North-east India sees two faces of BJP
The ugly face of India’s ruling party BJP was exposed in Arunachal Pradesh when it systematically abused and violated constitutional procedures by using a governor to remove the Congress government from power. But justice and democracy finally won when the Supreme Court of India intervened to restore constitutional governance in the state. Four months later, the party conducted itself well during the assembly elections in Assam to win it by a huge margin. Now the question is will it be able to repeat that performance in the forthcoming assembly elections in the Congress-ruled Meghalaya, Manipur and Mizoram in the northeast region?
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India appears to be in a hurry to remove Congress-ruled regimes from power in the Northeast.
Arunachal Pradesh, a sensitive border state, was the party’s first target. However, on July 13 2016, the Supreme Court of India prevented a BJP-appointed state governor from executing the plan and restored the Congress government.
The Congress party had won 47 of the 60 seats in the May 2014 assembly elections in Arunachal Pradesh while the BJP got just 11 seats and the Independents two. Congress was, thus, in a comfortable position to ensure stable governance.
Trouble started in December when Chief Minister Nabam Tuki dropped Health Minister Khaliko Pul during a Cabinet reshuffle.
In April 2015, Pul leveled corruption charges against Tuki leading to his expulsion from party.
On June 1, Jyoti Prasad Rajkhowa, a former civil servant from Assam, was appointed Governor as his predecessor was found “ineffective.”
Coming from neighboring Assam, which has a border conflict with Arunachal Pradesh, Rajkhowa was a poor choice for the post.
A political and constitutional crisis soon arose. On November 3, he ordered the state assembly to meet on January 14 2016.
Sometime the same month, a section of Congress MLAs demanded the removal of the Deputy Speaker (pro-BJP) while some pro-BJP MLAs sought the removal of Speaker Nabam Rebia (pro-Congress).
On December 9, the Governor advanced the date of assembly session to December 16. On both occasions, he acted without consulting the chief minister, a constitutional requirement.
On December 15, the state Assembly Speaker (pro-Congress) disqualified 14 of the 21 rebel MLAs (pro-BJP) to prevent the BJP from forming a majority in the assembly. The Deputy Speaker (pro-BJP) quashed the disqualification the same day.
On December 16, the Deputy Speaker declared the Speaker’s decision to not hold the Assembly session on that day illegal. The Chief Minister locked up the Assembly house.
However, the Assembly session was conducted at a community hall, an illegal move. The Speaker was removed from his position by 33 members of assembly.
On December 17, the rebels met at a local hotel after the community hall was razed, another illegal move. Pul was elected leader and he became Chief Minister.
On January 5 2016, the Guwahati High Court stayed the Speaker’s disqualification of 14 MLAs.
On January 13, the Supreme Court of India stayed further proceedings on an appeal from the Speaker. The Court also set up a Constitution Bench to consider the controversial role of the state Governor.
Six months later, on July 13, the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court delivered its judgement finding fault with the actions of the Governor on grounds of constitutional impropriety.
Tuki was reinstated as Chief Minister and the Congress party later appointed Pema Khandu as new Chief Minister on July 16. Khandu later won the vote of confidence in the state assembly.
Governor Rajkhowa went out of his way to promote the formation of the BJP-led government in Arunachal Pradesh in violation of the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court’s path-breaking judgment made a seminal contribution to constitutional governance in the Northeast.
The BJP seemed to have learned a lesson from Arunachal Pradesh. Four months later, it was able to stich a coalition of non-Congress parties and put up a good performance against the faction-ridden Congress party in the state assembly elections in Assam.
It won 86 out of 126 seats in the assembly together with its regional allies Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), the Bodo People’s Organisation (BPO) and various ethnic groups.
One factor that played a key role in BJP’s election victory was the support received from two leading Congressmen who defected to their camp in protest against inefficiency, corruption and dynastic politics of the state Congress party.
Sarbananda Sonowal, one of the defectors, led the BJP’s election campaign while the other, Himanta Biswa Sarma, provided organizational inputs.
This time, the saffron party, instead of focusing on the usual ‘Hindutva’ agenda to win over voters, took a strong stand on a vexed local issue — illegal migration from neighboring Bangladesh.
Accordingly, the party shed its over-centralized model of electioneering and relied on local leadership for alliances and candidates. It thus positioned itself as the protector of the indigenous Assamese identity and appealed to both Hindus and Muslims.
The BJP managed to win 60 seats in the state assembly while the Congress party could muster only 26 seats. BJP allies AGP (14 seats) and the BPO (12 seats) contributed to the tally of 86 seats in a state assembly of 126 seats, a comfortable majority.
The Muslim-dominated All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) led by Badruddin Ajmal won only 13 seats.
Two trump cards were used by the BJP to win the polls: i) the anti-incumbency wave against the corrupt and inefficient Congress government; and ii) the anti-immigration issue weighing heavily on the Assamese middle class.
Following its success in the Assam elections, the BJP has set up the ‘Northeast Democratic Alliance’ (NEDA) consisting of regional parties and leaders to fight the forthcoming elections to the state assemblies of Meghalaya, Manipur and Mizoram, which are ruled by the Congress party.
The BJP in Assam has shown a reluctance to formulate a common minimum program, which could affect its relations with coalition partners. Immigration and citizenship issues along with problems related to inter-state border conflicts need urgent consideration of the coalition government in the state.
It is an open question whether the BJP can overcome its tendency to authoritarianism displayed in Arunachal Pradesh and provide good governance in Assam and the other states of Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram in the Northeast, where it might lead coalition governments.
The writer was a Director General of Police in Northeast India. He is the author of ‘State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India, Routledge, 2016.
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