President’s Rule in Arunachal Pradesh: The BJP is headed towards yet another PR disaster

To track latest political developments and to understand their import on Indian polity, it is always advisable to first take a look at Arvind Kejriwal’s Twitter feed.

With the speed of Usain Bolt and the reliability of a Rolex, Kejriwal will unerringly shoot the first arrow if any development has even a remote chance of discomfiting Narendra Modi.

The fact that he didn’t disappoint on Monday is ample proof that the BJP has run into yet another PR disaster, this time over the Cabinet’s decision to impose President’s Rule in Arunachal Pradesh.

Hardly have the embers died over Rohith Vemula’s suicide that the Centre now finds itself sucked into the vortex of another controversy that has quickly formed the latest coalescing point for its national and regional rivals.

Calling it a “travesty of constitutional mandate, subjugation of federalism and trampling of democracy”, a smarting Congress has threatened to move the Supreme Court while Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has expressed his “strong condemnation”.

What really happened?

In an unscheduled meeting chaired by the Prime Minister on Sunday, the Union Cabinet has recommended the imposition of President’s rule in Congress-ruled Arunachal Pradesh and has sent it to President Pranab Mukherjee for assent. Some media reports, however, indicate the President signed on the dotted line on Sunday night.

The Centre seems to have acted on a report from governor Jyoti Prashad Rajkhowa who sought New Delhi’s intervention to prevent the border state from slipping into a ‘constitutional crisis’.

The immediate political crisis was triggered on 16 December, 2015 when 21 of the 47 Congress MLAs in the 60-member House, along with 11 BJP and two Independent MLAs, decided to “impeach” Assembly speaker Nabam Rebia from a makeshift venue in Itanagar.

The impasse, however, started in June last year when the Speaker fired 14 Congress rebel MLAs. Subsequently, two cabinet ministers were also forced to resign. The Congress still formed a majority with 26 MLAs since the House strength had reduced to 44 with the suspension of 16.

It wasn’t long before deputy speaker TN Thongdok passed an impeachment motion against the Speaker for “allegedly acting in a biased manner due to his personal relation with CM Nabam Tuki.”

Governor Rajkhowa, a former BJP leader, accepted the impeachment motion and revoked the suspension of 16 rebel MLAs despite the House being dysfunctional.

This sparked a chain of events that culminated in Assembly sessions being conducted in community halls and hotel conference rooms (since the Assembly House was kept under lock and key) in which Speaker Rebia was impeached and a no-confidence motion passed against CM Tuki.

The Speaker subsequently approached the Gauhati High Court, which put an immediate stay on the legislative process. The matter is now before the Supreme Court.

Did Centre violate federal integrity?

Going by the letter of the Constitution, no.

If the Supreme Court rules in favour of the interpretation that the makeshift sessions were invalid, there will be a Constitutional breakdown because Article 174 states that six months shall not intervene between the last sitting of the Assembly in one session and the date appointed for its first sitting in the next session. The next session should therefore have taken place at the latest by January 21, 2016.

On the other hand, if the court holds that the 16 December session was valid, then it seems the Tuki government is in a minority and is therefore not allowing a vote of confidence. In either case, the state is heading for a constitutional crisis.

The Centre’s hands will also be strengthened by reports of gherao and blockade of Raj Bhavan by some Congress MLAs which amounts to a Constitutional breakdown since the Governor is a nominee of the President. Reports also indicate that there was flouting of Article 167(b) of the Constitution as the Tuki government was not responding to the Governor’s letters.

In fact, imposition of President’s rule, it can be argued, is an ethical move by the Centre which could have easily allowed the formation of a BJP coalition government if it had acted in a skewed manner.

Losing the perception battle

Be that as it may, the BJP is staring at yet another firefight. Though in accordance with Constitutional provisions, the Cabinet receommendation has already been dubbed “unconstitutional” by Kejriwal. He said the BJP is trying to “grab power through the back door.”

Congress leader Kapil Sibal has accused the BJP of trying to destabilize the border state. “This is political intolerance and Modi is the fountainhead of that intolerance,” said the former Union minister.

“From Hyderabad to Arunachal Pradesh, the BJP is spreading their message of intolerance. This is plain and simple coercive federalism,” the Congress leader said during a news conference on Monday.

In the arena of political debates where punchlines and over-the-top reactions are suited to high octane TV debates, it is difficult to explain the nitty gritties of Constitution or legal jurisprudence.

What one remembers is Rohith Vemula’s grief-stricken mother rejecting the ex-gratia offered by the government or the optics of Centre overthrowing a democratically elected government.

Arunachal Pradesh development will be another addition to a string of BJP’s PR disasters.

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