GUWAHATI, Jun 23: An accident propelled him from a district Congress president in 2010 to a minister in the Arunachal Pradesh government within a year. He was 31 when his father, former chief minister Dorjee Khandu, died in a helicopter crash on April 30, 2011, leaving a void in Tawang district’s Mukto Assembly constituency. More than a decade later and a few days into his third term, the 44-year-old Pema Khandu has become the longest-serving chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh after Gegong Apang, who formed the first BJP government in the frontier state in 2003.

Diverse ethnic interests and dependence on funds from the Centre leave little scope to be politically adventurous in Arunachal Pradesh. Khandu, who saw three chief ministers and a 24-day President’s Rule in a span of five years and 74 days between the death of his father and his first term as chief minister, learnt to be cautious.

A few bold decisions of his government such as recommending permanent residence certificates to six communities not on the list of Arunachal Pradesh Scheduled Tribes in February 2019, had led to large-scale violence. However, it did not take long for Khandu to tide over such crises, including alleged bids by some of his party colleagues to dislodge him.

Khandu has made it a point to downplay the periodic renaming of places in Arunachal Pradesh by China. He has also been disinclined to follow New Delhi’s position on the country across the Line of Actual Control. “Arunachal does not share a border with China. The direct border is with Tibet. China occupied Tibet. Nobody can erase history,” he said in November 2020. His view reflected the sentiment of fellow Buddhist Monpas attached to the Tawang Monastery. He also said the state was unable to major projects funded by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank due to China’s “unethical” claim. This made him pressure the Centre for scrapping the population criterion in funding for Arunachal Pradesh.

There has virtually been no competition for the Khandu family in Tawang, especially in the Mukto Assembly seat, since 1990. This is evident from Khandu and his father having won a few elections unopposed.

Dramatic rise

Khandu’s rise to the top job in the state has had layers of drama. In 2011, he became the Minister of Tourism, Urban Development, and Water Resources. He kept a low profile as the Congress government faltered with Nabam Tuki replacing Jarbom Gamlin as chief minister, only to be dismissed by the Centre in January 2016. Then a “rebel” Congress government, headed by Kaliho Pul, was established in February 2016, but the Supreme Court had Tuki reinstated. Tuki sprang a surprise by resigning four days later and paved the way for Khandu to head the Congress government.

Three months later, he defected with a group of Congress MLAs to the regional People’s Party of Arunachal and in December 2016, his group joined the BJP. It was the second time in 13 years that the BJP ruled Arunachal Pradesh without winning the Assembly election.

Its penetration in the state during Khandu’s first term helped the BJP win 41 seats out of 60 in 2019 and five more in 2024. Building on the “political stability”, Khandu pledged to pursue a transformative reform agenda through 24 citizen-centric initiatives. He also promised to enhance women’s safety and promote gender equality in a state troubled by polygamy.

Khandu’s push for connectivity and tourism was evident from the Donyi-Polo Airport near the state’s capital Itanagar, which became a reality in November 2022 after years of uncertainty. In March 2021, he drove 140 km through jungles and slush in an off-roader to kill three birds with one stone — become the first chief minister to visit Vijaynagar, the state’s most unconnected part on the Myanmar border, emphasise the need to carve a road to the place, and deliver the 4x4 vehicle for the circle office in Vijaynagar.

Now, as chief minister for the third time, Khandu promises to build on the initiatives he launched and implement the BJP’s vision “to make Arunachal Pradesh more developed”. The Hindu