Regional Parties Likely To Call the Shots in Meghalaya Polls

As Congress and BJP intensify their campaign, the buzz on the ground is that state is most likely heading towards a fragmented mandate seen in the 2008 elections.

An election-related graffiti spotted on a Shillong road. Credit: The Wire/Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Shillong (Meghalaya): Trudging up towards Golf Links from the Polo Grounds after attending the Republic Day function, a group of children from Meghalaya’s dominant Khasi community waved small national flags attached to plastic pipes and greeted passers-by with “Khublei, Jai Hind!”

Outside the Polo Grounds, it was a normal January 26 day, as crowds spilled out after the ceremonial flag hoisting by state governor Ganga Prasad. Hawkers were doing brisk business selling mini flags, plastic caps and sun shades in a mix of saffron, green and white.

It was well past noon by the time one walked past the Raj Bhavan, a few metres off Shillong’s popular tourist spot, the Ward’s Lake. But the music in the air indicated that the Republic Day festivities at the Governor’s House weren’t over yet.

“It (festivities) will be on the whole day; the new Governor has opened the Raj Bhavan for the public for two days because of  Republic Day,” said a guard. Last year, perhaps for the first time, state chief minister Mukul Sangma hoisted the flag at the Polo Ground after the then governor V. Shanmuganathan stayed away following allegations of sexual misconduct.

Some distance away, in front of the state High Court premises, a dozen-odd youths on motorbikes flaunting BJP flags were seen buying plastic national flags before riding off in a formation, shouting “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”.  

A woman kwai (areca nut in Khasi dialect) seller watching the youth from a distance, let out a laugh before commenting, “Competition this time, between Congress and BJP.”

“You mean, in the February 27 assembly polls?”, I asked.

“Yes, big competition between the two parties. Just look at the boys. Even the Republic Day has become one big competition,” she said some amount of disdain. “But this time neither will come, only regional parties,” she

Hawkers selling candy floss, ball0ons and flags outside Polo Grounds on Republic Day. Credit: The Wire/Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

In the election season, the kwai seller’s contention about regional parties being at a vantage point in Meghalaya has many takers. Not just in the state capital, Shillong, but also in small towns and villages across the three prime segments of the state – the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo hills.

A day earlier, in Jowai, the headquarters of the West Jaintai Hills district, situated about 66-km from Shillong, a cab driver said: “Only regional parties. No Congress, no BJP.” His view was shared by many on the streets.  

Travelling through the Garo hills, the buzz on the ground was also about regional parties having an edge.

Over the past few years, multiple factors, like allegations of corruption, lack of development, no rehabilitation of coal miners after the ban on rat-hole mines by the National Green Tribunal and a widely perceived autocratic style of the chief minister have combined, making it difficult for the possibility of the decade-old Congress government’s return.

Also read: Meghalaya CM Mukul Sangma Faces Stiff Competition in His Stronghold, Ampatigiri

Working aggressively towards meeting its goal of making the Northeast “Congress-mukt”, it was a fertile ground for the BJP for mounting a strong campaign in Meghalaya and pitch itself as its primary challenger. Till now, BJP has not been able to go beyond winning three seats (in the 1998 assembly polls).

With considerable ground support from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which has been penetrating particularly into the Khasi and Jaintia hills besides making significant inroads into non-tribal communities, the BJP spotted an opportunity in Meghalaya.

If one goes by how it co-opted MLAs from other parties in the past few months keeping winnability in mind, and the hundreds of karyakartas it managed to attract, BJP did succeed in creating a buzz around it in the poll-bound state.

In the February 27 polls, BJP has fielded 47 candidates, which includes four MLAs who defected from Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

To counter the Congress’ ‘musical’ campaign in Shillong featuring party president Rahul Gandhi with popular bands aimed at tapping the youth vote, the BJP even roped in iconic singer Lou Majaw not only to sing the party’s campaign song but to also perform at a concert in Jowai recently where state BJP president Shibun Lyngdoh addressed the gathering.

But as the poll date nears, the party’s Hindutva agenda (though, in its defence, it says its Northeast agenda is only development) being unleashed in some of the BJP states in mainstream India is increasingly working against it. Its pro- ‘development’ sheen is gradually being replaced by an ‘anti-minority’ image. Though the BJP still enjoys some support among the tribals, more and more voters in the Christian-majority state seem to be looking at the party with suspicion.

Add to this the desertion of party members following denial of tickets. The list of angry deserters includes even the sister of the state BJP president Shibun Lyngdoh. Many state functionaries are also unhappy with the party’s national leadership for “sidetracking” them.

“For years together, we worked hard to set up the party in the state and now some greedy MLAs or leaders from other parties join BJP, and they are the ones Delhi leaders trust more than us because they think those MLAs can win elections for them,” said a senior member of the state BJP in Shillong. On January 22, a number of BJP members from the North Shillong unit left the party, citing unhappiness over similar reasons.

This fast shifting ground has certainly generated a rich catchment area for local parties to pocket the anti-incumbency votes.

Not that the BJP ever underestimated the power and reach of local parties in Meghalaya. To put up a watertight fight against the Congress government in the state, it had roped in two prominent players – the United Democratic Party (UDP) and the National People’s Party (NPP) – under the umbrella of its North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA).

Also read: If NPP Wins Meghalaya, Development Will Reach Every Constituency: Conrad Sangma

However, much as the BJP would have liked to have a pre-poll alliance with both or either of these players to face the coming elections on a confident note – like it did in neighbouring Assam having tied up with Asom Gana Parishad and Bodo People’s Front — none went ahead with it. Particularly after the strong public opposition to the Centre’s notification in mid-2017 that sought to regulate the sale of cattle for slaughter. In a beef-consuming state, the Narendra Modi government’s notification was immediately looked at as a covert attempt by BJP to deny them their staple diet.

Though the Supreme Court stayed the move, pushing the Centre to finally lift the notification, and the BJP thereafter brought in Union tourism minister K J Alphons as party in-charge for the Meghalaya polls to portray a Christian-friendly face, much of its support base and goodwill had been eroded by then.

None of the two local allies now want to be seen by voters as being “close to BJP”. UDP working president Paul Lyngdoh recently told reporters in Shillong, “NEDA is a platform for the development of the region, not to forge poll alliances.”

Though NPP doesn’t rule out a post-poll alliance with BJP,  party president Conrad Sangma categorically stated in an interview to The Wire recently, “We want to go alone in the elections.” In fact, the party is already battling a strong rumour on the ground, particularly in the Garo hills, that the NPP is actually the English version of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Conrad Sangma with his supporters in Athiabari in the West Khasi Hills district. Credit: Twitter/NPP

BJP poll strategists, however, haven’t given up hope on the UDP yet and in a recent development decided not to field a candidate from the West Shillong constituency from where UDP’s Paul Lyngdoh is contesting.  

Sensing this tilt in public sentiment against the two national parties, the state’s local player, the Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP), has entered into a pre-poll alliance with UDP.

HSPDP, a vocal supporter of a Khasi and Jaintia Hills state, has a modest share of support in six of the 11 districts. In the 2013 polls, it won four of the 36 assembly seats in these districts. Together with UDP, it has 12 seats in the outgoing 60-member assembly – not a small chunk that can be ignored in a state where all you need to grab power is 30 seats.

“As per the pre-poll alliance, HSPD has decided to field 10 candidates in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills while UDP will contest 19 seats. On three seats, there will be a friendly fight between us,” said Ardent Basaiomoit, president of HSPDP. He sounded supremely confident of winning all the 10 seats.

In the Garo hills, which has 24 assembly segments, the UDP has tied up with the oldest party there, the Garo National Council (GNC). Like HSPDP is demanding a Khasi and Jaintia Hills state, GNC has been rooting for a Garo hills state, comprising five districts. Lyngdoh said while GNC would contest six seats, UDP so far has announced 13 candidates. GNC had won a lone seat in the 2013 polls.

There is also a new local player, People’s Democratic Party, contesting a few seats in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, including one in the Garo Hills.

“I strongly believe that this time people will go only for regional parties. The wave is in our favour for change. For the first time, two regional parties have come together to form a pre-poll regional alliance. I feel it will be a repeat of 1972 when the state was formed. Regional parties came together then,” UDP president and former state chief minister Dongkupar Roy told The Wire.

Roy, the leader of the Opposition in the outgoing assembly, was referring to the All Party Hill Leaders Conference which secured a majority to form the state’s first government in 1972 defeating the Congress.

When asked if UDP would have a post poll-alliance with any of the national players, Roy said, “We will take a decision on it after seeing the March 3 results. But the scenario may be different altogether. We may be able to form the government on our own.” Before becoming a part of the BJP’s NEDA, UDP had offered support to both the D.D. Lapang and Mukul Sangma-led Congress governments.

Rooting for regional parties, Basaiomoit, too, pointed out the electoral history of Meghalaya saying, “Regional parties have always played a big role in state politics and government formation. This time, too, these parties will be the main deciding factors.” Basaiomoit, a former Khasi Students’ Union (KSU leader, was also referring to the fact that it was only in the last assembly polls that Congress for the first time captured 29 seats, one short of the majority mark.

The regional parties also enjoy support — silent or otherwise — from the two influential student organisations of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, and the Garo Hills.

Khasi Students Union president Lambokstar Margnar told this correspondent, “We are an apolitical organisation, not supporting any political party in the elections, but I would still like to add here that people in Meghalaya are finding it difficult to digest the BJP because it thinks it has a hidden agenda. We live in a secular country and don’t want any violation of the Constitution. I would also like to point out that KSU wants a state policy, a law, to control undocumented migrants entering the state from the fairly open border with Bangladesh. It is not good for small communities like the Khasis. Some regional parties share this concern.”

Tengsak Momin, president of GSU, said, “We don’t mind if NPP gains power because the party, when it was in power at the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council, passed a resolution seeking codification of the Garo customary laws. Congress under Mukul Sangma is not likely to do it (Garos are a matriarchal society and many don’t consider Sangma a non-Garo as his mother was not a Garo.) We are also worried that non-tribals are winning the GHADC polls. Not good news for the Garos. So regional parties like the NPP are more likely to address our concerns.”

In Meghalaya’s electoral history, if regional parties have played a pivotal role in government formation, so have the independent candidates. The last assembly elections saw 13 independents, second in the tally of winners after Congress’s 29. They offered support to the Congress.  

“Independents have always held a good chance in Meghalaya elections because people generally go by the candidate, not much by which party he/she belongs. So, this time too, they will play kingmakers,” said a senior reporter in a Shillong-based daily.

A common refrain among reporters, poll observers and civil society groups, however, is this: The state is most likely heading towards a fragmented mandate seen in the 2008 elections.

The year 2008 was not a good political experience for Meghalaya. The UDP along with some other parties did form a government with Dongkupar Roy as the chief minister. But, it lasted exactly a year before the state plunged into President’s Rule.