As Meghalaya Goes to Polls on Tuesday, Regional Parties Hope to Play King

The decade-old Congress chief minister Mukul Sangma is hoping to fight anti-incumbency and return to power despite challenges posed by regional parties as well as the BJP.

Meghalaya CM Mukul Sangma at an election rally. Credit: Twitter

New Delhi: As many as 18.3 lakh voters in Meghalaya will go to the polling booths on February 27 to elect their next government following an intense bout of campaigning that for the first time saw not only the issue of religious freedom in the Christian majority state taking centrestage, but also the first ever killing of a candidate at the hands of an armed group.

Even though the decade-old Mukul Sangma-led Congress government is hoping to offset anti-incumbency against it and return to power for yet another term in the northeastern state, these elections have thrown up a huge challenge for the party. This is not just because the regional players are taking it on with the aim of toppling it citing the need for “good governance”, but also because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its arch rival at the national level, is strategising to grab power.

The BJP, which, otherwise, has limited popularity among the state’s electorate, particularly in the Garo hills, for pursuing its Hindutva politics at the national level, is hoping to form the next government by allying with some of the smaller parties if they can stitch up the required numbers on March 3, the day of counting.

NPP president Conrad Sangma. Credit: Twitter

While the Congress has fielded candidates in all 60 constituencies, the BJP has settled for 47, which includes 10 MLAs from the 2013 assembly who have recently been welcomed to the party keeping their “winnability” in mind. The party’s best show till now has been winning three seats in 1998.

Though it hasn’t entered into a pre-poll alliance with the biggest regional player in the state, the National People’s Party (NPP), which is otherwise its ally at the Centre and also a part of its government in Manipur, the BJP has reportedly kept itself out of the rest of the 13 seats to give an electoral advantage to the NPP. Though Conrad Sangma, the president of the NPP, categorically denied in an interview to The Wire recently about any covert understanding with the BJP about seat sharing, one prime instance of such an arrangement could be seen in the crucial Ampatigiri constituency in the South West Garo hills district.

Though Sangma said his party couldn’t find an eligible candidate to take on chief minister Mukul Sangma at Ampatigiri and had, therefore, chosen to not field any while the BJP has fielded a former state government employee belonging to the Hajong community, poll observers in the state would like to look at it as a joint strategy to counterpoise the electoral prospects of the CM, who has been winning from the constituency for four straight terms. With the anti-incumbency votes likely to consolidate against him now in Ampatigiri, which has a sizeable chunk of non-Garo voters including Hajongs, Mukul Sangma, for the first time, is contesting simultaneously from two seats. The other seat is Songsek, considered a stronghold of the NPP.

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The NPP, which won two seats in the 2013 assembly polls and has fielded 53 candidates across the two distinctly divided geographical segments of the state – the Khasi and Jaintia Hills and the Garo hills – is reportedly maintaining a distance from the BJP. It is understood to avoid attracting political backlash from voters since many of them look at the BJP’s notification last year to regulate cow slaughter (it was withdrawn since) as a veiled attempt to ban beef, their staple meat. This triggered an uproar in the state then, leading some of the BJP leaders to quit the party. In the run-up to the polls, while the regional parties have made development, health, education and local issues their main poll planks, with the BJP upping its game, the issue about religious freedom has also surfaced as an equally important election issue.

PM Narendra Modi at an election rally in Meghalaya on February 22. Credit: Twitter

With the BJP increasingly being seen as “anti-Christian” in many parts of the state, lately also after the Narendra Modi government denied visa to the international head of the Baptist Church who was invited to take part in the 150 years of Christianity in the Garo hills, among other BJP national leaders, PM Modi particularly addressed the issue. During his election campaign in the state on February 22, Modi cited examples of his government facilitating the return of 46 nurses belonging to the Christian community of Kerala from the clutches of ISIS in Iraq and a church father from Afghanistan to state, “We (BJP) don’t believe in the politics of religion.”

Prior to Modi’s visit, Congress’ state and national leaders, including All India Congress Committee (AICC) president Rahul Gandhi, took on the BJP after Union tourism minister and the party’s Christian face K.J. Alphons announced a Rs 70 crore worth financial package to refurbish the state’s churches. Some of the churches have since refused to take a share of it.

While the Khasi and Jaintia hills together have 36 assembly constituencies, the rest of the 24 are in the Garo hills. Besides NPP, another regional party that has fielded candidates in constituencies across the Khasi, Jainita and Garo hills is the United Democratic Party (UDP). For the first time in the state’s history, there is a pre-poll regional alliance between two regional parties – the UDP with Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP), the oldest local party, which supports a separate hill state comprising the Jaintia and Khasi districts. Together, these two parties, which had 12 seats in the last assembly, are contesting 29 seats.

Rahul Gandhi at Mendipathar on February 20. Credit: Twitter

Another regional party that is hoping to make a difference in the Garo hills is the Garo National Council (GNC). The party, which supports a separate state of Garoland, has fielded six candidates. It had one seat in the last assembly polls.

There is also a new regional entrant – People’s Democratic Party – besides a number of independent candidates in the fray. In a state where voters largely pick winners based on candidates and not parties, there were as many as 13 independent MLAs in the last assembly. The Congress, which for the first time in the state’s history, won 29 seats in the last elections, formed the Meghalaya United Alliance (MUA) government with the support of some independents.

Apart from the Congress and the BJP, two other national players that hope to corner a seat or two in the state are Trinamool Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). In the last assembly polls, while TMC had no representation, the NCP had two legislators.

In the heat of the campaigning, the state saw a first in the death of Jonathone Sangma, the NCP candidate from Williamnagar constituency in East Garo Hills district. Though threats by militants to candidates during electioneering is nothing new, it is for the first time a candidate was killed following threats by an armed group. Five days after Jonathone was killed in a IED blast on February 19 evening while returning home from campaign meetings, Sohan Shira, the most wanted militant of the region and the head of the anti-talks faction of the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), was neutralised by a joint team of local police and the state’s special force commandos.

The election to the Williamnagar seat has since been countermanded.

For Tuesday’s polling to the rest of the 59 seats, as many as 3,082 booths would open doors at 7 am till 4 pm. As per the state’s chief electoral officer Frederick Roy Kharkongor, the total number of voters, which showed an increase of 21.8% this year, includes as many as 3,27,595 new voters.

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