Meghalaya Polls 2018: Regional Parties Likely to Play Kingmaker

When it comes to political battles, not many states have as many big guns going head-to-head as Meghalaya. If elections in states like Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh are two-horse races like the La Liga, then Meghalaya polls are the English Premier League with nine regional parties, two national parties and 372 candidates, including 87 independents, in the fray.

The 60-member Meghalaya Assembly went to polls on 27 February. Apart from facing incumbency, the Congress, that’s been in power in the state for the last fifteen years, is also wracked with internal rebellions. What will compound Chief Minister Mukul Sangma’s challenge in the state is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s aggressive forays in the Northeast.

Here’s what at stake in the elections.

The Current Political Climate

The landlocked, hilly state was previously a part of Assam, but in 1972 the districts of Khasi, Garo and Jaintia Hills became the new state of Meghalaya. The division on the basis of these three districts, now play an important role in the state’s politics.

Each district – Khasi, Garo and Jaintia – has a huge tribal populations of the same name, which were called ‘hill tribes’ by the British. Hyper-local parties like the Hill State People's Democratic Party (HSPDP) and the Garo National Council (GNC), are focused on promoting their respective interests.

But the real regional powerhouses in the hill-state are the United Democratic Party (UDP), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the National People’s Party (NPP), which will put up a challenge for the reigning Congress in its stronghold.

The BJP, that has never gone beyond winning more than three seats in the state, claims it will fight this election on its own steam. The predominantly Christian state poses as a real challenge for the saffron party’s election-winning machinery.

Other than the national parties and regional players, the independent candidates cannot be looked over in the state. In the Meghalaya elections of 2013, independent candidates had the second-highest vote share. The Congress, which emerged as the single-largest party, bagging 29 seats, fell two short of absolute majority and was helped by independents to form the government.

The people of Meghalaya usually come out to vote in good numbers. In the 2013 elections, despite some calls for bandh by militants the state recorded an 88 percent voter turnout.

Why Things Don't Seem So Smooth For The Congress

1. Rebellion Before Polls

The Congress, which has been in power in Meghalaya for about 15 years, has suffered two major setbacks in the run-up to the elections. The first one was on 29 December, last year, when five party MLAs resigned from the Assembly to join the National People's Party (NPP).

The second jolt came on 30 January after 115 members of Meghalaya Congress resigned over allotment of election tickets.

2. Doubts Over Sangma’s Leadership

Rebel MLA and former deputy CM Rowell Lyngdoh said he was compelled to leave the party "because of the people", after he resigned from the Assembly and joined the NPP, an ally of the BJP in the NDA.

"The autocratic style of functioning of Chief Minister Mukul Sangma had made it difficult for me and others to function in the government." - Rowell Lyngdoh3. Congress-NCP Split

Even the NCP, a coalition partner of the Congress for the past five years, recently slammed CM Sangma for allegedly not giving the party its due in governance.

“Misgovernance was of the highest order and the people are disillusioned and are looking for a change,” NCP general secretary Praful Patel said about the Congress government.

The NCP plans to contest the upcoming polls on its own and field candidates in at least 42 constituencies. Currently, the party has two MLAs in the 60-member Assembly.

The death of NCP candidate Jonathone Sangma in a militant attack recently, also led to huge criticism of the current government over ‘lawlessness’ in the state.

4. Anti-Incumbency

Out of the 46 years of Meghalaya’s existence, the Congress has been in power for nearly 32 years, which include the last 15 years.

The Mukul Sangma-government has faced the heat in the state for the lack of development, grim power situation and the ban on coal mining in Jaintia hills.

Why Regional Parties Could be Gamechangers

Majority of the pre-poll commentary indicates that regional parties hold the key in Meghalaya.

The NPP and the UDP are both allies of the BJP at the Centre under the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA). However, for Meghalaya elections, both the regional parties have denied NEDA as a pre-poll alliance as neither wants to be seen by the voters as being 'close to the BJP'. This has left the otherwise high-flying BJP in a tough spot as the party now has to look for other regional partners.

In 2013, the UDP came second in the elections by winning 8 seats. Led by former CM Donakpur Roy the party has forged pre-poll alliances with the HSPDP and the GNC in an aim to cover the three main segments of the state – the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Hills.

The HSPDP, which has its base in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, won four seats in the last elections. While, the GNC is the oldest party in the Garo Hills. Both the parties have been rooting for separate states in their respective regions.

The NPP Factor

A relatively new party, founded in 2013 by former CM of Meghalaya and Speaker of Lok Sabha PA Sangma, the NPP has emerged as a key contender for the upcoming polls. After PA Sangma’s demise, it has been led by his son and Tura MP Conrad Sangma.

Conrad Sangma is even considered as a key challenger to the chief minister himself. In an interview to News18, senior journalist and editor of The Shillong Times, Patricia Mukhim said:

"Conrad Sangma is the only chief ministerial face that can give Mukul Sangma a run for his money."

Poll analysts suggest the NPP is set to make big gains this year and will have an upper hand in the Garo Hills region.

Eight defectors, including five from the Congress, had left the Assembly and joined the NPP in December 2017.

Despite being an National Democratic Alliance (NDA) ally in Manipur and the Centre, the NPP has kept its distance with the BJP in Meghalaya. However, the word on the street is that the party is the English version of the BJP, The Wire reported. The Congress has even called it a BJP Trojan Horse.

Can the BJP Make it in Meghalaya?

In the state with a Christian population of around 74 percent, the BJP has never had a significant influence. In fact, the party failed to win a single seat in the last election. However, the BJP is riding high on confidence after sweeping several Assembly polls in the country and making inroads in northeastern states like Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.

The beef-consuming state saw a strong public outcry after the Centre’s notification last year that sought to regulate the sale of cattle for slaughter.

However, BJP’s vice-president for Meghalaya JA Lyngdoh had denied reports of a blanket-ban on sale of beef in the state.

Recently, the NDA government also faced flak for rejecting the visa application of Baptist World Alliance chief Reverend Paul Msiza to attend the 150-years-celebrations of Christianity in the state's Garo Hills region.

Traditionally, the churches favour local individual leaders in Meghalaya but this time they seem to be collectively making an effort to stop the BJP. On the condition of anonymity, a Father at a Catholic church in Tura voiced his insecurities about the BJP to the Hindustan Times.

"Given this is a Christian-dominated state, the BJP will see it as a crowning glory. Their agenda will be to bring in rules and regulations to victimise Christians." - HT quoted the Father as saying

The party has posted a friendly Christian face of Union Tourism Minister KJ Alphons as one of the star campaigners in the state.

Senior Shillong-based journalist and editor of Raiot website Angela Rangad told The Quint that in case of a hung assembly, the BJP can influence the mandate with the money it brings in for campaigning in the state.

"One common factor among the regional parties and the Congress is that they claim opposition to communal Hindutva politics. However, of late, Meghalaya’s political formations have depended a lot on national party’s ability to summon money power. Post Manipur, it is clear that the BJP has enough corrupt money to disrupt a democratic mandate." - Angela Rangad, Journalist

Analysts told The Quint, that the BJP’s best hope of winning seats lies in the urban pockets of Shillong and in Jaintia Hills, where they have given assurance of lifting the coal mining ban.

Who Are the Key Players?

Here are some of the prominent figures in this election:

Mukul Sangma, Congress

Mukul Sangma, the CM of Meghalaya since 2010, will be contesting from his home turf Ampati as well as from Songsak in Garo Hills. In Ampati, he will be in a straight contest with BJP candidate Bakul Hajong, while in Songsak, he will face NPP strongman Nihim D Shira.

Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma files his nomination papers in Songsak.

Conrad Sangma, NPP

Conrad Sangma

NPP President Conrad Sangma represents the Tura constituency in the Parliament and has been the face of his party since his father’s demise. Sangma has been campaigning heavily and has recently voiced confidence that his party will be voted to power in the state.

Agatha Sangma, NPP

Former Union Minister Agatha Sangma has filed her nomination from the south Tura constituency in Garo Hills. She was the Minister of State, Rural Development in the United Progressive Alliance-II, when her father PA Sangma, was still a part of the NCP.

Donkupar Roy, UDP

Leader of Opposition Donkupar Roy of the UDP filed his papers from Shella in east Khasi Hills. He served as the CM of Meghalaya for a year in 2008.

Paul Lyngdoh, UDP

Senior leader and working president of the UDP, Paul Lyngdoh will contest from his home turf West Shillong. He is in a direct battle with Congress’ Mohendro Rapsang  against whom he won by a small margin of 481 votes in 2013.

Till we wait for 3 March to see who climbs on top of the hill (state), here’s a video of CM Mukul Sangma, UDP’s Donkupar Roy and Paul Lyngdoh jamming together on stage the classic Beatles' track - 'All My Loving'.

The Main Issues Faced by the People of Meghalaya

1. The Ban on Coal Mining

In 2014, the National Green Tribunal banned rat-hole coal mining in Meghalaya, adversely affecting around 1.5 lakh families. The ban also impacted the industries in limestone-rich state, which used coal as its primary fuel.

The coal miners, truckers, traders across Jaintia Hills region felt let-down by the Congress government for not fighting the ban. A miner claimed that his business fell by 80 percent following the ban.

2. Drugs

Other than unemployment, the problem of drug usage also persists in the state.

Meghalaya's home minister attributed the vulnerability of the northeast to drug abuse to the easy availability of drugs from Myanmar. "Earlier, Shillong was a transit point. Now, it is a destination for drugs and narcotics," he said as per a report in The Times of India.

3. Insurgency

Another issue plaguing the state is insurgency. A report by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses stated that abduction by insurgents has been rampant by the Garo National Liberation Army in the region.

The report added that issues such as support to demand for secession for Garo, Khasi and Jaintia Hills, influx of outsiders, exploitation of natural resources, border disputes with Assam and trans-shipment of weapons from Bangladesh into Assam via Meghalaya could be said to have given rise to the insurgency in the state.

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