakira hit number ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ – the first thought was certainly what kind of politician would be at the other end of the line.

Pul came across as a dejected Congressman then, unhappy that his own party “doesn’t want to listen” to him. He was open about how he felt, “I am saying to the leadership that Tuki has lost his position of a leader as more and more MLAs are getting unhappy with him but all they say is ‘we can’t do anything about it. We have chosen him as the leader and you have to follow him. If you question him, you are the trouble maker’. There is no democracy in the party.” He also said, “I told the party, don’t make me a CM, make someone else, but change Tuki.” In April that year, the party had expelled him for six years.

When I met Pul for the first time at Arunachal Bhavan on a cold January morning this year, the state was under president’s rule. He surrounded himself with photocopies of papers issued by different departments of the state government. Thrusting some at me, he tried driving home a point, “There is rampant corruption in the state, massive financial indiscipline. The Tuki government has a lot to answer for. Journalists should look at it. I am not asking you to write about it just like that. I am giving you evidence,” said Pul, once Tuki’s health minister.

“I was Arunachal’s finance minister for many years; I served as a minister under four chief ministers. But never have I seen such fiscal indiscipline. Since 2013, the Tuki government has been taking overdrafts from the Reserve Bank of India. It led the RBI to order the State Bank of India a couple of times to stop payment to the state. It stopped the salaries to government employees for months together, also scholarships to poor students,” he told The Wire then.

That day, Pul was very different from a helpless, dejected Congressman. Over cups of tea, sitting on the edge of a sofa, he excitedly embarked on a monologue. His words reflected great hope. He said he would “mean business soon”. On asked whether he would be the next state chief minister, he laughed saying, “If I become the HCM (honourable chief minister), I will give you the first interview.”

By then, there were enough hints to guess that the BJP had reached out to Pul to put pressure on the Congress high command for a change of leadership in Arunachal. Otherwise, it would help him take the lead to form a government in the state through a governor whom Pul termed as “friendly to the BJP”.

I never got down to doing that story based on those papers that did not seem to be in consonance with the allegations he made. But over the next few months, that caller tune became familiar.

In February, when he took over as the state chief minister, I reminded him of his promise. He was frank enough, “I will give a detailed interview but this is not the time. I still don’t know for how long I will be in the CM’s office. Let the Supreme Court judgment come. It will come soon, I am sure. And it will be in our favour. Then I am the full-fledged HCM.”

Eye on the top job

As a politician who was a minister for 20 of his 21 years as an MLA, Pul could have made for an interesting interview.

A popular leader of the Kaman Mishimi tribe, he lost his parents at a very young age and worked as a carpenter, a night watchman and a paan seller to fund his education – in economics and later in law.

Beginning his public life as a popular student leader, Pul soon got the attention of the state Congress. He contested the assembly elections for the first time in 1995 and climbed the ladder of success in an impressively short amount of time. He won five times from the Hauliang constituency.

He was certainly pushed by a strong sense of political ambition. Conversations with him easily revealed that the chief minister’s chair was his aim. He also wanted to “make Arunachal a developed state”. He could go on and on about how to “boost tourism in Arunachal, give people better healthcare”. Eager to be a people’s man, he began a weekly janata darbar, a one-of-a-kind platform for the people of the state to meet their chief minister with their grievances.

In March this year, when he formed the People’s Party of Arunachal to run the government in the state, sworn in by Rajkhowa a few weeks before, his ambition of having his “own party” was very much alive. But he was increasingly aware that he was turning into a dummy BJP chief minister. The feeling set in that he was being made to follow the Modi’s government roadmap on governance, as implemented by other states ruled by the party. During a telephonic conversation, he hinted that he was uncomfortable. The astute politician that he was, he also knew he needed the support of the BJP government at the Centre to keep the Congress from unseating him.

In May, when a Buddhist monk was killed in police firing in an anti-dam protest in Tawang, I called Pul again. That familiar Shakira caller tone was gone.

“Now I am the HCM, it doesn’t look good,” he said. More seriously, he was not too happy about the prospect of the national media doing a story on the monk’s killing and, unlike in the past, curtly directed me to the chief of his public relations office to get the official response. I reminded him yet again of that promised interview. He said, “Come to Itanagar.”

Losing power

The news of the BJP consolidating support of the region’s regional parties through a political platform, the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) was turning into a reality. When asked, Pul was tightlipped, saying, “You will know when it is announced.” For the first time, he accused a section of the media in Delhi of working for “Tuki and Congress”.  Going from eagerness to speak to journalists from Delhi to a sudden deficit of trust was as surprising as it was an indication of his growing worry about losing power. By then, he knew the Tuki camp was reaching out to the MLAs in his camp. He seemed to be desperately seeking allies.

The Supreme Court judgment that Pul – and also Tuki – waited for took six months to come. When the apex court turned the clock back in the state and reinstated Tuki as the chief minister on July 13, Pul, along with all the MLAs that supported his government, had already left Itanagar for Guwahati the day before to attend the formal launch meeting of NEDA. According to a ministerial colleague, “It was to keep all the MLAs together as the Centre anticipated the SC judgment”.

Hours after the judgment, Tuki told The Wire in New Delhi that he was getting a “positive response” from some MLAs. Pul paraded all of them in a Guwahati five-star hotel to reporters and proclaimed, “I am still the CM, I have the majority”.

In the political game that ensued, Khandu came up trumps. Though Pul attended Khandu’s swearing-in ceremony on July 16 at Itanagar, and interacted with Tuki and the others, it was certainly a blow for a man who wanted to stick to the chief minister’s chair, at least for one complete term.

People close to Pul said the sudden loss of power pushed him into a depression. Even though BJP leaders like Ram Madhav and Himanta Biswa Sarma continued giving him hope, saying, “The Arunachal story is not over”, it was not enough to keep his aspirations alive.

Sudhanshu Mittal was the last central BJP leader to have spoken to him. He told media persons on August 9, “I spoke to him last night. He was very agitated. He felt that the SC order was not right. I told him to come to Delhi. He was to come today”.

By then, the invitation from the BJP to strategise further held no meaning for Pul. He seemed to have lost hope in the party’s ability to wrest him the chief ministerial post anytime soon. Having seen one of the murkiest episodes of political power games in the state, he was certainly not ready for yet another.

Pul’s death can be seen as much as a reminder of what political ambition can lead to as a marker of the dark games our political parties play. Pul’s supporters feel both the Congress and the BJP have an indirect role in the untimely death of a promising leader – they blame the Congress for not creating enough legroom for young ambitious leaders to believe in the party and not using them optimally so that they can contribute to public life. (Narayanswamy was not made accountable for leading his party to a crisis situation in Arunachal. Instead, he was made Puducherry chief minister); and they blame the BJP for harvesting on that lacunae in its arch rival by leading Pul through a path that bypassed the very soul of Indian democracy – the constitution.