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New Delhi: For Pema Khandu, who took charge on Sunday as India’s youngest chief minister at 37 years, keeping the restive Congress party flock together in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh will be an uphill task.

In a dramatic turn of events over the weekend, former chief minister Nabam Tuki stepped aside and to make way for Khandu, who was elected as the leader of the Congress Legislative Party (CLP) on Saturday. Simultaneously, the party got the rebel faction on board and cobbled up enough numbers to form the government with a comfortable majority.

Khandu, the eldest son of former chief minister Dorjee Khandu, hails from Gyangkhar village in Tawang district that borders China and belongs to the Monpa tribe. A graduate from Delhi University’s Hindu College, Khandu is relatively new to active politics—this is his second term as a member of the legislative assembly (MLA). Though he joined the Congress in 2000, he contested his first election only five years ago.

Party leaders say Khandu is soft-spoken yet articulate and connects with the youth. He is known to be keen on sports, including football, cricket, badminton and volleyball and has made strong efforts to promote sports since joining politics. He also likes to travel, especially with an eye on promoting social and cultural events.

Khandu came to the forefront of politics after his father’s death in a chopper crash near Luguthang in Tawang in 2011 and won his first election the same year after his father’s assembly seat in Mukto fell vacant. Khandu won uncontested in 2014 from Mukto, a seat reserved for scheduled tribes and became minister for water resource development and tourism.

Since then, he has held various cabinet positions including rural works, tourism, civil aviation and art & culture. In 2014, he was appointed urban development minister in the government led by former chief minister Nabam Tuki. However, in October, he quit as minister, siding with dissident leader Kalikho Pul.

In a strongly-worded resignation letter, Khandu had said: “The government under your (Tuki) leadership has miserably failed to live up to the expectations of the general public of the state. There is no democracy within the party MLAs nor political stability due to which governance in the state is at its lowest."

Khandu became a key rebel leader, which led to the ouster of the Tuki-led government, a prolonged political crisis and litigation.

The turnaround, according to senior party leaders, happened during a NEDA (North East Democratic Alliance) meeting last week which was attended by rebel Congress MLAs from Arunachal Pradesh. In an informal chat, there was a discussion on how rebel Congress MLAs should merge with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The suggestion, according to a party leader aware of developments, put the rebel MLAs in “panic mode" following which they discussed the possibility of coming back to the Congress fold.

Khandu’s name figured when the Congress unit in the state reached out to rebel leaders, saying former chief minister Nabam Tuki would resign soon. Extensive discussions followed on who should be made the chief of the Congress Legislative Party (CLP) in the state. Khandu won the day because of two key reasons—he has the support of a chunk of the state unit reducing the risk of a future rebellion, and because no one else wanted to take up the job.

“Pema Khandu became the chief minister because no one else wanted to take that risk. We approached at least 3-4 other leaders, but everyone said they may not be able to keep the party together. Plus, owing to his background, Khandu has strong support in the state unit and from his extended family alone, there are five MLAs which makes sure he has some support all the time," a senior party leader involved in the talks last week said, requesting anonymity.

Khandu, along with deputy chief minister Chowna Mein, will now have to keep the MLAs together and avert any major rebellion. Party leaders said the Arunchal Pradesh unit is still “very fluid" and Khandu should look out for any signs of defection that could become a bigger problem later.

“Khandu is an obvious choice seeing his legacy and people also see his political clout. That matters in the state," said Nani Bath, senior lecturer in the department of political science at Arunachal University. Bath said “legislators will go to BJP" if he is unable to keep the party together.

“He has a tough task ahead of him. His first challenge will be the allocation of portfolios because it will be very difficult to choose from the MLAs that they currently have. Secondly, Pul—his immediate predecessor—has managed to create a space for himself in a short amount of time. He will have compete with that," he added.

Khandu’s name was proposed by the state unit and backed by the top leadership including party president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi. In a way, Khandu is symbolic of the internal problems faced by the Congress party, in particularly the smaller states it once dominated, and the party’s failure to tackle them on time.

Rebel leader Pul, who was chief minister for the interim duration with the support of BJP MLAs and is now back in Congress, Khandu and other rebels, had been asking the central leadership to intervene because a large section of the CLP was unhappy with Tuki. The top brass delayed its decision, triggering the rebellion of leaders like Khandu, who had to be brought back to keep the party in power.

“The delay (in changing the legislative head) is because of the party high command in Delhi. The coordination problem between the state and central high command in Delhi has cost them in the state," Bath added.

PTI contributed to the story.

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