Battle for Meghalaya: Congress faces saffron assault in its bastion
A Congress loss will reduce it to three states. BJP’s entry into power will give it 20 states. But the swing force in the fragmented polity is the late P A Sangma’s party.india Updated: Jan 10, 2018 09:10 IST
The hills sleep early. But not when one of the biggest battles of one’s political life is round the corner. It is close to midnight and the winter chill is strong. And chief minister Mukul Sangma is still in his office in the new secretariat of Shillong. A group of Congress leaders troop in to brief him about political developments. Two businessmen are keen to see him. And his support staff wait for the CM to call it a day.
But Sangma—one of the last powerful Congress regional satraps—remains high on energy.
Pointing to a board in his office, the CM tells HT in an exclusive interview, “Look at the Chief Ministers before me. They lasted one year, a few years, the state was unstable.” A quick glance shows that there were eight governments and one brief period of President’s Rule in ten years after 2000. “I took office in 2010 and have given Meghalaya stability. Law and order has improved and there is peace. Infrastructure has improved. People have to decide if they want to risk this stability and disrupt things.”
That is indeed the big question facing the Meghalaya electorate—whether it wants to stick to the stability provided by the Congress, as Sangma is hoping, or whether, tired and desiring change, it wants to vote him out, as the Opposition is hoping.
But there is no one opposition—and this is Congress’ big hope. Among the main challengers is another leader from Sangma’s own region of Garo Hills, Conrad Sangma, the son of the late PA Sangma, who heads the National People’s Party — an ally of BJP at the centre but fighting polls independently in the state. The BJP, in line with its stated ambition of winning everything from Parliament to Panchayat and expanding relentlessly in the Northeast, is making a bid for power in this Christian-dominated state. And there is a another alliance of regional parties in the fray. This interplay between Congress and a fragmented opposition in a state which has three distinct geographic regions — Khasi, Garo, and Jaintia Hills — with distinct politics is expected to throw up a hung assembly.
The state may be small but the stakes are high. If Congress loses power, it will be down to having only three states nationally. If BJP gets into government, it will increase its tally to 20 states. Elections for the 60-member assembly are slated for February.
THE LOCAL CHALLENGE
Mukul Sangma’s message is percolating down, but not as effectively as he would like. Across the city of Shillong and towns of Jowai in Jaintia Hills and Tura in Garo Hills, HT met voters who gave Sangma credit for law and order and tackling militancy and bandhs, but also accused him of presiding over corruption, favouring his own constituency, Ampati, over the rest of the state, and mismanaging the issue of coal mining, a ban on which by the National Green Tribunal has disrupted livelihoods.
And this is what his rival, Conrad Sangma, the MP from Tura and a fellow Garo, hopes to bank on.
Sitting in his residence in Shillong, after a day of intense campaigning, he told HT: “This government has not been able to take advantage of the Centre’s schemes. There is rampant financial mismanagement and corruption. The CM is now on a reckless and irresponsible inauguration and announcement spree of schemes and projects before the election. There is anti-incumbency and people are looking for a change.”
But ‘change’ is an ambiguous concept here, for there is constant political defection and many of the new entrants to NPP are former Congress ministers and MLAs. Can the party provide a credible alternative? “Ultimately, leadership, vision, and party matters. They weren’t allowed to work in Congress. With new ideas, proper monitoring, implementation, the same people can deliver results,” says Conrad Sangma.
Congress will confront NPP in Garo Hills which sends 24 MLAs. But in KhasiJaintia Hills with 36 MLAs, it will confront an additional political challenge from an alliance of two small regional parties, United Democratic Party and Hill State Peoples’ Democratic Party. Will this lead to a division in anti-Congress votes, benefiting the ruling party? Conrad Sangma does not think so. “You can’t apply heartland formula here. The politics of small states is different. It is very micro and personalised-based.”
THE SAFFRON FACTOR
It is in this complex mix that the BJP has made a big bang entry.
In 2013, the party won no seat here. But as one drives up to Shillong, it is the only party visible - with posters of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, tourism minister KJ Alphons (who has been made a public face to reach out to Christians in the state), Nalin Kohli, its Northeastern leaders, and state president Shibin Lyngdoh and the slogan, ‘Time for Change, Time for BJP.’ Shah had an impressive rally in Garo Hills on Saturday; - local journalists say this is the biggest gathering they have seen in the belt in recent years.
The party has attracted leaders of other parties, as it did in Assam with Himanta Biswa Sarma and Manipur with N Biren Singh joining ranks before polls, and has also built its base. A BJP Meghalaya unit leader involved in organisation says: “The state has 2400 booths and we have already set up strong booth committees in 1800 of those and held meetings in each.” The party is also hoping to benefit from the fact that it is in power at the Centre.
But the others—particularly the Congress—hope that its perceived Hindutva tilt will alienate voters. CM Mukul Sangma told HT, “Don’t we know how they are treating minorities in the rest of the country? One must ask why BJP is so desperate to win every state. They want to have a majority in the Rajya Sabha, and state legislatures, to change the constitution.”
NPP, despite being an ally at the Centre, has also kept a public distance from the BJP. But it has left the door open for a post poll tie up. Conrad Sangma says, “In elections, we will fight on our principles and ideology. But for governance, we will do what is best for the state and its development. It is important to have cordial ties with the Centre.”
The BJP does not expect to win Meghalaya on its own, but believes it can get over ten seats, from Shillong city, Jaintia hills and Garo hills. If NPP can emerge as a substantial block with over 15 seats, the party is confident the mandate would be interpreted as one against Congress and it will be able to form a coalition government along with other smaller parties and independents.
As Shillong’s political temperature heats up, the elections will test the resilience of the Congress, the ability of the BJP to go beyond its traditional strongholds, and the local rootedness of regional outfits.