J.P. Rajkhowa: The Fall From Grace of a 'Committed' Governor

The outgoing governor will go down in history for overstepping his powers to such an extent that he even directed assembly sessions be held in a community hall and a hotel.

J.P. Rajkhowa. Credit: Twitter

J.P. Rajkhowa. Credit: Twitter

New Delhi: Now that the Arunachal Pradesh governor Jyoti Prasad Rajkhowa has lost “the pleasure of the President”, the north eastern state is all set to get its 21st governor in its 29 years of statehood.

As per a press communique issued by the President’s Office on Monday evening, Rajkhowa will be replaced by Meghalaya Governor V. Shanmugananthan “until regular arrangements for the office of the Governor are made”.

The dismissal of Rajkhowa, formerly Assam’s chief secretary, will certainly not go down in history as yet another routine matter. Rather, he will be seen in the country’s constitutional annals as a governor who tried to tweak the rule book so much – to seemingly deliver to his political masters a “Congress mukt” Arunachal – that he even went to the extent of calling assembly sessions in a community hall and then in a hotel – for the first time ever.

The power debacle

On December 16, 2015, with Rajkhowa’s consent, 22 rebel Congress legislators and 11 BJP MLAs met at a community hall in Naharlagun, 10 km from capital city Itanagar, since the state government had used the police to seal the assembly premises. For the first time in the legislative history of India, a set of elected members officially met outside the assembly premises for a session. The legislators passed a no-confidence motion against speaker Nabam Rebia.

A day later, they met at a hotel to pass yet another no-confidence motion, this time against the state government, and to elect Kalikho Pul, a rebel Congress MLA then, as the new ‘chief minister’.

Responding to questions from the media on why the assembly premises was locked up by the government, then Chief Minister Nabam Tuki reportedly blamed Rajkhowa, claiming he had no option left as the governor has bypassed the constitutional provision that stipulated the chief minister and cabinet must be consulted when setting a date for an assembly session. Although the Tuki cabinet informed the governor that it preferred to begin the session on January 14, Rajkhowa preponed it to December 16.

Rajkhowa asserted that he “took every decision based on the constitution.” Speaking to media persons, he pointed to Article 174 of the constitution to argue that it “empowers a governor to summon and also prorogue the assembly, including cancelling a session or rescheduling it.” According to him, his decision to bring forward the session was in response to a notice sent by certain opposition members to the assembly secretary for a resolution to remove the speaker. The copy of the notice sent to him came “with a prayer to prepone” it. He said he took the decision because such a notice ideally had to be acted upon after a 14-day period.

On July 13, the Supreme Court, hearing a bunch of cases related to the governor’s actions, including suggesting president’s rule to the Centre, however, ruled that Rajkhowa’s decisions were “illegal and unconstitutional”. In its 331-page judgement, the bench called the happenings in the state leading to the president’s rule as a “thrashing given to the constitution and a spanking to governance.”

The court noted that a governor is not an elected representative, but only an executive nominee whose powers flow from the aid and advice of the cabinet. Using discretionary powers to summon or dissolve assembly sessions without the aid and advice of the chief minister and his cabinet is plainly unconstitutional.

“The governor is not an ombudsman for the legislature nor the speaker’s mentor. The governor cannot require the speaker to discharge his functions in the manner he considers constitutionally appropriate,” the judgement said.

The court held that what happens within the four walls of a political party is none of the governor’s concern. All Rajkhowa did here, the court said, was to use his constitutional authority to ostensibly favour an “invalid breakaway group” of MLAs disqualified under the Tenth Schedule.

Standing his ground

Just a few days before the Supreme Court was to deliver its judgment reinstating the Congress government in the state, Rajkhowa went on sick leave. Tripura Governor Tathagata Roy was brought in by the Centre as the acting governor. Roy conducted the oath of office of the current Chief Minister Pema Khandu on July 17.

Rajkhowa returned to Raj Bhavan on August 13. However, the embarrassment faced by the BJP government at the Centre due to the Supreme Court’s order made Rajkhowa’s continuation in the position untenable. The party preferred Rajkhowa to step down voluntarily on “health grounds”.

He, however, refused to do so, stating to the media: “Let them dismiss me. Let the president withdraw his pleasure.”

“Rajkhowa was clearly angry at the Centre’s action after having facilitated the rebel MLAs and the BJP state legislators to form a government in the state. He was angry that he was being given all the blame for the fiasco,” a BJP source in Guwahati told this correspondent. That he asked in an interview to the Guwahati-based news channel DY365, “What wrong have I done?” has to be seen in that context.

Rajkhowa also said in the interview, “I do not have a single blot in my long career. The government must have appointed me as governor on the basis of my spotless track record.”

Many in Assam agree. Until the Arunachal episode, Rajkhowa had the reputation of a clean, disciplined, senior IAS officer. According to a report on Rajkhowa after his retirement in 2013 in the Guwahati-based English daily The Sentinel, “During his numerous postings, Rajkhowa has also faced a number of transfers, and all these because he has always been honest with his work and has never succumbed to any pressure – either from his seniors or from the Ministers.”

Rajkhowa was quoted as saying, “While I was the Deputy Commissioner, Kamrup, under my supervision an eviction drive was carried out at various parts of the city (Guwahati). When the Fancy Bazar area was evicted, on the path of eviction there came a mandir. We faced a lot of difficulties to bring that temple down. I was forced by a number of senior officials and ministers to spare the mandir, and to them all I said was that whatever comes in the path of eviction, would be evicted. Nothing would be spared as this is not correct.”

That such an upright officer who always remained on the side of the law and did not seem to come under any political and religious pressure would agree to sidestep the constitution to facilitate his political bosses in Delhi to “help” bring down an elected government, is still difficult to believe for many in Assam.

Similarly, it is still difficult to reconcile for many Arunachal locals that the episode triggered the untimely death of a young, promising politician from the state. It is apparent that Pul, who became the state chief minister due to Rajkhowa’s actions, was taken down a garden path by a clasp of power hungry politicians from New Delhi and the Northeast without keeping the constitutional provisions in mind. Ultimately, the humiliation of losing his chair suddenly and the forcible return to a party (Congress) he discarded in disgust led him to kill himself on August 9.

Now that the drivers of the murky politics that ultimately led to Pul’s suicide were successful in remaining in the shadows, the entire responsibility of that dark episode of constitutional history would be inscribed under the name of Rajkhowa alone.

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