A Little Noticed Failed Coup in the Himalayas

Narendra Modi, then a prime ministerial candidate, campaigns at a rally ahead of the general election in Itanagar in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh on March 31, 2014. John Elliott writes that Modi's BJP has been encouraging the destabilization of Arunachal Pradesh’s state assembly politics since last year. reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

A few hours after Friday night's bloody military coup failed in Turkey, the failure of a peaceful and far less dramatic unconstitutional coup staged by India's Bharatiya Janata Party in the state of Arunachal Pradesh was also confirmed.

Located high in the Himalayas, Arunachal is specially sensitive because it is on the border with China, which claims it as its territory, yet the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party President Amit Shah has been encouraging the destabilization of its state assembly politics since the end of last year.

The army in India (unlike in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh) doesn't do coups, but central governments do—mostly those run in the past by the Congress Party that staged them for decades in order to oust state-level administrations belonging to rivals.

In place of army officers, it is a state's governor who controversially manages things by deciding that a state assembly is unstable, usually because its members are being tempted (often with substantial amounts of money) to switch parties. The governor then triggers either a change of government, or recommends suspension of democracy with Delhi taking charge under what is known as president's rule.

On July 16, during a meeting in Delhi chaired by Modi, chief ministers of various states took up the lead given by the supreme court and attacked the government for its interference in state-level affairs. One of them criticized governors' "adventurism."

Nitesh Kumar, who runs a government of regional parties in Bihar, called for the governors' role to be abolished.

Last week the supreme court blocked the BJP's ambitions in Arunachal, paving the way yesterday for the restoration of a Congress majority of assembly members. Earlier this year the court blocked the BJP's similar ambitions in Uttarakhand, which borders Nepal.

That is a boost for Congress, though the crises in both states might have been averted if Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice president, had been less aloof and more active and sensitive to churns in the states' politics.

More importantly, it is a blow for the prestige of the BJP and Modi, who wants his prime ministerial authority to be absolute. That was demonstrated earlier this month with a substantial central government reshuffle that promoted ministers who did his and the prime minister's office direct bidding, and demoted those that did not and also those who had upset Amit Shah. The same applied to the internationally regarded governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan, who is departing.

The court's rulings have also come at a sensitive time in relations with the judiciary because the government has been trying to gain a say in the appointment of judges in high courts and the supreme court, rather than leaving it basically to seniority.

Ceremonial but Meddling

Constitutionally, a state's governor has a largely ceremonial role that is broadly similar to India's president and Britain's monarch. Central governments usually fill these gubernatorial posts with political supporters, usually grateful pensioned-off politicians, bureaucrats and armed service chiefs. They live grand lives of pomp and ritual in a style directly inherited from the British Raj with a large (but frequently faded) "Raj Bhawan," estates, and liveried servants. Frequently controversial, they meddle in a state's politics even though they are not supposed to do so.

The most blatant and destructive current example is in Delhi. Here the lieutenant governor (who has more powers than other state governors) has for two years done what is presumed to be Modi's bidding by undermining the work of the government run by the Aam Aadmi Party. The AAP, led by Arvind Kejriwal, has unnecessarily riled the lieutenant governor, Najeeb Jung, a former bureaucrat, but an official in such a position should surely rise above such provocation.

Former Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made most frequent use of governors' coups, which have been staged more than 100 times since India's independence in 1947. She was as ambitious as Modi to assert absolute control (though her motives partly stemmed from paranoia, which is not a Modi characteristic).

The first occasion I remember was in August 1984 when she tried and ultimately failed to eject the southern state of Andhra Pradesh's colorful ex-film star chief minister N.T. Rama Rao, head of the regional Telegu Desam. Her action led to weeks of political unrest, Hindu-Muslim riots and army flag-marches aimed at restoring peace.

This hit world headlines because it echoed her State of Emergency actions in the mid-1970s. A month earlier, she had got the governor of Jammu and Kashmir to replace the chief minister Farooq Abdullah, albeit with another (more pliable) politician from Abdullah's state-level National Conference party.

The Arunachal Story

President's rule was imposed in Arunachal in January after two months of political machinations that began when Congress assembly members, encouraged by the BJP, rebelled against the Congress chief minister, Nabam Tuki. The state's governor was deeply involved in the events. A month later, a state government was installed and proved its majority in the assembly. It was led by one of the Congress rebels and supported by BJP assembly members, who together formed a new People's Party of Arunachal.

On July 13, the supreme court ruled that the Arunachal governor had acted illegally and unconstitutionally when, under article 356 of the Indian constitution, he interfered in various ways in the state's politics and successfully advised India's president in January to dismiss the Congress state government led by Tuki, alleging it was unable to function effectively following the members' rebellion.

For the first time ever, the court also ordered the reinstatement of Tuki's dismissed state government. This went further than rulings in earlier decades that stopped president's rules and sometimes ordered complaints to test their strength on the floor of the assembly.

On July 16, there was a new twist when Tuki resigned, handing over leadership of Congress to Prema Khandu, a colleague, who could pull the Congress's warring groups together. Khandu, the son of a former chief minister, then took over 44 assembly members to the governor (above) to show that he commanded a majority of the 58-seat assembly, finally ending the coup saga. He is being sworn in today.

Governors' Ground Rules

The supreme court also went further on July 13 and, for the first time, laid down ground rules for governors:

"It needs to be asserted as a constitutional determination, that it is not within the realm of the Governor to embroil himself in any political thicket. The Governor must remain aloof from any disagreement, discord, disharmony, discontent or dissension, within individual political parties.

"The activities within a political party, confirming turbulence, or unrest within its ranks, are beyond the concern of the Governor. The Governor must keep clear of any political horse-trading, and even unsavory political manipulations, irrespective of the degree of their ethical repulsiveness. Who should or should not be a leader of a political party, is a political question, to be dealt with and resolved privately by the political party itself. The Governor cannot, make such issues, a matter of his concern."

Quaint language there to be sure, but a significant warning shot to Modi, and to future prime ministers, to stop ordering pliant governors to organize coups.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is IMPLOSION: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins, India).