The political crisis in Meghalaya has deepened with Chief Minister JD Rymbai refusing to quit despite diktats by Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi asking him to relinquish office immediately.
"I am ready to face any consequences (expulsion from the party) if it comes to that point," the defiant chief minister told journalists, categorically rebuffing Gandhi's orders to quit office.
The chief minister was asked to step down from his post by Gandhi on Tuesday night in a meeting in New Delhi.
Rymbai, who was sworn in as chief minister on June 15, 2006, succeeding DD Lapang in the wake of dissidence within the party, was earlier asked to step down by All India Congress Committee (AICC) functionaries Oscar Fernandes and Ved Prakash on Feb 26.
According to the AICC, a vote was conducted following murmurs within the Congress for another leadership change. Rymbai had apparently lost the confidence vote that was held outside the assembly in secret. The chief minister had earlier assured the Congress president that he would relinquish office on returning to Shillong.
The turnaround came after several of Rymbai's loyalists, including legislators of smaller regional parties who are coalition partners of the Congress-led Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) government, openly backed him as chief minister.
"I have the support of all the regional parties in the ruling MDA who want me to continue. It is a collective decision of the coalition partner leaders," Rymbai said.
In the 60-member Meghalaya legislature, the Congress has 29 legislators and is backed by 14 other regional party lawmakers in running the MDA government since the last elections in 2003.
With mounting pressure from the coalition partners, several Congress legislators, and even influential pressure groups, the Congress high command is now caught in a sticky wicket.
"It appears that the decision by the high command (Congress president) is not very well received by the public. How this displeasure will manifest itself we can say only in next few days," senior Congress leader and Meghalaya Home Minister RG Lyngdoh told.
And with dissidence in the Congress coming to the fore, the prospects of the party would definitely come under the hammer with Meghalaya going to the polls early next year.
"With elections round the corner and with the year ending taking place, it would be counter-productive and costly for the Congress party if the move to change the chief minister leads to social unrest or conflict," the home minister said.
The move to unseat Rymbai has come in for sharp criticism from several pressure groups and even the coalition partner, the Nationalist Congress Party. The Hynniewtrep National Youth Front, an influential pressure group, has threatened to launch an agitation, including an indefinite 'public curfew'.
Political instability is the hallmark in Meghalaya — the state has seen six different governments with varied combinations of political parties, resulting in four chief ministers in a span of five years between 1998 and the last assembly elections in 2003.
There were just two occasions when a chief minister was able to complete the full five-year term since Meghalaya attained statehood in 1972.