Meghayala Assembly elections

Self-inflicted defeat

Print edition : March 30, 2018

Chief Minister Conrad Sangma greets Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh at the swearing-in ceremony at the Governor's House in Shillong on March 6. Also in the frame is BJP president Amit Shah. Photo: Kulendu Kalita/AFP

The Congress’ failure to work out an electoral strategy in response to the issues of the coal mining ban and the implementation of the Sixth Schedule provision relating to mineral resources cost it dear in Meghalaya.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wanted to be the king in Meghalaya but ended up as one of the kingmakers. It contested in 46 seats but managed to win just two in a fractured mandate that gave 21 seats to the Congress and 19 to the National People’s Party (NPP) in a House of 60. (Elections were held in 59 constituencies.) Nevertheless, the BJP outsmarted the Congress in turning the post-election equation in its favour and played a key role in the formation of a non-Congress coalition government headed by the NPP and backed by the BJP and regional parties.

The BJP reaped the dividend of bringing together the NPP and the principal regional party, the United Democratic Party (UDP), under the common banner of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), which was formed at its behest two years ago.

The Congress unsuccessfully tried to reach out to the regional parties after it fell short of a clear majority. The BJP and its two NEDA partners did not forge a pre-election alliance. It was a move that blunted the edge of the Congress campaign that accused the BJP of being an anti-Christian party in the Christian-majority State. The NEDA constituents also fielded candidates against one another to ensure that anti-Congress votes went to one of them in the absence of a combined opposition candidate.

It was not just the election arithmetic that went against the Congress. The ban on coal mining and transportation in Meghalaya and the Congress government’s failure to remedy the situation became a major election issue. The Congress’ failure to share power with autonomous councils under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and to contain dissidence also worked against it.

Meghalaya has three autonomous councils—the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC), the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council (GHADC) and the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council (JHADC). These enjoy legislative, executive and judicial autonomy under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution in respect of subjects transferred to them.

The two BJP legislators’ support is not crucial to the survival of the new coalition government headed by NPP president Conrad Sangma. Yet, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and BJP president Amit Shah rushed to Shillong to attend the swearing-in ceremony in a bid to showcase the election results in Meghalaya as an outcome of the party’s “Congress-mukt” campaign. The BJP contested 28 seats in 1998, won in three and polled 5.01 per cent of the total votes, while its vote share in the seats contested was 10.59 per cent. In 2013, it contested 13 seats but failed to win a single seat; its vote share declined to 1.27 per cent and 6.20 per cent in the seats contested. In this election, the party polled 9.6 per cent votes. Aware of its poor performance in the past and the hard reality that it had failed to build its organisation in Meghalaya, the BJP employed the tactics that it had used in other States of the region. It wooed disgruntled leaders and legislators of the Congress who would carry their supporters with them. This would create an impression that the BJP now had better organisational strength and that the ruling party’s popularity had declined. Five of the seven dissident Congress legislators joined the NPP, one joined the BJP and another joined the People’s Democratic Front (PDF), another constituent of the NPP-led ruling coalition.

On the other hand, in all the north-eastern States where the Congress was in power, it failed to separate the powers and functions of its legislature parties from those of the party’s State units. The legislature parties generally overshadowed the party organisation, and power centres emerged within them. The moment the equilibrium of these power centres was disturbed, it gave way to dissidence. Neither the All India Congress Committee nor the State units could win over the dissidents or take timely action to prevent a crisis.

Mining disaster

While the Congress government in Meghalaya was grappling with the problem of dissidence, its failure to address the issue of the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) ban on mining and transportation of coal in the State, imposed in April 2014, eroded its popularity among families who lost their livelihoods. The State government also lost revenue because of the ban.

Coal mining in Meghalaya is done manually and is known as rat-hole mining. Miners crawl inside long tunnels and use implements to burrow in and extract coal. The NGT had directed the State government to submit a mining plan in coordination with the Government of India. However, it allowed, for a fixed window period, transportation of coal already extracted and lying near the mining site with due checks and balances and the payment of royalty to the State government.

The Department of Mines and Geology, Meghalaya, estimates the coal reserves of the State at 576.48 million tonnes: 133.13 million tonnes of proven reserves while the rest is inferred.

The prominent coalfields are West Darrangiri, Siju, Pendengru-Balpakram in the South Garo Hills district; Borsora Langrin and Shallang in the West Khasi Hills district; East Darrangiri, partly in West Khasi Hills and partly in East Garo Hills; Mawlong-Shella and Sohra-Cherrapunjee in the East Khasi Hills district and Bapung-Sutnga in the Jaintia Hills district.

Unofficial estimates put the number of households involved in coal-mining-related activities at 1.5 lakh. Meghalaya has 5,38,299 households (Census 2011). The State produced 57,32,000 tonnes of coal in 2013-14 and 25,21,000 tonnes in 2014-15 (source: Statistical Handbook of Meghalaya 2017). From fiscal 2001-02 to fiscal 2014-15, the highest production of coal was recorded in 2011-12, at 72,05,900 tonnes.

The Congress government led by Mukul Sangma wanted the Meghalaya Mineral Development Corporation (MMDC) to carry out mining activities on behalf of miners. However, coal miners opposed this. The government told the Assembly that the offer of mining by the MMDC was made pending the Central government’s decision to invoke paragraph 12 A (b) of the Sixth Schedule to exempt Meghalaya from the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973, and the Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act in the Sixth Schedule areas of the State under the jurisdiction of the autonomous councils. It clarified that the MMDC would not own the mines but would take necessary measures to prepare mining plans and get various clearances after obtaining mining leases from the Centre. The Chief Minister gave an assurance that after mining activities were carried out, the mines would be handed over to the people and there would be no alienation of land. However, P.N. Syiem, KHADC chief executive member and Congress legislator, opposed the move and insisted that coal miners would not accept it.

Various organisations, including the Jaintia Hills Coal Miners and Dealers’ Association (JHCMDA), alleged that the move was an attempt to “take away the rights of tribal people over minerals”. JHCMDA president Belios Swer said that the “mine developer-operator model for coal mining in the State would attract global players which will make tribal people outsiders in their own land”. The BJP seized the opportunity to woo the leaders of the association. Belios Swer joined the BJP along with 50 members in August 2017.

The NPP accused the Congress of destroying the local industry to facilitate large corporates seeking to extract coal in the State. The BJP, on other hand, promised in its Vision Document to resolve the issue of the ban within 180 days of coming to power. The Congress government was accused by all major political players in the State of not submitting the mining plan to the NGT to facilitate lifting of the ban. The NPP alleged that the Centre had asked the State government to submit the mining plan but that the latter failed to do so as it had “no vision”. The NPP campaign was that it had the “political will but not political power”; it promised to start mining scientifically “if voted to power”. It seems to have worked in garnering support from a large section of miners, traders and households affected by the ban.

Issue pending with Centre

Although the Congress government moved the Centre to invoke paragraph 12 A (b) of the Sixth Schedule, the latter kept the issue pending. Yet the Sangma government was perceived as not prioritising the invocation of provisions of the Sixth Schedule. The Congress failed to impress upon the people that the State government’s requests for invoking these provisions were pending before the Centre. The BJP, on the other hand, promised to get the ban lifted within six months of coming to power. The attempt to hand over coal mining to the MMDC also estranged voters from the Congress.

Immediately after assuming office, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma told reporters in Shillong that Union Coal Minister Piyush Goyal had invited him for a discussion on the coal mining issue. He added that the issue was multilayered and his government would move as fast as it could to address it and make aggressive efforts to find a solution. He also said that the government would follow up with the Centre to invoke paragraph 12 A (B).

The urgency shown by the BJP-led government at the Centre and the NPP-led government in Meghalaya in addressing these two critical issues also explains how the issues shaped the perception of voters. The Congress failed to take note of this and formulate an effective electoral strategy accordingly. However, getting the Centre to invoke paragraph 12 A (B) in Meghalaya would be a daunting task for the new government as it would amount to New Delhi giving up its rights over mineral resources in the Sixth Schedule areas in the State and granting the rights to the people. It may open a veritable Pandora’s box: there are 10 autonomous councils under the Sixth Schedule in the region, three each in Assam, Meghalaya and Mizoram and one in Tripura.

Power-sharing problems

Conflict got precedence over reconciliation when it came to power-sharing between the State government and the autonomous councils under Congress rule. This was the case with not just the GHADC, which was run by the NPP, but also the Congress-controlled KHADC. The Congress also faced charges of policy inconsistency in dealing with the autonomous councils.

Mukul Sangma’s government pushed for the Prevention of Disqualification (Members of Legislative Assembly of Meghalaya) (Amendment) Act, 2015. The amendment was brought to bar legislators from simultaneously holding the office of Members of District Council (MDC). As a result, six legislators who were members of KHADC and one legislator who was a member of JHADC quit the council seats, necessitating byelections.

Syeim, however, refused to quit. The Congress suspended him on charges of “anti-party activities” on October 14, 2016. The Supreme Court in January 2017 upheld a full bench order of the Meghalaya High Court that sitting legislators could continue to hold both offices simultaneously because the MDC’s office was not an office of profit.

In protest against Syiem’s suspension, five Congress MDCs left the party. Barely two months before the Assembly elections, Syiem resigned his primary memberbership of the Congress.

The new regional party, the People’s Democratic Front (PDF), was formed in April 2017. The PDF has won four seats and secured 8.2 per cent of the votes, which resulted in the Congress losing ground in Khasi Hills. It has joined the NPP-led coalition government.

The Congress won 11 of the 36 seats in Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills region, against the 16 seats it won in 2013. The NPP gained eight seats in this region.

The Congress government extended the term of the GHADC, which triggered protests. But Mukul Sangma justified the move saying that the State government was waiting for the Centre to implement peace pacts with two militant outfits, the Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) and the ANVC (B), on increasing the number of seats to the Council. The NPP said this was a constitutional matter and the Sixth Schedule had to be amended by Parliament for it.

In elections held to the GHADC in October 2015, the NPP emerged as the single largest party, winning 10 of the total 29 seats. The Congress won seven seats, the Garo National Council won three, the BJP and the NCP got one each, and independents won seven. The NPP formed the Executive Council with the support of the BJP and other members, but in 2017 the council was toppled and a new Council led by the Congress was formed.