Arunachal Crisis – Battle moves to Supreme Court

The article has been co-authored by Suryakiran Tiwari (aka Politicalbaaba) and Subhash Chandra (Political Insights Consultant) and written before Supreme Court notice to center.


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The Union Cabinet has recommended President’s Rule in the state of Arunachal Pradesh which has been facing a political crisis since November. This was announced just before Amit Shah was re-elected as president of BJP.

The government which is already facing the heat after Pathankot attacks and suicide of Dalit student could have easily spared itself of taking this controversial decision. And that too, when the matter is in Supreme Court.

Background of the Crisis in Arunachal

The crisis began to take shape from December 2014 when health minister Kalikho Pul was dropped from the Cabinet. Numerous other MLAs and ministers were dropped over most of 2015.

In early November, 21 out of the 47 Congress MLAs rebelled and refused to attend the Congress legislature party meeting.

While most of the concerns around dissidence is around poor development under the CM Nabam Tuki (Arunachal is in the bottom 3 amongst the 29 States when it comes to per capita income growth since 2005), the fact that the nature of dissidence is correlated to who is in power in the Centre indicates a deeper problem with the political structure in the state.

In mid-December last year, Congress dissidents, with the support of BJP MLAs and two independents, impressed upon the Governor to advance the winter session of the assembly. Sensing trouble, the Speaker disqualified 14 dissident Congress MLAs a day before the session started.

The assembly convened outside of the Vidhan Sabha and the Deputy Speaker, presiding over the session, repealed the disqualification order. Then, as a next step, the dissidents passed a resolution to impeach the Speaker. Later BJP and rebel Congress MLAs passed a no-confidence motion against Tuki-led Congress government and chose Pul as the new CM.

Tuki and his 26 supporting MLAs (22 Congress plus 5 MLAs of PAP) boycotted the proceedings terming them “illegal and unconstitutional”.

On 17th December, the Gauhati High Court passed an interim order staying all actions of the Deputy Speaker and the controversial session, keeping any new session in abeyance till February 2, 2016, on an appeal filed by the Speaker. The court also passed strong strictures against the Governor.

Meanwhile Congress stalled the parliamentary proceedings for many days during the winter session accusing the central government of “killing democracy” by attempting to split the state legislature party. BJP vehemently denied the allegations.

On 13th January, 2016, single bench judge of Gauhati High Court vacated the interim order that kept in abeyance the assembly proceedings. On 15th January 2016, a bench comprising 2 judges of the Supreme Court ordered that the matters pertained to constitutional provisions on the rights of the Governor, the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker and hence needed to be decided by a larger bench. It decided to maintain status quo, meaning Tuki continued as CM.

Parallels with the 2003 split 

Ever since the end of the 19 years of the Gegong Apang regime in 1999, Arunachal Pradesh has had 5 chief ministers in a span of 17 years. No chief minister has completed a full term of 5 years during this period.

A similar sort of split was played out in 2003 when Gegong Apang split the Congress party in 2003 to form a government with support from the BJP. This was the time of the NDA government at the Centre. Soon after the UPA government came to power in 2004, Apang went back to the Congress and contested the next election under the Congress symbol.

Political and Security Impact

Impact on Parliament Session

Congress has said it will challenge the order if it manages to get presidential nod. If the president doesn’t give his assent or the courts overturn/ stay the order, it will cause much embarrassment to the Modi government.

On top of it, the government doesn’t have majority in Rajya Sabha. It will struggle to get it passed and may end up revoking the same, like Vajpayee had to in case of Bihar in 1999.

After killing of 11 Dalits in Narayanpur, Vajpayee clamped President Rule in Bihar citing break-down of law and order, but revoked it within 26 days.

However, it is baffling as to why such a decision, which will be categorised as undemocratic by the Opposition, is taken for a tiny state like Arunachal (unless there are some national security related issues with China which has not been made public).

The state sends only 2 MPs to Lok Sabha and is not politically significant from the view of national politic.. Arunachal has one member in the Rajya Sabha, Mukut Mithi who represents the Congress party and is due for retirement in 2020.

So, the change in government in Arunachal Pradesh will have no bearing on the Rajya Sabha. This issue will surely give opposition an issue on a platter to unite against the BJP government.

The very important budget session is scheduled in a month’s time and this issue will rock the Parliament for sure. Any hopes of reconciliation with Congress on GST have been dwindled by this move.

Impact on BJP image

The Governor’s conduct and BJP’s strategy shows that its machinations are no different from the heydays of the Congress party when dissidents were encouraged to split a legitimately elected ruling party.

Of course, the Congress party also compounded the situation by encouraging the Speaker to disqualify 14 rebel Congress MLAs without sound basis. Instead of using the Governor route, the party should have supported a legal route to ensure that the Tuki government was defeated in the floor of the house.

Alternatively, if the Tuki government would have failed to prove majority in January 2016 (scheduled time of winter session), BJP could have clamped President’s Rule and ordered fresh elections or explore ways of forming alternative government, which would then look justified.

The whole episode now looks like BJP resorting to ruling the state by proxy through Governor, after failing to back out and form a government led by Congress dissidents.

Is Amit Shah using Arunachal to regain hold of his leadership within the party given the dual setbacks of Delhi and Bihar? With a difficult election scheduled in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh could be showcased as a quick win under Shah’s leadership

Security issues:

Arunachal Pradesh is a frontline state with China and the Chinese have claimed Tawang for themselves. The infrastructure in this border state is of the lowest quality given the absence of investments and economic development.

Continuous political uncertainty has led to lack of focus on development with chief ministers more focused on saving the chair instead of developing the state

Historic Perspective of President’s Rule

In the history of political system in India, President’s Rule has been imposed 125 times. The highest instances have been for Manipur (10), UP (9), Bihar and Punjab (8 each). Indira Gandhi’s tenure as PM has seen the highest number of such proclamations (51/124; 41 per cent).

In 1960s-80s of Indian elections history during Indira Gandhi’s (1966-84) and Janata Party’s rule (1977-1980) this was very prevalent. Whenever a new government was sworn in at the Centre, it would dismiss many opposition-ruled states and order fresh polls despite them having majority.

In 1977, when the Janata Party-led government was formed, it dismissed 9 Congress-ruled states including Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Orissa, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka.

In 1980 when Indira was voted back to power, she, in turn, dismissed Janata Party governments in the nine states of Rajasthan, Bihar, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, UP, MP, Orissa and Punjab.

Landmark Judgements with respect to Article 356

The Sarkaria Commission Report on Center-state relations recommended in 1988 that Article 356 must be used “very sparingly, in extreme cases, as a measure of last resort, when all the other alternatives fail to prevent or rectify a breakdown of constitutional machinery in the state”.

In a landmark judgment in 1993 (S R Bommai vs Union of India), the Supreme Court laid down strict guidelines to restrict the misuse of Article 356. Two important guidelines of Supreme Court in this respect are:

  1. Whether a government enjoys majority or not shall only be determined on the floor of the house.
  2. It is justified only when there is a breakdown of constitutional machinery and not administrative machinery.

After this order, the instances of proxy rule through Governors have reduced. Majority (101/124) President Rule instances happened before 1994. Until the SC decision on the SR Bommai case, there were on an average 2.2 cases of President’s Rule every year. However, since 11 March 1994, there have been only 22 cases at the rate of nearly 1.04 per year.

Supreme Court hearing

The Supreme Court referred to a larger constitutional bench given the complexity of the roles played by the Governor, Speaker and the Deputy Speaker. In our view, the court is likely to address the following 3 questions:

  1. The role of Governor in advancing the assembly session
  2. The role of the Speaker in disqualifying 14 rebel Congress MLAs without any factual basis will also come under heavy scrutiny
  3. The role of the deputy speaker in presiding over a session in a make shift location

In sum

The BJP government appears to have offered a stick to the Opposition to beat it with during the Budget session, thereby triggering more disruption.

It is unclear if this is a high-level strategy to show the Congress party in poor light, but any slowdown in economic growth will impact the people of India more than the BJP and the Congress party.

Also, given the current deliberations on this issue in the Supreme Court, it is unclear what triggered this decision and why the hurry. Also, the continued disruption in such a sensitive border state with little economic growth is a matter of serious security concern.

The political developments in Arunachal Pradesh have all the elements and drama of a Bollywood movie. One hopes for a quick resolution of this issue given the serious implications on the country’s development and security.

This article was originally published at DailyO.

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