Elections are expensive affairs. Candidates are considered potential winners based on their ability to service their constituents and ply them with gifts; pay medical bills, take care of their children’s school fees and so on. Also, those MLAs who are high in the wealth rankings and can fund their own elections are preferred to those without the wherewithal required to finance campaigns.
In Meghalaya, people from the poorest sections of a constituency line up at the MLA’s home from early in the morning. This is so common that an MLA once said, “I am tired of watching from my upstairs bedroom window people queue up at my residence from 6 am because I cannot even step out for my morning walk.”
Much of the funds to meet sundry demands from constituents come from the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly Local Area Development Scheme under which every MLA gets Rs.2.5 crore annually to bridge the development gaps in his or her constituency. In fact, this MLA scheme is seen as providing an unfair advantage to MLAs while hobbling newbies who might be struggling with regard to funding. This patronage democracy has enabled nearly all the Meghalaya MLAs to run side businesses and even own ventures like construction companies. How will people be able to gather money on demand to pay constituents unless they have thriving businesses? The alternative, of course, is to dip into the public exchequer. It is no wonder then that the ruling Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA), comprising the National People’s Party (NPP), the BJP, the United Democratic Party (UDP), the People’s Democratic Front, and the Hill State People’s Democratic Party, has been embroiled in many scams over the past five years.
There was the “smart meter scam” where a contractor was overpaid Rs.149 crore to fit smart meters, a project that is still hanging fire. A preliminary report from the Comptroller and Auditor General also pointed this out. After a number of media investigations, it was found that a large number of homes that did not have electricity connections in the villages of Garo Hills have been fitted with smart meters and were even issued bills. The illiterate and semi-literate village heads were told to append their thumb impressions or signatures on papers that they could barely read and the smart meter project was declared completed.
The Jal Jeevan Mission is another that is yet to reach Meghalaya’s rural outback. Without monitoring from Central agencies, this project has come a cropper. However, Renikton Lyngdoh Tongkhar, who was the Public Health Engineering Minister until recently and works as a contractor, is contesting the election again. He is confident about winning because the people who still walk miles to fetch drinking water do not belong to his constituency. Everything about Meghalaya is constituency-centric.
A plethora of scams
The MDA came into being in 2018 as a post-poll alliance in 2018. However, a few months ago, all the junior partners of the NPP (whose national president is Chief Minister Conrad Sangma) began a muck-raking exercise and tried to wash their hands of the scams that had tainted the government. The ones highlighted included the “rice scam” in which rice meant for the destitute, which was to be distributed through the Social Welfare Department, was diverted to an Army cantonment from Guwahati. Another one was the “Assembly dome scam”. In 2001, the State Assembly was gutted in a fire caused by a short circuit and since then Assembly sessions have been held in an auditorium. The construction of the new State Assembly building was finally taken up on 80 acres of land at the New Shillong Township in 2019-20. A high-powered committee allotted the work to Rajkiya Nirman Nigam Ltd., a PSU of the Uttar Pradesh government. In January 2022, the dome atop the new building collapsed purportedly due to poor construction and the use of inferior quality construction material. The PSU in question had apparently already been blacklisted in other states, so the fact that it managed to win the construction bid was surprising. However, nothing is surprising anymore when discussing Meghalaya and its decrepit governance system. The largest irony is that the now retired engineer who supervised the Assembly construction project will contest the 2023 election on the NPP ticket.
The Conrad Sangma government has been accused of presiding over corruption during its term. Coal was allegedly allowed to be illegally mined, despite the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) ban on rat-hole mining since 2014. The NGT had banned rat-hole mining because it caused many mining deaths, including the 15 miners who were buried alive inside a flooded mine at Ksan in East Jaintia Hills in December 2018. The mined coal was then allegedly transported illegally while the police looked the other way. A high-level racket that purportedly involved the Home Minister and higher-ups in the police department allegedly collected Rs.90,000 from each truck to let them pass undeterred. The matter was taken up by the Meghalaya High Court. To escape the scrutiny of the court, coal from Meghalaya was allegedly rerouted via Assam towards Bangladesh and shown as coal coming from Jharkhand and other states into Meghalaya. Hundreds of coke units, operating without permission, use coal as raw material. The Meghalaya High Court recently came down heavily on the State government and asked how it was possible for so many coke units to operate without the government’s knowledge.
Coal mining and transportation are big business in Meghalaya and they fund elections. The NPP managed to get the national party tag but needed money to fund candidates. With coal and limestone as the only available resources apart from timber, the NPP had to tap into these. Many miners have disappeared in rat-hole mines in the State either due to flooding or mine collapses but no one has bothered to investigate because the victims were poor labourers from Bangladesh and Nepal. Journalists who want to write stories on these mining areas live in fear of becoming the targets of attacks. In November 2018, two activists who wanted to expose the coal mafia were attacked and left for dead. Fortunately, they were rescued by the police and survived to tell their harrowing tale.
It is in these circumstances that Meghalaya is going to the polls. One would have expected the NPP, the UDP and the BJP to be worried by the anti-incumbency factor but it does not seem to be the case. For one, people in Meghalaya do not vote for an ideology or party. They vote for individuals who they think are likely to help them in their times of distress. This is especially true in rural areas. And the people do not vote on issues. Even corruption seems to matter a lot only to the intellectuals living in Shillong and its suburbs; the poor people living in urban slums see a gift of Rs.5,000 or even Rs.2,000 to a family as a windfall. Poverty in Meghalaya is currently at 32.7 per cent.
The irony about Meghalaya is that while it is a matrilineal society and one that is romanticised by people across the country and the world as a State where women are naturally empowered, it has its drawbacks. Single mothers lead 41 per cent of the households because they have been abandoned by the husband or partner. Marriage is also brittle in the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo societies, the three major tribes of Meghalaya. Cohabitation (living together) is accepted and children born out of those relationships are considered legitimate. There is no social ostracism for children born out of wedlock. The flip side is that the man can leave his wife or partner whenever he wants without having to pay maintenance. So, 41 per cent of homes actually have mothers working to feed four to five mouths. Many of these women are seen selling groceries, clothes and other items on footpaths across the towns.
In an ecosystem where elections are not fought on the issues but on what candidates can shell out, the playing field can never be equal.
For nearly 30 years, the Congress with its regional coalition partners was at the helm of affairs in the State. In the 2018 election, the Congress got 21 seats while the NPP got 20; the BJP got 2 and the combined regional parties got 12 seats. Himanta Biswa Sarma, the current Assam Chief Minister and the BJP’s mover and shaker in the north-eastern region, then moved swiftly to cobble up a coalition government with the two BJP MLAs included. The Congress was left dazed because its high command could not work things out quickly enough.
In 2021, the Congress high command appointed Lok Sabha MP Vincent Pala as its Meghalaya Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) Chief despite knowing that Pala and former Chief Minister Mukul Sangma were arch-rivals. Congress members felt that a person like Charles Pyngrope would have been able to balance the party equations. Soon after Pala took over as PCC Chief, Mukul and 11 others left the Congress to join the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Five other MLAs bided their time and later joined the NPP. By 2021, the Congress had lost three seats in by-elections caused by the demise of sitting candidates. This is how the TMC was able to open its account in Meghalaya.
The TMC MLAs then became the only opposition in the Assembly as the five Congress MLAs moved to support the NPP-led government. The Congress was therefore reduced to zero in the House of 60. From there, it has taken a lot of effort to build the party up again and to find candidates to contest the current election. That the Congress has been able to field candidates from all 60 seats is quite a feat. The BJP has also been able to field candidates in all 60 seats. The NPP has fielded 57 candidates and the TMC 56.
While the BJP and its allies in Nagaland and Tripura have had smooth sailing for five years and have entered the fray on a seat-sharing basis, the NPP and the BJP in Meghalaya are hurling accusations at each other every day and the two parties are fighting the election alone. The same goes for the UDP, a partner in the outgoing coalition government. All the partners parted ways just before the election, with the BJP and the UDP heaping the blame for the scams on the NPP.
It is almost certain that no single party will get a majority (it has never happened in Meghalaya except once in 1972) and another coalition is imminent. The NPP is expected to get fewer seats this time; political observers estimate that it will bag a maximum of 15. The Congress is unlikely to get more than four or five seats and the UDP will also not get more than five or six seats. The TMC is expected to get about 15 seats, largely from Garo Hills. Since the TMC and the BJP cannot be expected to work together and the TMC and the Congress have been hurling abuses at each other, the only other party that can cobble together a coalition is the NPP. And it is likely that the same old allies—the BJP and UDP—will kiss and make up.
Politics as they say makes strange bedfellows. And in Meghalaya, this is pretty common and the size of the bed does not matter. The treasures under the bed are what matter the most. And the people will probably get the hotchpotch government they deserve. After all, politics has never meant service to the people here. It has meant power and authority, being served for the next five years, and flaunting all the VIP paraphernalia possible under the sun.
Patricia Mukhim is currently Editor, The Shillong Times, and a political commentator and author.
- Election candidates in Nagaland are considered potential winners based on their ability to service their constituents and ply them with gifts.
- The patronage democracy has enabled nearly all the Meghalaya MLAs to run side businesses and own ventures like construction companies.
- Coal mining and transportation are big business in Meghalaya and they fund elections.
- A few months ago, all the junior partners of the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance began a muck-raking exercise against the National People’s Party (NPP)—whose national president is Chief Minister Conrad Sangma—and tried to wash their hands of the scams that had tainted the government.
- In an ecosystem where elections are not fought on the issues but on what candidates can shell out, the playing field can never be equal.
- It is almost certain that no single party will get a majority (it has never happened in Meghalaya except once in 1972) and another coalition is imminent.
- The only party that can put together a coalition is the NPP, and it is likely that the same old allies—the BJP and UDP—will kiss and make up.