Ampatigiri (South West Garo Hills, Meghalaya): One of the best takeaways from a road trip in any Northeastern region is the village bazaar. Halt at one, typically along a highway, and watch its hustle and bustle. If there is any accurate barometer to see what people of a certain area in the region eat, use and wear, these bazaars have it. It goes without saying that in an election season, these bazaars also become a net to catch the public mood.
In the forenoon, the Betasing bazaar in Meghalaya’s South West Garo Hills is predictably humming, as hawkers try and sell their produce at cut-throat prices before sundown. Behind a big tree, a few metres from the fish and vegetable sellers, stands the bazaar’s tallest and newest addition – a two-storey building that was in local news on December 22.
Mukul Sangma, the state chief minister and Congress MLA from the Ampati constituency (including Betasing and Zikzak administrative blocks) since 1998, inaugurated a farmers’ market housed in that building that day.
In Ampatigiri, the district headquarters situated a just a few kilometres from Betasing, Sangma also inaugurated an ‘Integrated Farmers’ Market Centre’, besides laying a foundation stone for another farmers’ market at the nearby village of Doldegre. All these markets have been funded by the state’s horticulture department and, as per Sangma, would together provide farmers with a ready market for their produce.
A bamboo fence at the entrance of the Betasing farmers’ market, however, meant it is not functional yet. “It is almost ready, will be open after the elections. We will all get a shop there,” a provision store owner told The Wire when asked who would be allotted space in it.
But isn’t it for farmers? “Yes it is, it is for all of us, farmers and shop-owners of Betasing,” the shopkeeper replied.
If the Sangma government doesn’t return in the February 27 elections, will he still get a shop there?
“He will return,” came the curt reply, even as some others hanging around in the adjacent gue (areca nut in Garo language) shop nodded in approval.
Some distance away, selling multi-coloured Hajong mekhelas, is a chatty hawker from the Assamese Koch community, the third largest after the Garos and the Hajongs. While the hill areas of Ampati are inhabited by Garos, the foothills have the Hajongs and the Kochs besides Bengalis and a small Muslim community. Ampatigiri town is about 35 km from the India-Bangladesh border.
“Go for some change, why do you always buy the ones woven with acrylic thread? Not long lasting,” the mekhela hawker suggested to a customer, pointing at the “slightly expensive” cotton ones. In the coming elections, too, she later told this correspondent, “I will go for change, I will pick the BJP.”
So, does the party she will go for hold a real chance this time round? “Not sure, but it will be a good fight,” she said, offering gue, a local custom.
In the run-up to the polls in Ampatigiri, it is this likely close contest between the Congress and the BJP that is worrying Sangma, who has been in power for a decade now. His fears stem from the BJP having some tacit support from its ally in Manipur and the Centre, the National People’s Party (NPP), to benefit from anti-incumbency.
The BJP may have a limited support base in the state, but defeating Sangma in his backyard would certainly be a moral win for the party – and a pleasure that Sangma is not going to hand over so easily.
A local Congressman admitted that the fight is stiff this time. “Since Sangma won the Ampati constituency in 1998 (as an independent, and later joined the Congress), this is the second time he is facing a fairly uphill task.”
“After the firing incidents in September 2005,” he recalled, “at the rallies of the Garo Students Union (GSU) in Williamnagar and Tura, where nine people died and over 30 were injured, all the civil society organisations in Garo hills were against the then D.D. Lapang government. The GSU was protesting against shifting the state’s Board of Secondary Education headquarters from Tura. There was a strong sentiment against the Lapang government in the Garo Hills then. The 2008 elections were difficult for Mukul Sangma in Ampati, as he was one of the two deputy chief ministers then.”
“After the incident when he visited Tura with other Congress leaders the Church leaders and civil society organisations refused to meet him. He had to step down from his post of deputy CM.”
An RSS functionary in Ampati, speaking on the condition of anonymity, pointed to a “formula” that the BJP has put together to take on Sangma.
“As per our calculations, the Hindu votes of the constituency, comprising the Bengalis, Hajongs and Kochs, will support the BJP. But the Garo community may not. Being Christian, they are suspicious of the BJP, particularly after the beef ban controversy last year, after which some local leaders to quit the party. That is where the NPP will be useful to us. According to our formula, NPP will strategically not put up a candidate from Ampati and will likely ask its Garo voters to back the BJP candidate,” he said.
NPP president Conrad Sangma has been skirting questions from the local media on this issue, particularly after he didn’t name any candidate for an important constituency like Ampatigiri even though he is taking on the Mukul Sangma government. In a recent interview to The Wire, he said, “We have not found a very strong candidate to give a fight to Mukul Sangma in Ampati. So, we have decided to leave the seat.”
However, that chief minister Sangma is contesting from two constituencies – Ampati and Songsek – for the first time has given rise to speculation in both local media and among the public that there may indeed be a tacit NPP-BJP “formula” in place, leading Sangma to play safe.
However, unlike Sangma, who won five consecutive terms from Ampatigiri, BJP candidate Bakul Hajong is a political first-timer. Yet, BJP workers in Tura told this correspondent that “there is no better candidate than Hajong to take on Sangma”.
Hajong joined the BJP in June last year, after he took voluntary retirement from his state government job. “I worked in the Department of Sericulture and Weaving in the state for 36 years, and was its director for three years. In an hour’s time, on the chief minister’s order, I was shunted out and made the officer on special duty in the department. It was probably because I wanted to join politics and serve my people after retirement. It was a political decision by the chief minister and, therefore, I decided to take voluntary retirement and challenge him electorally,” Hajong told The Wire.
Even before the BJP declared its candidates list, Hajong began his campaign in the constituency, travelling to the interiors to drum up support. “BJP national in-charge for Meghalaya Nalin Kohli and North East Democratic Alliance convenor Himanta Biswa Sarma met me a couple of times, which sent clear signals that I would be the one to take on Mukul Sangma from Ampati. So, I didn’t wait for the formal list to come out and began my campaign,” he said.
“The Modi wave, the corruption of the chief minister, lack of infrastructure in the area and only foundation stones, unemployment in the rural areas” are some of the reasons why Hajong thinks he will sail through. “I met Conrad Sangma thrice in his house in Tura, I have his support,” he claimed.
NPP, too, has designed its campaign against the Mukul Sangma government on the lines of lack of development and “laying only foundation stones”. On January 4, the chief minister also laid the foundation stone for a medical college in Tura, the largest town of the Garo hills.
On January 27, launching his campaign at Songsek constituency, an NPP stronghold, Mukul Sangma came down heavily against that criticism. “In fact, whatever foundation stones laid by me in Meghalaya are still not enough. Many more foundation stones are needed in the state to bring about development. I have made a humble beginning to accelerate growth and development in the state,” he said at a rally attended by about 10,000 people.
While his opponents in the Garo Hills accuse him of laying foundation stones, many in the Khasi and Jaintia hills say he is taking all important projects to Ampati and the Garo hills.
“That he is facing strong opposition from the BJP is a rumour. Don’t believe it. In 2008, he defeated Clement Momin of the Nationalist Congress party (NCP) by 2,966 votes. In the 2013 elections, he defeated Momin, who contested as an NPP candidate, by over 9,000 votes. So, his winning margin has been going up. He will win Ampati this time too,” claimed a staunch Congress supporter in the Hawa Khana area of Tura.
On February 3, the battle lines drawn between the Congress and the BJP, however, got a new dimension in Ampati when a regional party, the United Democratic Front (UDP), put up a candidate, Nimerson Sangma.
UDP, along with the state’s oldest regional party Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP), is taking on the Congress in the coming polls. A part of BJP’s NEDA, some UDP leaders did talk about their willingness to work with the BJP last year, but they have since kept equal distance from both national parties.
“It may not be a very good sign for the BJP anymore in Ampati as anti-incumbency votes may get divided now and that could help Mukul Sangma to turn the tables in his favour,” said a local reporter in Tura.
Speaking to voters in Betasing, Ampati and adjoining areas, however, suggests quite a few things: that it may not be a walk in the park for any of the contenders this time; that herd voting by communities is, after all, a myth; that apart from party affiliations, voters also gauge the ability of a candidate; and that, no one can deny the soft power of hard cash in an Indian election, particularly in the Northeast.
“I am a Bengali and live towards the Mancachar (Assam-Meghalaya) border area. I support Congress, I like Mukul Sangma, he got the road to our village made; the government hospital in Ampati is good; we have now our own court (referring to a district and sessions court in Ampati set up last year). But I am angry at the people who represent him here. They keep all the benefits to themselves, are very arrogant,” said a vegetable seller in Ampati Bazaar.
The owner of a sweet shop which flaunted framed photos of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi added, “I am a Congress supporter but this time you never know, it could be anyone.”
A Garo woman selling local oranges nearby said, “Not all Koch and Hajong will support BJP. Many are Congress supporters. Also, each party candidate is distributing money to villagers on the pretext of feasts for festivals or hospital fees, etc. Money is flowing like water. Votes will get divided over it. Even the Garo votes will be divided.”
“There is no doubt that Ampati is not as predictable this time as in the 2013 polls. But don’t underestimate Mukul Sangma yet,” said a social activist in Tura. “After the 2005 firing incidents, many senior leaders across party lines wrote him off. Even a seasoned politician like P.A. Sangma, who was with the NCP then, tried to establish the party in the Garo hills then, but Mukul Sangma not only got re-elected in the 2008 elections and went on to become the state chief minister, but also gave two governments that completed their five-year term, the first to do so after D.D. Lapang.”