In Depth—Headwinds facing both Congress and BJP in Meghalaya assembly polls. A ground report

While Congress grapples with anti-incumbency, a 4-pronged opposition of NPP, BJP, UDP, HSPDP means it might sail through in multi-cornered fights. Meanwhile minority-dominated Meghalaya is wary of BJP

Photo by Subhendu Sarkar/LightRocket via Getty Images
Photo by Subhendu Sarkar/LightRocket via Getty Images

Sanat K Chakraborty

Two-term Congress Chief Minister Dr Mukul M Sangma is preparing for a gruelling battle against anti-incumbency to defend Congress’ hold on Meghalaya, one of the last two surviving Congress bastions in the eight northeastern states. Meghalaya votes on February 27 to elect a new 60-member assembly. Congress will be contesting on all 60 seats. Mizoram, the other Congress-ruled state, is going to polls later this year.

The 53-year-old Dr Sangma, who succeeded veteran Congress leader Dr DD Lapang in April 2010 as the youngest chief minister of the state, is credited with steering the Congress government for the last eight years, a feat which no political leader has achieved so far in the state, known for its history of political instability. Not just that, in the 2013 state elections, Sangma secured the highest ever number of seats for his party since the creation of Meghalaya state in 1972. Congress bagged a total of 29 out of the 60 seats, just two short of a simple majority. Sangma then cobbled up a coalition—the Meghalaya United Alliance (MUA)—with two Nationalist Congress Party MLAs, one MLA of the Northeast Democratic Socialist Party, and 11 independents.

Sangma is now trying his luck for a third term in office, flaunting his political dynamism, drive and clout in Congress headquarters at 24 Akbar Road, Delhi. But he may not succeed this time around, say political pundits here, pointing out that his term has been ridden with intense factional squabbles and clamour for change of political leadership that eventually led to desertion by several of his senior colleagues a few weeks ago. Among those who walked out, accusing him of ‘dictatorial style of functioning’, were deputy chief minister Rowell Lyngdoh, Preston Tynsong, AL Hek and Sniawbhalang Dhar, and other Congress and independent MLAs. While Hek returned to the BJP after his five-year sojourn with Congress, the three other Congress ministers joined the National People’s Party (NPP). NPP and BJP are the two main challengers to the Congress.

Photo courtesy:
Photo courtesy:
Congress President Rahul Gandhi on his two-day visit to the state asked the people to join with Congress to “defend your culture and your way of thinking”. Congress is facing strong anti-incumbency this time around

Unfazed, Sangma claimed he was confident that Congress would return with a comfortable majority. In an election campaign in the Garo hills, the chief minister told a gathering that some legislators were always trying to dislodge his government, but despite that he managed to run the government. “With one hand I held a sword to fight these elements and with the other hand I held a pen to work”, he claimed.

In its list of candidates, Congress has retained most of its sitting legislators, including all ministers, except those who decided to retire. The party has also offered tickets to the sitting Members of the District Councils (MDCs), who, the party believes, have bright chances. Despite the bravado of the Congress chief minister, the party in private admits that it has a tough fight ahead. It is not only up against the NPP and BJP, but also regional parties United Democratic Party (UDP) and Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP).

State of the opposition

NPP, which was founded by former Lok Sabha Speaker and veteran Garo politician late Purno A Sangma, is now led by his son Conrad K Sangma, who represents the Garo Hills (Tura constituency) in the Lok Sabha. The party has announced the names of 51 candidates, including seven sitting legislators drawn from Congress, UDP and independents. Congress minister Ronnie Lyngdoh has accused the NPP of working in tandem with the BJP, and fielding candidates in way that ensures wins for candidates of either of the two parties. Refuting this allegation, NPP president Conrad Sangma clarified that NPP would fight this election on its own and the Congress accusations are nothing but a panic reaction.

BJP is fielding 45 aspirants as of now, the largest group of contestants since it joined the electoral fray in Meghalaya in 1993. UDP and HSPDP, which have a pre-poll understanding, are likely to contest in at least 20 constituencies each.

This four-pronged opposition can theoretically benefit the Congress, as the anti-incumbency votes would get distributed among the opposing parties in the absence of a united anti-Congress front. This is certainly a possibility, and Congress may scrape through in some of the multi-cornered contests. That is where the latter’s hopes rest.

Congress minister Ronnie Lyngdoh has accused the NPP of working in tandem with the BJP, and fielding candidates in way that ensures wins for candidates of either of the two parties. Refuting this allegation, NPP president Conrad Sangma clarified that NPP would fight this election on its own and the Congress accusations are nothing but a panic reaction

In Meghalaya’s electoral politics, ideology of political parties has never been a major factor. No political party has released its manifesto, stating its policy, plans and programmes, and pathways to their implementation. Neither is the electorate asking for it, taking these as tall promises not meant to be kept once parties are elected to power. The only thing that seems to matter is the ‘winnability’ of a candidate. Political parties seek out candidates, irrespective of their political affiliations, who they assess can win their seat. Aspiring candidates too look for political parties which, to their calculation, have chances to form a government.

Meghalaya, like other small northeastern states, always depends on the financial support of the ruling party at the centre for carrying out its development agenda. It has a limited resource base and meagre revenue. As a result, the northeast states, most of which have been a secure bastion for the Congress for the past several decades, seem to have gradually moved away from it toward the BJP, soon after Narendra Modi stormed to power at the Centre in 2014.

Following its massive electoral successes in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur, BJP is now seeking to dislodge Congress from power in Meghalaya. BJP’s national spokesperson Nalin Kohli, the election in-charge for Meghalaya, blamed Congress misrule for the state’s economic backwardness for decades. But for a predominantly Christian electorate of Meghalaya, BJP has never been a popular choice, as it is widely perceived as trying to impose one culture on the minority population, and turn the whole country into a Hindu rashtra. Even as Kohli tried to assuage the fears of the tribal electorate here about BJP’s non-interference with tribal food habits, Congress is certainly going to make beef ban a big electoral issue. Congress President Rahul Gandhi, in his visit to Shillong on January 31, told journalists that he was worried about the divisive politics of the BJP, which is trying to impose one kind of culture, food habit and religious practices across the country, threatening to destroy India’s unique diversity and secular ethos. He urged the people of Meghalaya to defeat those forces together with Congress.

Thus BJP is relying mainly on anti-incumbency sentiments, which seem to have rattled Chief Minister Sangma. He is contesting this election from two constituencies—Ampatigre in South-West Garo Hills district, which he currently represents, and Songsak in South Garo Hills district. While Dr Sangma tried to justify his decision saying he wanted to spread economic prosperity to other backward areas of the state, his political detractors see this as a sure ‘sign of poll nervousness’.

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Published: 06 Feb 2018, 5:36 PM