Meghalaya Elections 2018: A Repeat of 2008

What pushed the National People’s Party to align with the Bharatiya Janata Party that has won only two assembly seats, is the ailment that afflicts all the governments of the small states of the North East. These
special category states survive on 90% of central grants and are expected to raise the “matching” grants of 10%. They therefore need a friendly government at the centre.

Meghalaya now has a new non-Congress government comprising a coalition of disparate parties that fought each other in the polls held on 27 February. The Congress won 20 seats and the National People’s Party (NPP) 19 but since the other ­regional parties were unwilling to strike a deal with the Congress to form a government, they teamed up with the party formed by P A Sangma. The NPP was started in 2013 before the presidential elections and is now led by his son and Lok Sabha Member of Parliament (MP) Conrad Sangma. Meghalaya is now looking at elections to three more seats. These are: one where election was countermanded due to the death of a candidate in an improvised explosive device blast, the other wherein Conrad Sangma will have to be elected, and the third to the seat that will have to be abandoned by the outgoing chief minister, Mukul Sangma. He won from two seats, Ampati and Songsak. The NPP might go on to add more Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) to its kitty. The parties in the new Meghalaya Democratic Alliance government include the United Democratic Party (UDP) with six seats, the Peoples’ Democratic Front (PDF) with four seats and the Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with two seats each. Two independents have also joined the coalition.

What has surprised observers of this situation in the otherwise sleepy state is the role played by the BJP in government formation. It was almost as if the party had won the elections. The roads leading to the Shillong Raj Bhavan were awash with saffron buntings, Union Minister of Home Affairs Rajnath Singh and BJP President Amit Shah flew in for the swearing-in ceremony and the “national” television news channels went on and on about a BJP government in Meghalaya, annoying viewers who watched these channels for information on the developments in Meghalaya. Gra­nted that the NPP is a part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition but the BJP cannot take away from the fact that it was the NPP that people reposed their faith in. The two winning BJP candidates did it on their own steam and, would have won any other party’s ticket that they would have chosen to contest from. Both are known for serving their constituents by paying for their hospital bills to helping poor parents buy school books and also being supportive generally. People in Meghalaya do not care about lawmaking and what qualities they should look for in a legislator. They are interested in what the MLA can do for them. This is how democracy plays out in the tribal states as a whole.

Unprecedented Trends

This election is different from previous ones because of the sheer noise and clamour created by the BJP, both during the campaign period and after the results were announced. Those in charge of the campaign for the saffron party here took it as a personal mission to do so. The BJP planted its think tank in Shillong for nearly two months. They researched the chinks in the armour of the voters but obviously missed out the sensitivities that drive people to the polling booths to elect their MLAs. First, people here are unused to the cacophony and bluster of minister after minister from the central government raging at the Congress ­party and promising the evasive “development” that has passed the people by, if the BJP were elected. Meghalaya has certain voting characteristics that defy the patterns elsewhere. People here are not bothered about ideology or political parties. As stated above, they vote individuals for their personal appeal and for the personal help they are able to render in times of domestic exigencies. It is as simple as that! A candidate may have been embroiled in a scam but if they manage the constituency and constituents well and have time to address their personal concerns that is enough to sail through the polls.

Another difference this time around was the amount of money that was thrown around by all the contesting parties. Those who had more money to burn won while the others had to bite the dust. This meant that some of the more articulate and discerning MLAs from the regional parties lost to their rivals. However, it must be acknowledged that the regional parties are deeply fragmented. Although the UDP and HSPDP had a pre-poll alliance they went ahead and set up candidates in some constituencies calling these “friendly” fights. This is the chink in the regional party armour that national political parties have learnt to play upon.

This election was also marked by violence when on 18 February, the candidate from Williamnagar constituency of Garo Hills Meghalaya, Jonathone N Sangma and three of his supporters were killed in blast allegedly triggered by the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), a militant outfit active in the Garo Hills for a long time. The GNLA is led by Sohan D Shira who has repeatedly evaded police arrest, thereby making him some kind of a legend. He is a dreaded figure who strikes fear in Garo Hills and is able to get the better of the police. The GNLA has dominated East and South Garo Hills, which remain the least developed areas of the region.

Murder Most Foul

Jonathone Sangma accompanied by his supporters had gone to Sawilgre village within the Samanda block for an election campaign on that fateful Sunday afternoon. The villagers had invited him there for a discussion on election issues. Surprisingly, when Jonathone and his companions reached the place there was not a soul in sight except for empty chairs. Jonathone waited awhile and then decided to return. It was at this point that a powerful blast took his and his supporters’ lives.

Following this, in a surprising turn of events, Sohan Shira was gunned down reportedly by the Special Force of the Meghalaya Police aided by the Meghalaya Battalion. Many questions have since arisen as to who killed Shira, why he was alone when he was killed at point blank range and without any signs of an encounter when he otherwise had a strong security ring around him. Did his own men betray him for a price? Did the GNLA kill Jonathone Sangma or was it the ploy of a political rival? Who wanted him dead and why? Was it the fear of a­National Investigation Agency (NIA) ­enquiry that made the handlers of the GNLA quickly dispose of the mover and shaker of the organisation?

Jonathone Sangma had been receiving death threats ever since 2013 when he contested from the same constituency. He had lodged a first information report (FIR) then but the case continues in a ­lower court. It is a matter of concern that a politically sensitive case takes so long to be resolved.

After Jonathone Sangma’s assassination the NPP which is the main rival of the ruling Congress in Garo Hills had committed to initiating an independent probe by the NIA if it was voted to power. Now that it is in the driving seat it is being reminded of this promise. The politician–militant nexus in Meghalaya is alive and kicking and this should be addressed by the incoming dispensation.

It is interesting to note that the BJP had put up 47 candidates and was quite sure of winning a couple of seats in the plain belts of Garo Hills where Prime Minister Narendra Modi had come to campaign and where rallies had drawn large crowds, ostensibly from the farming community. But crowds can be deceptive and those present in such large numbers at the rally may not have been voters of that constituency. Congress President Rahul Gandhi too drew huge crowds in Shillong but that did not yield the desired results for his party. In any case people here are largely silent voters who do not demonstrate their fervour on the streets. Those who shout and celebrate with their candidates are a few hundreds who in any case are paid to be cheerleaders.

Winning a Bet

For the BJP, elections are not about people voting to express their mandates. It is about pumping up its political ego. It is almost as if the saffron party wants to prove a point and to win a bet. The almost feverish manner of the campaign and the press conferences expressing faith that people would vote for was in vain. But what pushed the NPP to align with the BJP is the ailment that afflicts all the governments of the small states of the North East. The stark reality is that these states need a friendly government at the centre. These special category states survive on 90% of the central grants and are expected to raise the “matching” grants of 10%. However, ­often they are unable to raise internal revenues to match the central grants and therefore most projects cannot be implemented. In the last budget, Mukul Sangma presented a deficit budget of over `1,200 crore. It is not unusual for politicians therefore to switch sides at the drop of a hat depending on which government is in power in Delhi.

Meanwhile, the newly sworn in government, which has been christened the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance with Conrad Sangma at the helm has many issues to handle. The treasury is nearly empty and Conrad Sangma, who is an alumni of the Wharton School of Business, will have to get a grip on the finances apart from coming up with policies in key areas of human development such as education, health, tourism, youth affairs, mining, etc, which the state has not had since its inception. Unemployment is a challenge for Meghalaya as it is for several other north-eastern states. At the last count there were over a lakh of school drop-outs and there is no road map on how to integrate them into the system by way of skills training. The demographic dividend could well turn into a liability if Meghalaya does not have a definitive youth policy.

Anti-Christian Moves

It would be useful to assess why the BJP was reduced to two seats in Meghalaya. Many things worked against the saffron party in this Christian-majority state. The mood here in 2014 after the Modi government took over the reins in Delhi was aspirational. People were ready to set aside past misgivings about the BJP’s Hindi, Hindu, Hindutva agenda of a mono-cultural, monotheistic India. They believed that Modi would unleash a new dynamism into the economy and create jobs for the burgeoning youth population. Four years down the line people see the BJP and the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS), its ideological mentor harking on religion and a possible embargo on food habits. Meghalaya’s citizens were jolted out of their complacence when Christmas day was announced as Good Governance Day. Christians took this an affront to their religious beliefs. Two years ago, Good Friday, which Christians observe as a significant day of worship was announced as Digital India Day. Someone in the RSS is clearly trying to smartly check out how far it can go before people start protesting and hardening their stances. Meghalaya has shown the BJP that there is a limit beyond which people will not buckle.

The saffron party also forgets that social media is a powerful electoral tool. WhatsAap forwards of systematic attacks on priests and religious raised the hackles of the Christian population here. The fear of a BJP regime where religious rights would be curtailed became the main theme of church sermons. Then in 2017, K J Alphons, the Tourism Minister of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and the only Christian face of the BJP, arrived here to campaign for the BJP saying that the saffron parry has no deigns to curtail the religious rights of Christians. But Alphons bungled when he offered `70 crore as assistance to churches to give themselves a facelift. This overture was suicidal. Church leaders accused the BJP of trying to bribe them. These were the main reasons why the BJP was reduced to a single digit figure in Meghalaya.

And now as Meghalaya moves towards another five-year journey people are grateful that Conrad Sangma has emerged as the unanimous choice for chief ministership. Sangma carries no baggage of corruption from the past and his government can start on a fresh slate. The NPP has a number of former Congressmen who jumped ship last year. Donkupar Roy, the UDP chief, was categorical that his party would only join the alliance if Conrad Sangma was the chief ministerial candidate.

This will be Sangma’s second stint in state politics. He was the finance minister in the non-Congress, Meghalaya ­Progressive Alliance government in 2008–09. That government was short-lived as all non-Congress governments have been in Meghalaya, hence the state could not benefit from his sagacious handling of the finance department. People here hope that this government does not meet a similar fate and will be able to withstand the pressures of political skullduggery—a common feature of Meghalaya politics. But under the watchful gaze of Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam’s finance minister and the BJP’s trouble shooter in the North East and the master strategist whose brainchild the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) is, cracks in the current formation are unlikely to be allowed to develop.

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