The Congress-led government steps down to pave the way for a new alliance of regional parties to assume power.
HALF an hour ahead of a crucial floor test in the Meghalaya Assembly on March 19, Chief Minister D.D. Lapang stepped down, paving the way for the Meghalaya Progressive Alliance (MPA) chairman, Donkupar Roy, to take over as the new executive head of the State. The change of guard took place barely 10 days after Lapang was hurriedly sworn in as Chief Minister of the Congress-led Meghalaya United Alliance (MUA) minority government by Governor S.S. Sidhu. Lapang was given 10 days to prove his majority.
Roy was Deputy Chief Minister in the previous Lapang Ministry when his United Democratic Party (UDP) and other regional parties were partners in the Congress-led ruling coalition.
Lapang tried various permutations and combinations but gave up as the political parties and the MPA legislators he approached did not find his plan workable. On the other hand, former Lok Sabha Speaker and architect of the MPA Purno Agitok Sangma and Roy did some simple arithmetic of adding up the number of legislators each constituent had, to arrive at the magic figure of 31, and then held on to them, protecting them from Congress predators. The MUA consisted of 25 Congress legislators and three independents, which means it was three MLAs short of the majority mark in a House with a current strength of 59. (Polling in Baghmara constituency was rescheduled for March 22 following the death of the Congress candidate.)
Lapang kept four ministerial berths and key portfolios vacant hoping to lure three legislators from the MPA camp. As the MPA remained impregnable, Lapang was forced to concede defeat. The Congress Legislature Party (CLP), which met ahead of the House session, decided that he should quit in order to avoid embarrassment on the floor of the House.
Political circles sensed the uncertainty in the air when Lapang got the election of a Speaker deferred until March 20 and preferred to face the floor test first with Pro Tem Speaker Hopping Stone Lyngdoh in the chair. The MPA had vowed to defeat the MUA in the Speakers election and force Lapang to quit on moral grounds, ahead of the floor test.
Earlier, the MPA had staked its claim to form the government. Thirty legislators presented themselves before the Governor. They even submitted a letter of support from UDP leader and former Chief Minister E.K. Mawlong, who could not accompany the delegation owing to ill health, to convince him that the alliance had the requisite majority.
The Governor, however, decided to invite the Congress as it had emerged as the single largest party. The MPA challenged the Governors decision in the Supreme Court, and requested that the time given to Lapang to prove his majority be reduced to seven days. The apex court declined to interfere with the Governors decision and posted the petition for further hearing on March 24.
Although Sangma had projected himself as the chief ministerial candidate of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in the run-up to the elections, he made the coalition of his party, the UDP, two other regional parties the Hill State Peoples Democratic Party (HSPDP) and the Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement (KHNAM) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and two independents work effectively by proposing power-sharing on a 50-50 basis between the two major constituents, the NCP (with 14 MLAs) and the UDP (with 11). Accordingly, Sangma will take over as Chief Minister after Roy completes two and a half years in office.
However, the power-sharing arrangement seemed difficult to work out as Roy did not have a complete list of 12 Ministers ready for swearing in on the day he took office. The Governor administered the oath of office to six Ministers, who included P.A. Sangmas son Conrad Sangma of the NCP, the lone KHNAM legislator Paul Lyngdoh, the lone BJP legislator A.L. Hek, Advisor Pariong of the HSPDP, and two independents, Manas Choudhury and Donkupar Massar.
Roy, a former economics teacher, said he would accord top priority to ensuring transparency in governance, preparing a common minimum programme reflecting the promises made by the coalition partners in their respective poll manifestos and reviewing the controversial power deal signed by the previous government.
Lapang has indicated that the Congress would not like to sit in the Opposition through the entire five-year term.
They are a bundle of contradictions and [the government] would not last three months. Only the Congress can provide a stable government and will be back soon, he said, pinning his hopes on the cracks that may develop in the ruling alliance.
Sangma admitted that running a coalition government was a challenge but maintained that the alliance had applied the formula of sacrifice in order to ensure that it did not fall apart. Sangma himself set the example by deciding to forgo the chief ministerial post despite the NCP having the largest number of legislators in the MPA.
He has been offered the post of Chairman of the State Planning Board, which he is likely to accept.
While the new Ministry has enough berths to keep the two smaller regional parties, the BJP legislator and the two independents happy, Sangma and Roy will have to do some serious thinking to keep the NCP and UDP legislators in good spirits as the size of the Ministry is limited to 12. Clearly, the coalition will be under pressure to try various permutations and combinations.
All eyes are now on the Baghmara seat. The contest there is likely to be tougher for the Congress as the MPA will make a combined effort to win it. An MPA victory will further strengthen the ruling coalition, and if the Congress succeeds in retaining the seat it will help the party try a new numbers game.