Assembly Elections: Meghalaya

Intense battle

Print edition : March 03, 2018

Congress president Rahul Gandhi with Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma at a musical evening ahead of the Assembly elections, in Shillong on January 30. Photo: PTI

Mukul Sangma with his wife, Dikkanchi D. Shira. She was defeated in the byelection to the Tura Lok Sabha constituency in West Garo Hills. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Conrad K. Sangma outside the Gondogre polling station on May 16, 2016. He won the byelection to the Tura Lok Sabha seat, which fell vacant following the death of his father, P.A. Sangma. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Meghalaya is all set to witness a close contest between the ruling Congress and a BJP-regional parties combine.

MUKUL SANGMA is the second politician after the late Salseng C. Marak to have completed a full five-year term as Chief Minister in the 46 years since the creation of the State of Meghalaya. However, that does not make the 2018 Assembly elections easy for him or the ruling Congress party.

Frequent changes of guard at the helm of affairs had been the only political constant for a major part of the State’s history. Elections to the 60-member Assembly will be held on February 27.

The rise of the National People’s Party (NPP) as a strong political force, the expansion of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) organisational base, the move by the NPP and the United Democratic Party (UDP) to jump on to the anti-Congress bandwagon, and the anti-incumbency sentiment are likely to reduce the elections to a battle between the Congress and the rest although the opposition parties have not arrived at a formal alliance. However, the UDP and two other regional parties, the Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP) and the Garo National Council (GNC), have entered into a seat-sharing agreement.

In 2013, the Congress won 29 seats and secured a vote share of 34.78 per cent. The UDP won eight seats, the HSPDP four , the NPP two, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) two, the GNC one, the North East Social Democratic Party (NESDP) one and independents 13. The BJP contested 13 seats and secured a vote share 1.27 per cent. The UDP secured 17.11 per cent, the NPP 8.81 per cent, the HSPDP 4.17 per cent, the NCP 1.84 per cent, the GNC 0.71 per cent, the NESDP 0.78 per cent and independents 27.69 per cent of the vote.

In the 36 seats in the Khasi-Jaintia hills region, the UDP and the HSPDP will contest 17 and 10 seats respectively and engage in a “friendly contest” in the remaining nine seats. In the Garo Hills, the GNC will field its candidates for six of the 24 seats. The UDP, however, is undecided on contesting the remaining 18 seats.

The Congress has fielded its candidates for all the 60 seats. The BJP is contesting 47 seats and the NPP 51. There were 443 nominations for the 60 seats on February 7, the last day for the filing of nominations. Supporters of candidates turned out in large numbers during the filing of nominations, giving an indication that the State was likely to witness an intense electoral battle.

Although the BJP, the NPP and the UDP are contesting against each other, they are constituents of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA). These three parties are expected to form a non-Congress coalition in the event of a hung Assembly.

In 2013, the Congress campaigned aggressively for a single-party government, highlighting the need for political stability. A divided opposition helped it emerge as the single-largest party. The situation has changed after the BJP brought two principal opposition players, the UDP and the NPP, into the NEDA fold in 2016.

The NPP is also a constituent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance at the Centre and a partner in the BJP-led coalition government in Manipur. However, the BJP is cautious about a direct alliance with regional parties as such a move may give the Congress an opportunity to highlight the saffron party’s “Hindutva” agenda in the Christian-majority State, which can impact the electoral prospects of the NPP and the UDP.

The Congress’ spin doctors have planned to make “beef ban” a major campaign plank in a bid to counter the BJP’s tactical move. The Centre’s notification banning cattle trade had triggered a sharp reaction in the State. Several BJP leaders and workers quit the party in protest.

The Congress has been pushing an aggressive campaign based on the allegations that “the NPP is an agent of the BJP” and its campaign is “funded by the BJP”. The NPP has rubbished this allegation and built its campaign around its main election plank of “non-performance and poor governance during Congress rule”. For instance, it says “the Congress government in Meghalaya has not implemented even the basic schemes of the State and Central governments”. The NPP chief, Conrad Sangma, is confident that the party will oust the Congress.

The NPP’s confidence stems from its performance in the byelection to the Tura Lok Sabha constituency held in May 2016. The Tura constituency consists of the 24 Assembly segments of the Garo Hills. The byelection was necessitated by the death of former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Agitok Sangma. Conrad Sangma won the seat, held previously by his father, by a huge margin of 1,92,212 votes. In a straight contest, he polled 3,29,497 votes while Dikkanchi D. Shira, the Congress’ Mahendraganj MLA and Mukul Sangma’s wife, secured 1,37,285 votes.

In 2013, the NPP won two Assembly seats in the Garo Hills while the Congress won 13. In the Lok Sabha byelection, Conrad Sangma polled more votes than his rival in 23 of the 24 Assembly segments. The Congress candidate trailed in her own Assembly segment. The only Assembly segment in which she managed to get more votes (2,423 votes) than Conrad Sangma was Ampati, represented by Mukul Sangma.

This time, the Chief Minister is contesting from two Assembly constituencies, Ampati and Songsak.

Mukul Sangma exuded confidence about retaining power. He hoped the Congress would secure an absolute majority. He appealed to voters to give the party another mandate to continue the development work initiated by his government in the past eight years. Some senior party leaders, however, admit that they are facing a tough battle. They are, however, hopeful of the Congress emerging as the single largest party in the event of a fractured mandate.

Mukul Sangma faced revolts by party legislators during his tenure. He managed to survive, but the Congress could not prevent desertions from its camp. Seven Congress legislators shifted loyalty; five of them joined the NPP, one joined the BJP, and another joined the newly floated PDF.

Mukul Sangma was elected Chief Minister for a second time in 2013. He became Chief Minister for the first time in April 2010 when he replaced the Congress veteran D.D. Lapang after almost a month-long revolt in the party.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi have already set the tone for the electoral battle. Addressing a rally in Shillong on December 17, Modi said: “The wave for change, which began with the Assam elections, is now reaching Meghalaya. This State can do wonders. Fifteen years of Congress rule has ruined Meghalaya.”

The BJP’s main campaign plank is “corruption during the Congress rule”. The party’s national president Amit Shah, after inaugurating the party office in Shillong on January 6, said: “Where has the money gone? If we don’t change [the government] now, another five years will be lost.” He said the Congress’ policy was to “divide and rule” while the BJP was for, “Sabka sath sabka vikas”.

Rahul Gandhi kick-started the Congress’ electioneering on January 30 with a musical event called “Celebration of Peace, an evening celebrating Meghalaya’s way of life” at Polo Grounds in Shillong. He said the party would “defend the culture and way of thinking of the people”. Different musical bands of the State took part in the event. “Be proud of your heritage, be proud of your languages, of your culture, of your religion. We are all proud of you. We stand with you and we will defend your culture and your way of thinking,” Rahul Gandhi said. He appealed to the people to stay alert against the “spread of hatred”. Mukul Sangma and other senior Congress leaders participated in the function.

Election and music

As music is an integral part of electioneering in the State, the BJP roped in Lou Majaw, the music icon of the north-eastern region, to lend his voice and feature in the party’s music video campaign. The party hopes to use his popularity to woo voters.

The battle lines have been drawn and the contesting parties are geared for one of the most intense elections in the State.

The year 2022 will be the golden jubilee of the formation of Meghalaya as a full-fledged State. If the March 3 verdict throws up a hung House, the parties can be expected to play musical chairs to grab the “golden” crown.

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