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Conrad to return as CM, set to get backing from BJP, others

Mar 03, 2023 12:15 AM IST

The NPP and the BJP fought a bitter political campaign after deciding to contest the polls independently, despite being coalition partners in the previous government, with “corruption” and “high-handedness” the buzzwords from the two camps.

Guwahati: Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma began Thursday morning in the foothills of West Garo mountains in Tura, his hometown. In a few hours, it became clear that not only had Sangma won his South Tura seat comfortably, clinching 52% of the vote, but also that his National People’s Party (NPP) had bettered their 2018 performance, and were in pole position to return to power.

NPP supporters celebrate Conrad Sangma's victory in state assembly elections in South Tura constituency on Thursday. (ANI)

By evening, Conrad Sangma was in Shillong, 303km away, huddled in meetings with his victorious legislators, framing the political contours of the next government, one that will likely be led by him again, even if with the support of the BJP and other regional parties.

In results declared on Thursday, the NPP won 26 seats, five short of an absolute majority, the BJP two. Nineteen seats went to smaller parties, with the United Democratic Party the largest of this group, with 11 seats. Meanwhile, the Congress and Trinamool Congress won five seats, while two went to Independent candidates.

But the events leading to Conrad Sangma’s victory, and his decision to mend fences with the BJP hours after the Thursday’s verdict, make the development an odd homecoming for both sides. The NPP and the BJP fought a bitter political campaign after deciding to contest the polls independently, despite being coalition partners in the previous government, with “corruption” and “high-handedness” the buzzwords from the two camps.

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On Thursday evening, just when it seemed Conrad might go his own way after the numbers were out, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma — who is also the convener of North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) — hinted that the BJP and Conrad were back together. “Chief minister of Meghalaya Conrad Sangma called Amit Shah ji, Hon’ble Home Minister and sought his support and blessings in forming the new government,” Sarma tweeted.

On Tuesday, a day after votes were cast in Meghalaya on February 27, Sarma and Conrad met at a hotel in Guwahati, where the nitty-gritties of the renewed alliance was ostensibly worked out.

Conrad, who took charge of the first NPP-led government in 2018, has been front and centre for the regional party, founded by his father and former Lok Sabha speaker PA Sangma in 2013. Both his siblings, MP Agatha Sangma, and elder brother James Sangma are politicians, but it is Conrad that has emerged the most prominent face in Meghalaya’s politics. The 45-year old, who first became an MLA in 2008, is multilingual, can speak both English and Hindi, and is a graduate from the Wharton School of Business, and the Imperial College London.

The differences between the BJP and NPP first came to fore in 2022, with Conrad Sangma lodging a case against the saffron party’s vice-president Bernard N Marak, alleging he was running extortion and sex rackets from his hotel in the outskirts of Tura. Marak was eventually arrested in Hapur in Uttar Pradesh on July 26, 2022 and released from jail on November 16.

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Marak, a staunch Conrad critic, was seen as an emerging star of the BJP in Meghalaya. The BJP tried to make his arrest a political issue in the state, and also levelled allegations of corruption against Conrad.

Marak also contested against Conrad from the South Tura constituency and received 7,420 votes, against the CM’s 10,671.

Conrad’s strategy going into the polls was simple. If all regional and smaller parties are able to hold their vote banks, the NPP would return to power. Therefore, before the polls, all parties that were a part of the Conrad-led Meghalaya Democratic Alliance decided to contest the elections separately.

Congress leader Mukul Sangma joining the TMC with 12 of 17 Congress legislators in November 2021 also helped Conrad, as there was split in the anti-incumbency vote. Three of the five remaining Congress MLAs later joined NPP, weakening the grand old party further.

The NPP was eventually able to increase its vote share from about 20.06% in 2018 to 31.42% in 2023. TMC received 13.79% of votes and the Congress 13.17% of total votes cast. Consequently, its tally went up from 19 in 2018 to 26 in 2003. Its ally in the government, United Democratic Party (UDP) emerged as the second largest with 11 seats and a 16.2% vote share.

On Thursday evening, Sangma said, “I would like to thank the people of Meghalaya for their support to the NPP. The results are in line with what we had expected, but it could have been better,” Conrad Sangma said.

Experts noted that the party was able to expand its support base beyond the Garo hills.

“The NPP was able to retain 15 seats it won in 2018 and add 11 new ones. The party has expanded its presence from just the Garo hills to the Khasi and Jaintia Hills region as well,” said H Srikanth, professor of political science at Shillong-based North Eastern Hill University.

In 2018, the Congress emerged as the biggest party, with 21 seats, but NPP tied up a coalition with BJP (2), UDP (6), Hill State Peoples’ Democratic Party (2), and one independent to form the government.

Despite being coalition partners, differences had cropped up between BJP and NPP in the last two years with the former threatening to quit the government on several occasions. In September 2020, for instance, the BJP said it was considering quitting the alliance, alleging the misappropriation of central funds by the state government, and their support to illegal mining.

Two years later, in September 2022, the BJP threatened to pull out again, pointing once more to alleged corruption. This was also a key element of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attack on Sangma in his home turf of Tura in February, where he urged the people of Meghalaya to vote against “dynastic politics.”

The biggest winner among the other regional parties was the UDP, which won 11 of the 46 seats it contested, cornering over 16% of the vote. This was significantly higher than 2018 when it won six seats and was part of the ruling alliance. The other significant player that has emerged is the newly formed Voice of People Party (VPP) which contested 18 seats and won four. Two other parties, the Hill State Peoples’ Democratic Party (HSPDP) and the Peoples’ Democratic Front (PDF) won two seats each.

NPP leaders said that Sangma’s immediate goals will be to focus on issues of unemployment, road connectivity and issues on the Meghalaya-Assam border that plagued this tenure.

“BJP had created a hype that it would win more than 10 seats, but the party has been humbled. The NPP can easily form the next government with the UDP’s support, but it will make the BJP a partner because of the state’s dependence on Centre for funds,” said H Srikanth, professor of political science at Shillong-based North Eastern Hill University.

“Despite allegations of corruption, Conrad was able to keep the image of a young, dynamic and energetic leader. Significantly, the weakness of other parties have also led to the NPP emerging the single largest,” Srikanth said.

Later in the day, the central unit of BJP via its state president Ernest Mawrie in “A Letter of Support” invited Sangma to form the government.

The letter, which HT has seen, read: “I do herby formally communicate with you and submit “A Letter of Support” for the institution of the Government as an outcome of the results of the just concluded Meghalaya Legislative Assembly Election, 2023.”

Replying to the invitation, Sangma tweeted: “Thank you @BJP4Meghalaya for reaching out to the NPP and for extending your support to our party to form the Government. We will continue to work together to serve Meghalaya and its people.”

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