Will Meghalaya deliver a clear mandate?
With the BJP contesting all 60 seats for the first time, TMC trying hard to make inroads and the ruling NPP determined to retain power, it's difficult to hazard a guess about poll outcome in Meghalaya
There is something very civilised in the way Meghalaya has been preparing for assembly elections on February 27. There were no ugly posters defacing walls, the decibel levels in election speeches were low and candidates went about quietly to file their nomination, mindful that they should not add to Shillong’s bad traffic jams with a circus.
In a state with a strong choral music tradition, innovative jingles and well-sung musical messages on FM radio are heard more closely than loud political speeches.
These democratic best practices were again on display when, in what can be best described as a town hall meet, leaders of eight political parties and combines converged at Shillong’s Synod College and outlined their political agenda for these elections.
It was ironic that the ruling National People’s Party (NPP) went unrepresented and, deliberately or otherwise, missed taking questions from voters, many of them young and students; but every other party, including the Congress, TMC and BJP, KAM Meghalaya, VPP (Voice of People’s Party), PDF, HSPDP, and UDP, was represented. The interaction saw eight leaders and party spokespersons highlight their priorities for the state.
Manuel Badwar, the Congress candidate from East Shillong, said his party was focused on how to improve the state’s education system and proposed to set up community colleges for students who couldn’t afford normal colleges and also to establish a state university. Badwar said, with education would come employability.
“Online sales portals like Amazon bring in trucks of goods from outside the state but go back carrying nothing. Meghalaya can create a marketing hub and delivery centre for regional products, creating employment opportunities for the youth,” he added hopefully.
Jairam Ramesh of the Congress called Mukul Sangma, former Congress leader who defected to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in November last year, as ‘Judas’. The analogy had resonance in the Christian majority state, but Patricia Mukhim, Editor of the Shillong Times, felt it was an unfair portrayal because the party also needed to introspect on just why Mukul Sangma, who was Leader of the Opposition in the state assembly, felt compelled to leave the party.
Although it could not form the government, Congress had emerged as the single largest party in the last election with 21 MLAs, all of whom have now left the party, most of them moving to Mamata Banerjee’s TMC. The party ‘high command’s’ decision to bring in Vincent Pala, the three– term MP from Shillong, to head the state unit, was apparently the main provocation.
Pala, from a wealthy coal-mining family, has the been valiantly carrying the party flag and, while admitting the party has faced “setbacks,” swiftly named all 60 candidates and has been campaigning hard along with a bunch of young, educated, new faces whose vision appears more in sync with the aspirations of the younger population.
It was left to Union home minister Amit Shah to generate some heat and ruffle feathers by calling Meghalaya the most corrupt state in the country. BJP till three months ago was part of the NPP-led Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) and it is not clear when the powerful home minister finally realised the extent of corruption in the state.
The poll outcome will show whether the statement was a masterstroke for BJP which is contesting for all the 60 seats on its own for the first time.
“This is typical of the BJP,” said a former state minister who did not want to be named. “For a budget deficit and mismanaging an amount of Rs 1,849 crore the state is labelled most corrupt! This has hurt local pride.” Shah also warned people that they were facing an electricity blackout because of MDA corruption and needed to vote in the BJP.
At the Synod College meeting, BJP state secretary G.F. Shullai declared, amidst some titters, “Our only agenda is to serve the people of the state.” While the audience appeared sceptical, Shullai parroted Shah’s claim of people benefiting from programmes initiated by the union government, including free ration.
Education and health, for a change, was on the agenda of every party. TMC leader Fabian Lyngdoh promised that the TMC would aim to restore Meghalaya’s status as the education hub of the Northeast.
Criticising the BJP, the KAM Meghalaya leader Kyrsoibor Pyrtuh said BJP did not respect constitutional values and was destroying the country’s federal structure. Though critical, what was heartening was the civility of the exchanges, with no attempts to denigrate political opponents, even in responses to audience queries.
The disparity in income between the rich and the ordinary person in the state is growing, and is clearly visible. Meghalaya, a resource-rich state with a population of 38 lakhs, generates internal revenue of Rs 2,900 crore while Sikkim, with only eight lakh people, generates internal revenue of Rs 4,600 crore.
Another irony was that in a matrilineal society, where almost 41 per cent of households are headed by single women, there was not a single woman among the representatives on the dais.
In Meghalaya husbands move into their wives’ homes, children get their mother’s last name and the youngest daughter inherits the property. But in the last two assemblies elected in 2013 and 2018, number of women legislators was four each; in 2008 there was none. This time too the number of women candidates is only marginally higher at 36 compared to 32 last time.
At the town hall, Mukhim was vocal in criticising the leaders saying that grave issues, such as high infant and maternal mortality and 52 per cent anaemia among women, had received little or no attention from the men.
Mukhim also highlighted the paucity of data available in the state and the administration’s disinterest in gathering proper data. “Meghalaya's critical need is to strengthen its database. Without data how does any government know where it needs to invest its most critical resources in.”
A ‘hung house’ was the outcome that seemed most probable at the beginning of February. With polling due on 27 February, however, all bets are off. Will Meghalaya spring a surprise?
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