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Small battleground of a big war

Clubbed with the first lot of states going to polls under the shadow of Gujarat triumph of BJP, it is being seen as an important battle ground of the stepped-up war of ideologies despite its small size with 60 seats.

india Updated: Feb 20, 2003 13:38 IST

 INTERESTING FACTS



* Only 5 seats fall in Gen category, rest 55 in ST



* CM FA Khonglam is the only independent MLA to occupy the CM’s office anywhere in India



* BJP has just 3 seats now, will contest 20-25 seats



* It's hometurf of sonia-baiter former Speaker PA  Sangma



* FA Khonglam is the third CM of the state since 1998 polls

It's one of those rare occasions for the 'politically instable' tiny tribal hill state of Meghalaya or 'abode of clouds'. No, not because it's going to polls on February 26 but because it shares the national limelight after years of perceived neglect by the country's so called mainstream polity.



Clubbed with the first lot of states going to polls under the shadow of Gujarat triumph of BJP, it is being seen as an important battle ground for the stepped-up war of ideologies despite its small size.

The term of Meghalaya Assembly expires on March 8, 2003.

So, no one is taking the 60 odd seats here lightly. Not even BJP, which has just a marginal presence with three MLAs in this home turf of Nationalist Congress Party general Secretary and former Speaker Purno A Sangma. But the 'Hindutva' party of power in Hindi belt faces altogether different socio-political realities here. Therefore, the issues of Hindutva, cultural nationalism, conversions and terrorism, which are otherwise so dear to it, are completely missing from its campaign agenda. Here, the BJP has decided to focus on 'peace and development' like almost all other parties in the fray.

The BJP has reportedly decided to contest 20-25 seats in alliance with about a dozen of local political outfits. It may also align with the Sonia-baiter Sangma who has reportedly announced to fight against Congress.

Congress seems to be more than hopeful and are raring to go. Congress has adopted a confrontationist line with a secular ally Nationalist Congress Party NCP with which it shares power in Maharashtra. While the NCP would be their main rival in Garo hills, they would have a contest with United Democratic Party in Khasi and Jayantia Hills.

Many party leaders feel that campaigning by Priyanka Gandhiwill eclipse BJP as well as others. They say that since Meghalaya got statehood during her grandmother Indira Gandhi's regime, people have emotional attachment with Gandhi family.

DEFECTIONS AND INSTABILITY

The state, like many other small states, has a long history of political instability, defections and fall of governments. Meghalaya has seen five governments in five years.

The present NCP-led seven-party ruling coalition Peoples Forum of Meghalaya (PFM) headed by FA Khonglam also came into existence in December 2001 after the previous EA Mawlong government lost vote of confidence following defections sparked by Kolkata Meghalaya House scam. He was the third CM since 1998 elections. PA Sangma of NCP played a major role in the fall of the regime. PFM includes members of NCP, Congress-led United Meghalaya Opposition Forum (UMOF), HSPDP, PDM, the newly formed Meghalaya United Democratic Party (MUDP) some independent MLAs.

PFM govt was the sixth in the past three-and-half years. PFM commands a strength of 43, including the Speaker in the house.

While Khonglam took over on Dec 8, 2001, Leader of the Congress Legislature Party DD Lapang was made the Deputy CM. Lapang held the same portfolio in the UDP-Cong coalition led by BB Lyngdoh earlier. The Khonglam govt survived when on Dec 17 Congress decided to continue to be part of ruling coalition despite earlier threatening to withdraw support.

The Mawlong Govt was reduced to a minority following withdrawal of support by several key coalition partners including the NCP, BJP, PDM, besides a faction of the United Democratic Party (UDP) to which Mowlong belongs.

MAIN ELECTION ISSUES

Stability: Political stability is the chosen slogan for all parties in Meghalaya which has seen five governments in five years. Congress has decided to specially focus on the issue.

Development: Development and peace are very old promises not yet totally fulfilled by any government. BJP wants to be seen differently in this aspect. It is set to focus on the centrally sponsored development projects, the fact that BJP-led NDA govt has for the first time appointed a cabinet minister specially for north-east and the first ever north-east council headed by the Governor of Assam.

Garo state demand: Demand for a separate Garo state is also a poll issue in part of the state. Clifford Marak (the lone MLA from Garo National Council's Chokpot seat) is behind the demand.

Militancy: The outlawed Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) which is engaged in an armed struggle for a Greater Garoland comprising parts of Assam and Khasi Hills may also influence votes in some parts. PCC chief Marak said the militant-politician nexus could affect the electoral prospects of the Congress, just as it would in the case of other parties.

Assam-Meghalaya border dispute: Meghalaya has been accusing Assam of encroaching upon its border areas. Talks are due and both the states have agreed to maintain a status quo on the issue.

Tribal Caste row: Meghalaya CM Khonglam had touched a raw nerve in Nov last year when he announced that Meghalaya Land Transfer Act would be amended to include more tribal communities in “indigenous” category. Khasi Students’ Union has challenged government’s decision, joining long list of organisations and parties, including BJP, which are opposed to the move. The decision will benefit Karbi, Hmar, Baitei, Koch, Bodo, Rabha and Hajong communities. Earlier only Khasis, Syntengs, Pnars, Wars, Bhois, Lyngams and Garos enjoyed this status. The decision is being seen as a ploy to win over the non-indigenous electorate.

Shifting of Central Excise Office: The issue of the Centre’s decision to shift Central excise office from here to Guwahati is also set to become a poll issue. Employees unions and other outfits are planning an agitation against the move.

First Published: Feb 13, 2003 15:58 IST