31 December 2015

Arunachal Pradesh is no ordinary state, it is a hyper-sensitive bone of diplomatic contention with China and with the winds of local insurgency sweeping the Northeast, it is also susceptible to

Bhopinder Singh
Arunachal Pradesh is no ordinary state, it is a hyper-sensitive bone of diplomatic contention with China and with the winds of local insurgency sweeping the Northeast, it is also susceptible to errors of omission and commission on the free-flowing democratic and constitutional impulses of the border state. History is replete with unfortunate instances of playing partisan politics and compromising on constitutional freedom (e.g. Jammu and Kashmir in the ’80s and ’90s) that had triggered local separatist tendencies in the veritable tinderbox of any border state. Therefore, it is even more important to demonstrate our finest constitutional commitment and guarantees as a nation to ward of any external and internal questions on the correctness of all political and executive actions.

The gubernatorial disquiet in Arunachal Pradesh begets a more profound inquiry than the one that often gets mired in the legalities and technicalities of constitutional articles and clauses. J.P. Rajkhowa was the preferred choice of the prevailing political dispensation at the Centre and, therefore, chosen to replace the incumbent midterm as the 19th governor of Arunachal Pradesh. Questions were raised at the time about an Assamese in the Itanagar Raj Bhawan, given the fractious sentiment and scepticism of the Arunachalese with regard to Assam and its unresolved border disputes that are felt locally to be even more important, than the ones with China on the McMahon Line.

But every Central government is in its democratic right to select and appoint the person it deems most appropriate to uphold the tenets and spirit of the Indian Constitution and rise beyond partisan politics, thus, the filter of not selecting an incumbent from the state, or one who has participated in active politics recently, has ideally detached him/herself from local politics of the state.

However, the filter is not foolproof and it allows for an incumbent who can still “manage” or “influence” local politics, whilst ticking all the points in the filter box. Each and every party since Independence has been guilty of facilitating such appointments. The incumbents toe the political line of those to whom they owe their appointment, instead of ensuring the loftiness of being the constitutional conscience keeper of politics in a state. The impasse in Itanagar needs to be contextualised and evaluated from this prism of determining whether any active role was played by the governor in helping the principal Opposition party in the state — the Bharatiya Janata Party (also the ruling party at the Centre) — to foment trouble against the Congress, the ruling party in the state.

So the question begs the point: Did the governor know the import of summoning a three-day Winter Session without the state government recommending the same or making the deputy Speaker “chair” the “session”? Article 174 ostensibly empowers the governor to summon and also prorogue the Assembly, decide timing and cancellation — however, it needs to be read in context of the legally established position via various judgments, requiring the governor’s conduct to be in line with the “advice” of the chief minister and his Council of Ministers of the state (as long as they are not compromising the constitutional correctness by way of their “advice”). It would be politically naïve and highly improbable of the governor to be unaware of stirring the political hornet’s nest, when pro-actively supporting the partisan stand of Congress dissidents.

Not surprisingly, Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Nabam Tuki took the matter to court on the constitutional validity of Mr Rajkhowa’s orders and was able to extract a “stay” on the gubernatorial “over-reach” by way of “partisan” decisions, willy-nilly establishing the questionable and overtly political moves, prima facie. Perhaps, the temptation of the local Arunachal Pradesh politics and intra-party intrigues of the Congress had opened the window of opportunity to destabilise the incumbent Congress chief minister and embarrass the grand old party? This episode should not be assessed in terms of the adequacy or legality of constitutional clauses, but the adequacy of constitutional spirit (which mandates a certain political aloofness and sobriety).

The questions as to the urgency of certain gubernatorial actions that would have precipitated a political crisis remain unanswered, thereby bringing the governor’s office to question, who, like the proverbial Caesar’s wife ought to be above suspicion!

There is a fine difference between the “active” dispensing of a constitutional responsibility like that of a President/governor and a “political” role — the opposite of a “rubber-stamp” office is not necessarily, “politically active”.

One of India’s fore-most Presidents, K.R. Narayanan was an epitome of constitutional balance and correctness when he unfailingly acted on the aid and advice of the Union Cabinet (a Congress appointee, he served the majority of his term with the BJP at the Centre), yet expressed his mind whenever he felt the constitutional spirit was compromised, without going public or becoming an activist that would have undermined his constitutional role and visible conformity.

He politely made his point, when refusing presidential assent, returning them for “reconsideration”, the moral burden of which ensured the requisite correction or acquiescence. Recently, in the wake of the Dadri lynching and the subsequent downplaying by the prevailing political dispensation, President Pranab Mukherjee’s astute and sobering comment of “tolerance (being) core to India’s survival” had the requisite impact and received acknowledgement from the government.

In the case of the crisis in Arunachal Pradesh, one does not suggest gubernatorial “inaction” or “rubber-stamp”, but the need for incumbents who bring back the much needed constitutional succour, relief and guarantee to the state constituents in an increasingly divisive, fragmented and politically short-sighted environment. There are enough socio-economic challenges, security issues and burdens of history for India to overcome — ensuring that no one exploits the same internally or externally requires a wise man/woman to rise beyond political partisanship and ensure that the path to constitutional and democratic adherence remains protected.

The writer is former lieutenant-governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry errors

Famous jurist Jeremy Bentham opines, “Every law is an evil because every law is violation of liberty; so government, I say again, can only choose between evils.” He further suggests that a legislator

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