Arunachal in ugly crisis

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The crisis developing next door in Arunachal Pradesh is ugly and unfortunate. The state, as we all are watching is steeped in controversy once again, though this time it has nothing to do with the periodic claim by China that the state is what traditionally constituted South Tibet, and therefore should rightly belong to it, triggering off vehement protest by India. The current crisis pertains to political defection, and this kind of crisis is also not unfamiliar in the state, and indeed practically all the small states Assemblies of the Northeast where the majority status of a political party can be upset by a few legislators crossing the floor. Compounding Arunachal Pradesh’s crisis is what seemingly is an overt partisan role the Governor of the state, Jyoti Prasad Rajkhowa is playing in arbitrating the tussle.

Like Manipur Arunachal Pradesh has a legislative assembly of 60 members, and in the last Assembly election in 2014, the Congress emerged with an absolute majority, having bagged 42 seats. The party was followed by the BJP with 11 seats and People’s Party of Arunachal, PPA, with 5. Two independents also returned. The PPA subsequently merged with the ruling Congress, leaving the latter with a comfortable 46 members. However, as Manipur is so familiar with, such a big majority can also prove to be the doom of a ruling party. The Anti-Defection Law, besides putting tough restrictions on legislators crossing floors in the Assembly, also puts a low ceiling on the size of the cabinet. In small Assemblies of 60 or less legislators, this number has been fixed at 12 including the Chief Minister, almost predicating unrest in the party at the time of awarding ministerial positions.

Quite apparently, Congress Chief Minister, Nabam Tuki is feeling the heat a year after assuming power with a dissident movement building up within his legislative party. It is reported that a total of 27 Congress rebel MLAs have been camping in New Delhi to demand the ouster of his government, although only 21 of them ultimately signed the petition. If these 21 join the BJP, a no confidence motion in the Arunachal Assembly now would surely mean the doom of the Tuki government. However the Winter Session of the Arunachal Assembly is due only in mid-January. The Governor stepped in here to advance the Assembly session by about a month to December 15, a move widely seen was aimed at facilitating the BJP to form the next government in partnership with the Congress rebels. He also allowed the first and foremost agenda item of the Winter Session to be a motion moved by the Opposition for the removal of the Speaker Nabam Rebia.

Speaker Nabam Rebia however refused to allow the December 16 Assembly session. He also reportedly claimed he had earlier disqualified 14 of the 21 rebels by the provisions of the Anti Defection Law. With the blessing of the Governor however the opposition and rebel Congress legislators, went ahead and held the session with Deputy Speaker TN Thongdok in the chair. Since the Legislative Assembly building remained out of bounds, the first day of the rebel session was held in a community hall and the next day in a hotel conference room. The session not only impeached the Speaker but also passed a no-confidence motion against the chief minister. It also elected former finance minister Kalikho Pul as leader of the House.

The Speaker Rebia approached the Gauhati High Court with a writ petition on December 9 and on Thursday the court stayed till February 1 the Governor’s order to advance the Assembly session, describing the development in Arunachal Pradesh as disturbing. The Governor, according to reports, in the meantime has made it known he would be challenging the High Court’s stay order. The situation is also complicated because the amended Anti-Defection Law does not allow defection at all, even if the dissidents form one thirds of their original legislative party, as was the rule before the 2004 amendment to this 1985 law. A party can merge with another and this clearly cannot happen in the present case. A party can also split first and then the breakaway faction merge with another party, but for a split not to attract penal provisions of the Anti-Defection Law, at least two thirds of the legislative party has to agree to split. This number however has remained elusive for the rebels in the troubled Arunachal Congress.

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