The Supreme Court order on July 13 reinstating the Congress government in Arunachal Pradesh came as a rare piece of good news for the party, which has had little to cheer about of late. Though the party declared its legal and moral victory over the BJP and Central government, it desisted from celebrating.
Shortly after the judgment, Nabam Tuki, who had been reinstated as chief minister, made a quiet visit to the Congress headquarters in Delhi. A senior leader said the party advised him to capitalise on the court order and get the numbers to win a vote of confidence.
Tuki was woefully short of numbers—only 15 members in an assembly of 58 supported him. The party had the tough task of getting the rebels back and ensure that the Congress stayed in power. What was to be done had to be done silently, so as to take the opponent by surprise.
The onus was on Tuki—either get the numbers for himself or make way for someone else. Party president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi, whom Tuki met after the court order, clearly told him that there had to be a Congress government in the state. And, according to party leaders who oversaw the operations, Tuki was the real hero of the episode, as he got the Congress MLAs back from under the nose of the BJP. “He declared that if it took his resignation to bring back the Congress MLAs, he would do that,” said party secretary K. Jayakumar, who had flown down to Itanagar to supervise the operation.
Tuki had very little time to get back the 29 rebels, who had left the party along with his bête noire Kalikho Pul. At around 9pm on the day of the court order, he received an email from Governor Tathagata Roy, which made it clear that he had even less time than he thought. The letter, while reinstating him as chief minister, asked him to prove majority by July 16.
Tuki quickly took over as chief minister at his camp office in Arunachal Bhawan in Delhi. The next day, he flew to Itanagar and began calling up the rebels. He had been in touch with the MLAs over the past two months, trying to sort out the differences. The idea was to capture those rebels who were unhappy with Pul’s style of functioning and with the BJP. Pul had rebelled accusing Tuki of corruption. He had taken charge as chief minister, with the BJP's support, after Tuki’s government had been dismissed by the then Governor J.P. Rajkhowa. Pul had taken charge even as the case against the dismissal of the Tuki government and imposition of president’s rule was being heard in the Supreme Court.
When Tuki conveyed to the rebels that he was ready to step down, they were willing to come back. He had earlier got a positive indication from Pema Khandu, MLA and son of former chief minister Dorjee Khandu. In the last-minute negotiations, it turned out that the young Khandu had the support of 11 MLAs. Another group of six MLAs headed by Chowna Mein, who was Pul’s deputy in the government, also agreed to return to the Congress.
Tuki had hectic discussions with the rebels even as the rebels enjoyed the hospitality of the BJP at a five-star hotel in Guwahati. In fact, so confident was the BJP of the numbers that Pul paraded 42 MLAs before the media on the night of July 14.
The BJP’s new acquisition from the Congress in Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, is now its pointman for the northeast. Sarma declared the support of majority of the MLAs for Pul on the evening of July 15. On the face of it, it appeared that the BJP would make up for the defeat in court by tripping the Congress government on numbers in the trust vote.
However, in a silent operation that lasted 48 hours under the supervision of Congress general secretaries C.P. Joshi and Mukul Wasnik, and Jayakumar, Tuki worked on the differences in the group to get every one of the rebels to return. Pul was the last to agree to come back. “Congress always had majority in the house. It was a question of reconciling the different groups, and we did that. They were all Congress MLAs, and even the judgment of the court underlined that,” said Jayakumar.
Once Khandu and Mein had returned to the fold with their supporters, the rest had no option but to come back or face disqualification. By the time the 29 rebels left for Itanagar in the wee hours of July 16, the day of the trust vote, their allegiance had changed without the knowledge of the BJP. In the Congress legislature party meeting that followed, Tuki stepped down and Khandu was elected as the new leader. Khandu, 37, became the youngest chief minister in the country.
“The Supreme Court and now the people and legislators of Arunachal Pradesh have decisively rejected the politics of defections and of unseating elected governments through a concerted, well-planned and executed conspiracy,” said Randeep Surjewala, chairman of the Congress's communications department.
The BJP said the entire episode had only brought out the problems in the Congress. “The latest developments only show that Tuki did not have majority. This proves that the governor’s decisions were correct,” said BJP national secretary Shrikant Sharma.
The Arunachal victory, which came close on the heels of the court’s castigation of the Centre for imposing president’s rule in Uttarakhand and the Congress government getting reinstated after a trust vote, has given the Congress a moral high ground. It has also emboldened the party to attack the BJP over the alleged attempts to destabilise Congress governments.