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Can the BJP Achieve a Congress-mukt Meghalaya?

Baniateilang Majaw (majawban@gmail.com) is with the Department of Political Science, Seng Khasi College, Shillong.

In the months leading up to the February 2018 Meghalaya state legislative elections, the Mukul Sangma-led Congress government has been plagued by a mass exodus of its legislators to the National People’s Party and Bharatiya Janata Party. This article chronicles these defections and conflicts within the party, and the political advantage they afford the BJP in its push for a Congress-mukt Meghalaya.

The Congress gained its strong footing in Meghalaya only after the then Chief Minister Williamson A Sangma merged a faction of the All Party Hill Leaders Conference (APHLC), which enjoyed an absolute majority in the house, with the Congress in 1976 (Lyngdoh 2004: 105; Pakem 1992). Many believe that Sangma was unable to withstand the pressure he was facing at the hands of the Congress from New Delhi. The year 1976 was the time when Indira Gandhi ruled India with an iron fist (Frankel 1978). The people of Indiawitnessed many of her political opponents being imprisoned and some political parties banned altogether, with a determination to see all non-Congress governments in the states dismissed. Afraid of remaining the leader of only a small regional party, Sangma succumbed to political pressure and subsequently merged his party with the Congress. Following the merger, the APHLC was humiliated, until it ultimately disappeared from the political scene, whereas the influence of the Congress has been strengthened ever since. These events fuelled the Khasis’ (tribals of Meghalaya) dislike of the Congress party, and theytermed itka party dkhar (non-tribal party).

Congress Raj

From 1976, no political party has secured an absolute majority in the Meghalaya state assembly (CEO Meghalaya 2010: 11–28). However, most of the time, it has been the Congress party that has managed to form coalition governments, andrun the affairs of the state. While attempts have been made, time and again, to prevent the Congress from forming successful governments, these have failed miserably,as the Congress in Meghalaya has enjoyed the blessings of New Delhi. In cases where the Congress has been unable to form a government in the state, it hascreated unnecessary political crises, under the guise of “constitutional breakdown.”For instance, when the United Democratic Party (UDP)-led coalition was in power in 2009, not only did the Congress government at the centre impose President’srule in Meghalaya and deny the regionalparty an opportunity to govern (Majaw 2015), it also installed a Congress-led coalition government by “buying” thesupport of a few legislators. The Congress government that came to power following the President’s rule of 13 May 2009 has been ruling Meghalaya ever since (Meghalaya Guardian 2009).

But there is now, at the centre, a different government altogether. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been able to ­establish its foothold in the North East by forming governments in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh (Bora 2016; Hindu 2016; Outlook 2016). Its success in the 2017 Manipur state elections (Times of India 2017) has made it even more ambitious to capture Meghalaya, where the term of the current house expires on 6 March 2018. While the BJP does not have a single legislator in the current state assembly, it is not yielding in its efforts to dislodge the ruling Congress dispensation, as part of its larger design of a “Congress-muktBharat” (Congress-free India). In order to achieve this design, the BJP is now doing whatever it can to prevent the Congress from forming a government following the 2018 elections. While it may not have mass support in Meghalaya, it has voiced its ambition of forming the next government in the state.

Role of Religion

To defy the ambition of the BJP, various leaders of the Congress in Meghalaya have accused the BJP of being an anti-Christian party (Meghalaya Times 2017). Few Congress leaders have also expressed doubts regarding the BJP’s ability to win even a single seat in the Christian-majority state in this coming election. It is pertinent to note that in Meghalaya, the use of religion to capture votes is not a new phenomenon, and has been one of the issues on which many candidates have successfully fought elections. The influence of the church leaders too can never be ruled out (Majaw 2015). Candidates have, in the past, campaigned in the name of religion, to protect the interests of the Christian majority.

In fact, religion was the theme of 2014 Shillong parliamentary seat election. A majority of Presbyterian and other Protestant sects supported the Reverend P B M Basaiawmoit, but the votes of the Catholic community went to the Congress nominee Vincent H Pala, a Roman Catholic, who emerged the winner. The BJP candidate, Shibun Lyngdoh, who was relatively unknown to the people of Meghalaya prior to the election, ranked fourth. Lyngdoh defeated Pala in several state assembly constituencies. It is believed that the BJP managed to get this number because the non-Christian minority felt threatened by the campaign of Basaiawmoit, who had demanded votes from his Christian brethren in the name of Christianity (CEO Meghalaya 2010: 265).

Seat at the Table

The ability of theBJP to secure the fourth position in this election sent shock waves through the Congress, aswell as the other regional political partiesin Meghalaya. Furthermore, the BJP alsowon seats in the 2015 election for the three Autonomous District Councils(ADCs) of the state—Garo HillsADC, JaintiaHillsADC and Khasi HillsADC, indicatingits growing strength in the state (United News of India 2015;Shillong Times 2016). Witnessing the growth of theBJP in Meghalaya, the Congress has come to the realisation that this party, which is ruling at the centre, poses a threat to its dominance in the state. Other regional political parties that are disenchanted with the Congress also see theBJP as a major actor who needs to be reckoned with, in the forthcoming elections on 27 February 2018. In addition, Conrad K Sangma of the National People’s Party (NPP), which is an ally of theBJP at the centre, won the Tura parliamentary by-election (necessary due to the death of Purno Agitok Sangma) in May 2016 by a big margin against Dikkanchi D Shira, theCongress nominee and wife of incumbent Chief Minister Mukul Sangma.

It is accurate to say that the BJP in Meghalaya is not organisationally strong, and it is unlikely that this party will be able to come to power entirely on its own. Though it does not have any
legislators in Meghalaya currently, the BJP is not a new political entrant in the state. However, it has now opened its account with the three ADC elections. Many think its resurgence in Meghalaya is due to the failure of the Congress government to deliver good governance over the last eight years.

A Mass Exodus

While Sangma has stated that all is well in the state Congress, since 2015, the party has been plagued by internal conflicts. The allegation is that these conflicts have arisen due to Sangma’s dictatorial leadership and disregard for the views of his cabinet ministers. His leadership has been likened to that of a chief executive officer (CEO) of a company, rather than a leader of the Congress party. This has created rebels and enemies within the Congress, just a few months before the polls, as was witnessed in the last week of December 2017, when a number of Congress legislators defected to theNPP. Some of the defecting legislators wereRowell Lyngdoh (Deputy Chief Ministerand legislator since 1983), Prestone Tynsong (a three-termlegislator), Sniawbhalang Dhar, Ngaitlang Dhar and Comingone Ymbon (who had supplied financial muscle to the Congress in the last elections) (Parashar 2017;Shillong Times 2017).

The two-time Congress legislator Pynshngain N Syiem, who had been suspended under Sangma’s direction (Outlook 2017), has formed a new regional party. He not only protested against thestyle and functioning of the chief minister but had also met the All India Congress Committee (AICC) leaders in Delhi, demanding a change in leadership. The inability of theAICC to change the leadership compelled him to publicly voice his non-cooperation with the chief minister. TheMeghalayaPradesh Congress Committee (MPCC)President D D Lapang has come under fire for being unable to check the infighting within the Congress. TheAICC has failed to act on the plea of several Congress legislators to change the party leader, resulting in the desertions. Furthermore, Lapang, who is a four-timechief minister of the state, along with the current Home Minister Roshan Warjri, and incumbent Deputy Chief Minister R C Laloo, are not contesting the 2018 elections (Shillong Times 2017).Thus, the Congress will be missing as many as 12 legislators in the upcoming polls.

Another former legislator of theBJP, A L Hek, who won the last election under Congress ticket, seems to be performing a “ghar wapsi” and has rejoined theBJP, thereby reducing the strength of the party further (Business Standard 2018;Indian Express2018). Congress legislator, P W Khongjee has also put forth his ­intention to contest elections from the BJP against the Congress. On 3 January 2018, the Congress party had to face another jolt, when five of its members to the Jaintia HillsADC, namely KilometerLytan, Thombor Shiwat, Joinriwell Pyrtuh, Pheinlang Nanglein Riio Sten, resigned from the Congress (Shillong Times2018).At the grass roots, there is also an exodus of Congressmen to theBJP and NPP taking place.

It is still possible that in the next fewdays, more Congress members will desert their party. This is the first time that the voters of Meghalaya have witnessed the Congress legislators defecting from the party while it is still in power inthe state. This has never happened in the history of the Congress in Meghalaya. Infact, in 1976 many legislators of the rulingAPHLC joined the Congress under the leadership of Williamson A Sangma (Lyngdoh 2004; Pakem 1992). However, presently, under the leadership of Mukul Sangma, the Congress legislators have performed a political somersault, leaving the Congress, in order to unify themselves with its rival players, theNPP andBJP (Business Standard 2018; Parashar2017). Even though Congress party tickets were offered to them, they did not acceptthese, choosing instead, to depart fromthe Congress. These legislators who haveleft the Congress are leaving behind a big gap, which the party will find difficultto fill just a few months prior to the elections. Fighting the 2018 elections withoutthese experienced politicians, some of whom have been cabinet ministers for many years, will not be easy for the Congress. This change in allegiance of these legislators has created an opportunity for the lotus to bloom in Meghalaya.

Redrawing Battle Lines

This time around, the demand of votes in the name of religion will be more pronounced, not only due to the re-entry of the BJP in the state and its rule in the centre, but also because many local ­columnists as well as church leaders have voiced reservations about supporting the BJP, terming it a Hindu party. However, the employment of religious beliefs to consolidate votes, as witnessed in earlier elections, will be a dangerous tactic this time around. The minorities are anxious about their status in the state, if a political party wins the elections in the name of the religion of the majority. Certainly, they will also want to have representatives of their interests in the state legislature. As such, theBJP leaders will not rule out the possibility of tying up with the minorities, as they do constitute amajority in some assembly constituencies.

In order to achieve its design of a Congress-muktMeghalaya, the BJP is also attempting to align itself with the Christian majority in the state. Its leaders have been stating that their party is not “communal,” as claimed by the Congress leaders, and that the BJP wants to meet representatives from various segments of society, in order to exchange views and ideas with them, and allay their fears. As such, religious leaders of several denominations have attended meetings organised by the BJP leaders. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already held a meeting with religious leaders in the state. Further, former Union Minister of Tourism K J Alphons, a Christian by faith, has been given additional responsibility as the BJP in-charge of Meghalaya (Indian Express2017).

Meghalaya has a total of 18,30,104 voters. The message that it is time for a change in government is loud enough for the public to hear, but this change is easier to state than achieve. If the winds of change are to be seen in Meghalaya, theBJP needs to strategically negotiate its ways through the complex divisionsof different religions. To realise its design,it will have to rely on the hard work of its party workers as well as on ties with the other regional political parties who are opposing the Congress. Forming an alliance with theNPP,UDP and Hill State People’s Democratic Party after the election results will be crucial for theBJP to form the next government. The reason is that currently, all the regional parties of Meghalaya are fragmented. No party will get an absolute majority in 2018. TheBJP is unlikely to reach the magic number of 31 seats out of 60 in the state legislative assembly by itself. However, this time, the regional parties too are inclined towards a Congress-mukt Meghalaya. These regional politicalparties will find it more prudent to form a government with the party in power at the centre, than with the Congress, a party which is on the decline. TheBJP will have to make use of the prevailing­opportunity by entering into a post-poll ­alliance. If theBJP is able to unite with these regional parties, it will no doubt succeed in its realisation of a Congress­-mukt Meghalaya.

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Updated On : 13th Feb, 2018

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