Youth in Politics: Symbolism or Reality in Meghalaya?

All parties have been boasting about the number of young candidates they have nominated.

Known as a destination for nature lovers, Meghalaya is currently in focus because of the assembly polls. To get a sense of the political climate in the state, we visited its capital and spoke to party workers, local political observers, as well as a few contesting candidates in Shillong and its neighbouring assembly constituencies.

The focus in this cycle seems to be on young candidates, with all parties boasting about the number of young candidates they have nominated. The current chief minister, Conrad Sangma, was appointed to the post at the tender age of 40 in 2018, making him, after Pema Khandu of Arunachal Pradesh, the second youngest chief minister in India.

The average age of candidates across major parties is 46 years, with 34% of candidates who are 40 years of age or below. Among parties, the Trinamool Congress distributed the most tickets to 40 and under-40 candidates (38%) , followed by BJP (35%) and NPP (35%). Congress (32%) is only slightly behind and so is UDP (28%), as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Source: Election Commission of India

The TMC, which in the Shillong area is leading the most visible campaign, puts emphasis on that fact. James Lyngdoh, party’s state vice president and Congress veteran, proudly claimed that the TMC is leading change right from the elections by promoting young candidates and stressed on the fact that the TMC has given the highest number of tickets to young candidates. While there is truth to his claim, the difference with other parties is not significant.

Further, compared to 2018 data, percentages of young candidates across all parties except TMC have only slightly increased, as shown in Figure 2. TMC had only contested eight seats in 2018, whereas they have filed nominations for 56 seats this year. Hence, this comparison is not meaningful.

Figure 2. Source: Election Commission of India

The rise of the TMC as a contender across the Northeast is a recent phenomenon. The West Bengal-based party seeks to develop a regional presence. While traveling to Shillong from Guwahati, no one can miss the huge TMC sign boards promoting its candidates and the party’s manifesto, promising to empower women and farmers, and to increase employment opportunities for the youth. The TMC seems to be outspending its adversaries in this area, lacing the landscape with blue and white placards, signboards and merchandise, deploying LED screen mobile vans, and radio channels playing TMC advertisements.

A fruit hawker wearing Trinamool cap in the afternoon at Sohra, East Khasi Hills, Meghalaya. Photo: Poulomi Ghosh

After failing to make a mark in 2018, this time the TMC is banking on the influence of prominent Congress defectors, such as Mukul Sangma, who joined the party with 12 of his followers. This led to a further exodus of Congress party workers and more importantly young party workers. Our conversation with North Shillong Trinamool candidate Elgiva Gwyneth Rynjah revealed that she brought over 1,500 of her youth followers to the TMC.

First-time candidates’ portraits

Among major parties, 79% candidates are contesting for the first time. The time we spent with them revealed that their lack of experience does not dampen their enthusiasm or prevent them from mobilising voters on a wide array of issues.

In Jirang assembly constituency, in the Ri Bhoi district, BJP candidate Riya Sangma, a high school graduate, campaigns on the issue of border security and the alleged influx of Bangladeshis. She promises to work towards border safety. Confident of her win, she dismisses her adversaries, saying that she will defeat her NPP opponent Sosthenes Sohtun, the sitting MLA. Once elected, Sangma pledges to work on infrastructure such as water supply and connectivity and also on education and women’s empowerment. An informal chat with party workers at the BJP office in Shillong revealed their unwavering trust in the candidate’s win. They praised her oratory skills and called her a “dynamic leader”.

Meanwhile, in Khliehriat, East Jaintia Hills district, 28-year-old Congress candidate Jhanika Siangshai vows to find alternative employment for sex workers in the region. Having completed her masters from IGNOU, she started her professional life as a social worker in her constituency. Siangshai also promises to promote women’s empowerment and fight for the rights of the HIV-positive population in Khliehriat. Moreover, she blamed the 2014 ban on rat hole coal mining in Meghalaya for the unfortunate situation of Khliehriat.

In the North Shillong constituency, 31-year-old Elgiva Gwyneth Rynjah, contesting on the TMC ticket, is the youngest female candidate in her constituency. This seat was previously held by Adelbert Nongrum from Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement (KHNAM) party, the only seat won by that party in 2018.

Rynjah has a prestigious educational background. She studied at Doon School and at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. She entered the world of politics when she became the secretary of the North Shillong block. Rynjah is the only candidate to have released her own political statement, and she credits the TMC for providing her the freedom to release her own manifesto that communicates her promises for her constituency and derives guidance from the party’s manifesto.

Throughout our conversation, she expressed her gratitude to her mentors, Mukul Sangma and James Lyngdoh, for inspiring her to take up this public role. Rynjah’s statement of 10 promises includes the return of out-of-school children, facilitating public transport to increase female labour force participation, constructing a multipurpose parking bay to provide citizens with sufficient parking facilities and establishing a skill enhancement training centre to expand youth employment opportunities, to name a few. She spoke to us about working towards a drug free Meghalaya as well. Her promises target various sections of North Shillong constituents, from school goers to workers, with a special focus on women.

Increasing youth participation in politics by nominating young leaders is a progressive move that breaks the age-old wheels of the older generation grabbing power. But it is hard to say whether the influx of new young candidates introduces a better focus on real-life issues in politics or on development. It surely brings in dynamism in electoral politics and contributes to diversifying political recruitment across parties. As this glimpse of candidates shows, they tend to come from varied socio-professional backgrounds and bring a welcome energy into election campaigns.

The outcome of the election, however, is highly uncertain, with the unmaking of the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance due to the NPP’s decision to contest on its own. The results on March 2 will define who the constituents choose and whether these young candidates manage to win their seats. It will definitely be worthwhile to examine how these young legislators implement their transformative ideas and govern their constituencies.

Poulomi Ghosh is a Research Fellow and Srishti Gupta is an Applied Research Engineer at TCPD, Ashoka University. Views are personal.