Itanagar: For most, February 3, 2021, came and went – like any other normal day, nothing specific, nothing historic. Just another Wednesday.
But for Pema Khandu, the current Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, the day brought a major milestone. Whether he is aware or not, his day in office on that Wednesday made him the second longest-serving Chief Minister of this remote state, surpassing Mukut Mithi, and second only to Gegong Apang.
No mean achievement for a relatively new-comer, making an entry as the youngest Chief Minister at the age of 37, another record he will like to keep.
With party defections and shifting loyalties the norm, it is little surprise that hardly any chief minister has been able to see out the full five-year tenure since Apang or before. Chronologically speaking, the first chief minister Pem Khandu Thungon (August 16, 1975 – September 18, 1979) had to leave office in his fourth year. Tomo Riba (September 18, 1979 – November 3, 1979) who replaced him, lasted only 45 days.
Then came Gegong Apang, after a brief period of President’s Rule (November 3, 1979 – January 3, 1980), who went on to play an innings that felt like wouldn’t end. Mukut Mithi emerged from the shadows as the dark horse and bowled a googly that ended Apang’s 19-year at-a-stretch innings (January 18, 1980 – January 19, 1999).
Mithi, however, couldn’t come good with the bat and while into his fourth year, six months and 15 days (January 19, 1999 – August 3, 2003) as chief minister, was bowled out by none other than Apang. ‘Sweet revenge’ many had quoted.
Apang’s comeback though was a distant shadow of his earlier stint. This time around, he too couldn’t complete his full tenure (August 3, 2003 – April 9, 2007) and was replaced by Dorjee Khandu.
Perhaps, had it not been for the untimely death of Dorjee Khandu, the history books would read differently.
After the tragic death of Dorjee Khandu on April 30, 2011, what followed is a potboiler that would shame even the most unpredictable of Bollywood political-dramas. The political rivalry had intensified and instability ruled the roost. In the five years (2011 – 2016), the state saw five chief ministers: Jarbom Gamlin (May 5, 2011 – November 1, 2011), Nabam Tuki (November 1, 2011 – January 26, 2016), Kalikho Pul (February 19, 2016 – July 13, 2016), Nabam Tuki (July 16, 2016 – July 17, 2016) and Pema Khandu (since July 17, 2016). For a brief period from January 26 to February 19, 2016, J P Rajkhowa held the reigns as the then Governor under President’s Rule, second for Arunachal Pradesh.
No matter how chequered the past, this February 3, Khandu surpassed Mukut Mithi by one day as chief minister – four years, six months, and 16 days to be precise! The margin increasing each passing day.
Khandu’s first brush with electoral politics happened in 2011 when tragically, his father and then-chief minister, Dorjee Khandu, and four others died in a helicopter crash in the remote Himalayan mountains in the borders of Tawang and West Kameng districts.
He wasn’t a novice, though. He had been active in the political arena in his home district of Tawang. In 2005, he became a secretary of the Arunachal Pradesh Congress Committee and president of the Tawang District Congress Committee in 2010.
After being elected unopposed from the Mukto Assembly Constituency in June 2011, which had fallen vacant due to his father’s death, Khandu was given the tourism and WRD portfolios in his first term as a legislator.
It was just a year since he was re-elected unopposed in 2014 that another political crisis began to brew. To cut a long story short, after a year-long power struggle between veteran politicians, in the middle of 2016 within five days, Arunachal Pradesh had seen three different chief ministers; the last of which was Khandu.
The details of how Khandu eventually became the chief minister remains shrouded in mystery, at least for the common public, as he had never shown a keen interest in holding the coveted office publicly. Yes, he had hordes of stash in declared assets mandatory to survive electoral politics in Arunachal Pradesh but not many in the political corridors thought he would survive. A vast majority of his legislative colleagues still referred to him as “Pema Bhai”. Surely, he was still too young to lead from the front. Or so, many thought.
Despite the initial hiccups – party hopping from Congress to PPA to finally landing in BJP – Khandu has managed to do what veteran politicians have been unable to do. And that is to not just helm the affairs of the state from a privileged position, but also to do so by maintaining relative stability.
This, of course, is not to say that he is without faults. To err, after all, is human.
In February 2019, months before the state was to go for elections, discussions on issuing permanent residence certificates (PRC) to certain communities residing in parts of the state began to gather momentum.
Previous governments had failed to resolve the contentious issue but Khandu in his tenure seemed determined to resolve it. And thus, the matter was to be put up for discussion at the Legislative Assembly after the report of the Joint High Power Committee (JHPC) was to be tabled. Through a combination of the government’s failure to communicate the intent of the discussion and the callous comments by several ministers and MLAs, public anger was boiling.
That anger finally spilled over to the streets on Statehood Day when spontaneous protests broke out across the capital city, most notably in front of the Civil Secretariat and the IG Park where celebrations were just starting.
The resultant violence, including the death of three people who succumbed to bullet wounds fired by security forces and the arson of Deputy Chief Minister Chowna Mein’s residence, led to a quick retraction from the government.
Khandu quickly issued a statement saying that the JHPC’s report will not be tabled and that the issue itself was off the table for the foreseeable future.
As the media centered in New Delhi and other metro cities predicted that the protests and the subsequent violence could spell trouble for Khandu and the BJP in the state, back home people knew that no such thing would happen and that as long as the BJP was in power in the Centre, so shall it remain in the state.
When elections rolled in, that is what happened. What was surprising, however, was how Khandu managed to nearly annihilate all opposition and those who may have posed a challenge to him in the future.
Even when non-BJP candidates won the election, the public was well-aware that apart from making the right noises, none would challenge Khandu to the throne. So good has his political acumen become that even legislators in the primary opposition bench have publicly praised several of the steps taken by the government in the past two years.
When the dust settled and ruffled feathers smoothened, Khandu saw to it that most of the major infrastructural projects were expedited and completed – the state civil secretariat, assembly building, TRIHMS, Inter-State Truck Terminus, MLA Apartments and flats for Senior Officers at Chimpu are to name a few. Work on the long-pending Greenfield Airport at Hollongi is in full swing with a deadline to finish by August 2022.
The “Chief Minister Comprehensive State Road Plan 2019-2024″ envisages to improve Capital Complex’s roads, upgrade important interstate and inter-district roads to the specification of State Highway (SH), all arterial roads in district headquarters, all ADC headquarters to be connected by Major District Road category and ADC/CO headquarters to be connected by all-weather Other District Road category by the year 2024. Also, the implementation of the Arunachal Monitoring Application has allowed for more than 30,000 projects to be Geo-Tagged to ensure transparency and proper utilisation of funds.
Revenue collection jumped each year, the Cabinet met at least once every month so that decisions were not kept pending, regular reviews on the status of projects and schemes were taken, officers and contractors were reprimanded if needed, most of the departments and offices were forced to go digital; in short, transparency and accountability, that was badly missed in the previous governments, became evident in this Khandu regime.
Khandu must be perhaps the only chief minister so far, who publicly admitted prevalence of rampant corruption in the system and dared to take it head-on.
He created the Arunachal Pradesh Staff Selection Board (APSSB) knowing that corruption was at its best in the recruitment of lower-level government employees, which were done departmentally. Not surprisingly, insiders vouch that his lids blew off when the SSB job-for-cash scam was unearthed. His directives were short and crisp – investigate and punish whoever is responsible irrespective of power or position.
Corruption with its deep-strong roots, nevertheless, isn’t going to end soon. But we need to give him credit for trying.
Another first that would be credited to Khandu is the paradigm shift in the way annual state budgets are prepared. For the first time, every stakeholder – community-based organisations, student organisations, women organizations, all political parties, each legislator, administrators, and even common citizens – were consulted and inputs are taken for incorporation in the final budget.
This was unthinkable a few years ago.
Going by the upward moving trajectory, if not for the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 would too have been different, would have been another step in the progress of the state.
However, the pandemic stalled projects and triggered a revenue downslide. One thing though that can be taken positively is that the health infrastructure got overhauled for good. Another positive of the pandemic is that Khandu got the perfect situation to hone his administrative skills. Undoubtedly he handled the pandemic sensibly and sensitively and lead his people out of it. Active cases have gone down sharply and newer cases are getting lower and lower. The last couple of days have reported ‘zero’ positive cases.
Despite the surreal 2020, it is informed the state government has been able to clear pending liabilities amounting to Rs 1900 crore against SIDF, Additional RE, uncashed cheques, and pending LOCs. Something worth pondering as well as applauding.
However, as ‘what is seen is believing’, people, especially of the capital region, are waiting to see if the four-lane highway from Chandranagar to Papunallah (minus the underpass and bridges) is finished by March next and if not, will Khandu resign as announced.
Through his political acumen and a different perspective on development, Khandu has been able to stay on top of his game thus far. Will he be able to run the entire course and carve out a proverbial ‘Khandu Years’? He would certainly aim to, while we wait and watch.