Soon after being sworn in as the 11th Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh on July 17 this year, Pema Khandu travelled to New Delhi to meet his party chief Sonia Gandhi and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi. After Sonia Gandhi and her son kept him waiting for three days, 37-year-old Khandu, the country’s youngest chief minister, sought an appointment with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The PMO promptly obliged within a couple of hours of the request being put in, and Khandu had a fruitful meeting with Modi on the state’s development. It was only after Khandu met Modi that Congress managers scrambled into action and got the latter to meet Sonia and Rahul. But those meetings were short and perfunctory and the ‘Congress High Command’ merely asked Khandu to work well.
Khandu, after returning to state capital Itanagar, related his bitter experience with the top leadership of his own party. “Madam (Sonia) was aloof and detached and advised me to work well for the welfare of the people of the state. Rahulji was absent-minded and seemed to have no interest in what I was saying about Arunachal’s development,” Khandu told a senior colleague.
In contrast, according to Khandu, Modi was warm and an enthusiastic listener. “We had a long meeting and a serious exchange of ideas about Arunachal’s finances and how to speed up the state’s development. The PM was keen to learn about Arunachal’s problems and issues and came across as a person genuinely committed to the development of my state,” Khandu is learnt to have told his colleague.
Is it any wonder that Khandu, and his ministers and MLAs, found it much better to be part of a broader BJP-led alliance than being in the Congress with its ‘High Command’ culture and a leadership that has little knowledge, and lesser interest, in the development of Arunachal Pradesh? Congress organisational leaders, ministers, and even chief ministers from North-Eastern states (and other states as well) are routinely kept waiting for an audience with the imperial High Command that is imperious, impersonal and treats anyone outside the Nehru clan as a lesser mortal.
These slights and mistreatment of elected leaders from the states by Sonia and Rahul, the extortionist demands on state leaders by their venal gatekeepers and the disproportionate influence of (Nehru-Gandhi) family retainers like Ahmed Patel wield are actually the manifestations of the deeper malaise that afflicts the Congress, at least from the perspective of the North-Eastern states.
Khandu’s predecessor Kalikho Pul was kept waiting in New Delhi for months and denied an appointment by Sonia and Rahul last year. It was only when Congress MLAs rebelled against then Chief Minister Nabam Tuki and made Pul their leader that Sonia invited Pul to meet her. But by then it was too late and fast-paced political developments overtook the Congress and the state was brought under President’s Rule.
It is not that the Congress had no inkling about political developments in Arunachal. Two weeks ago, Khandu met Rahul Gandhi and, according to sources in the know, was reminded about the long association of his father Dorjee Khandu (a former CM who died in a chopper crash in April 2011) with the Congress. Congress managers in Delhi had kept tabs on the goings-on in Arunachal and had been regularly warning the High Command about disgruntlement within the ranks in the party with the Congress central leadership.
Some Congress leaders in Delhi were also aware that the July 13 Supreme Court order reinstating the older Congress government after quashing the imposition of President’s Rule in the Himalayan state in end-January this year was no real victory for the Congress. Most of the Congress MLAs had already left the party and joined the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA) that was a constituent of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA). The NEDA, whose formation was announced by BJP president Amit Shah in July, has senior Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma as its convenor.
The Congress MLAs who had joined the PPA were virtually tricked by senior Congress leaders from Delhi into believing that the July 13 apex court order amounted to their indictment for leaving the Congress and that they would be automatically disqualified from their Assembly membership if they didn’t return to the Congress fold. That explains their sudden decision to rejoin the Congress immediately after the SC verdict. But they were unwilling to serve under Nabam Tuki, and made this clear to the party central leadership, which then agreed to replace Tuki with Khandu.
“We are simple folks and don’t understand things like Supreme Court judgements well. Senior Congress leaders took advantage of our tribal simplicity and duped us. It was only later that we realised that the Supreme Court order was different,” said a two-term MLA who did not wish to be named. But their hearts were never with the Congress and when they ultimately realised that the SC judgement had nothing to do with leaving the Congress, they made up their minds to leave that party.
There is a deep-seated resentment amongst the people of the North-East and politicians of the region against the Congress. Despite having ruled the region for most of the time since Independence, successive Congress regimes in the seven North-Eastern states have completely failed to address the development needs of the region.
All the Congress governments have been characterised by corruption, nepotism and misgovernance. Congress government in these states have been totally complicit in not only a lion’s share of the development funds going into private pockets, but also mishandling local aspirations that have bred many insurgencies and social and communal strife.
Congress politicians belonging to the North-East have long resented their mistreatment by the High Command and by the venal family retainers of the Nehru-Gandhis. A prime case in point is Himanta Biswa Sarma who left the Congress because of his mistreatment by the party’s top leadership. Congress politicians have also resented that funds meant for development of their states had to be diverted to pay off the party’s Central leaders and keep them happy. It has, for decades now, been a tradition for Congress chief ministers and ministers to pay off Congress’ minders for the North-Eastern states to retain their positions.
Senior Congress politicians have often spoken about being treated as vassals by the party high command. “The (Nehru-Gandhi) family has always looked down on us and, at the best of times, have had a disgustingly patronising attitude towards us. We, Congress leaders from the North-East, were never treated as equals by that family or by those around them,” former Congressman and Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Agcomitok Sangma famously complained once.
Given all these, it is no surprise that Pema Khandu, whose father spent a lifetime in the Congress, decided to leave the party with all the MLAs (save for former CM Nabam Tuki). Pema had grown up seeing the shabby treatment meted out to his father and other senior Congressmen by Delhi’s Congress leaders. He realised that no development will accrue to Arunachal Pradesh under a Congress government. It was wiser, he realised, to align himself with the BJP which, he feels, is genuinely interested in the development of the region.
Friday’s developments should, thus, come as no surprise for the Congress High Command. In fact, Sonia and her son should brace themselves for more losses in the region. Manipur is next, and Meghalaya and Mizoram after that. And then it may well be ‘Congress-mukt’ North-East!
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