March 10, 2013

BATTLEGROUND MEGHALAYA

CONGRESS ON CLOUD NINE


Bordered by Assam in the north and Bangladesh in the south, Meghalaya - one of the Seven Sisters of India was one of the two states that went to the polls on February 23. On one hand, while it is one of the most beautiful places in the country, famous for its heavy downpour, dense forests,
Meghalaya 2013: The Contenders
spectacular waterfalls and most importantly, a vibrant tribal culture which is an amalgamation of the traditions and beliefs of the various communities found here, it is also the most 'politically volatile' state of the country, having seen a staggering 23 governments over a period spanning just four decades, besides innumerable instances of President's Rule. With instability being the order of the hour, infrastructural development has been painstakingly slow whereas poverty and unemployment has been on the rise. And insurgency which traces its root to the locals versus migrants problems has only aggravated the woes of the people. Even in the last elections, a fractured verdict was the prime reason for four different regimes, of which one survived just for 9 days. Considering the voting patterns of different region and communities within the state, the various political parties in the fray and the countless issues that they raised, there was nothing to indicate that any of the top contenders would cross the magic mark of 30 on their own to provide a solid government that could concentrate on solving the problems of the masses.

Dr Mukul Sangma, the incumbent Chief minister and MLA from Ampatigiri led the charge for the ruling Congress. Having assumed office in April 2010, he was confident that the 'good work' that he had done over the last three odd years were enough to take the party past the half way mark on its own after the United Democratic Party - a regional outfit and the second largest constituent of the ruling combine decided to call it quits. In fact, even when the NCP approached the ruling party for a pre poll alliance, he refused the offer, a bold move in the age of coalition politics. In a bid to strengthen the party's prospects ahead of the mandate, the INC took some strong decisions, dropping several sitting MLAs viewed as non-performers and roping in popular independents into its fold. Also, banking on the image of the CM, his wife Dikanchi Shira and brother Zenith Sangma were given tickets from Mahendraganj and Rangsakona respectively. Making its intentions of crossing the majority on its own, it fielded candidates in all 60 seats. In its manifesto, the party tried to beat anti-incumbency by playing the development card - promising to reduce poverty, generate more jobs for the youth and strive hard for the safety of women. Several populist schemes like affordable housing projects and an additional two cylinders at subsidized rates were also announced to protect its vote base in the wake of complete failure of the UPA to check price rise. Several top leaders including the trio of Manmohan, Sonia and Rahul were brought in to attract the crowds and so were INC leaders from Arunachal and Assam.

The United Democratic Party (UDP) which walked out of the Sangma government days before the election was hoping that the move to distance itself from the INC would help consolidate the anti-Congress votes in its favour, giving it an advantage over other regional players. Dr Donkupar Roy, a former CM was quite certain that they would bag 20 plus seats and emerge as the single largest party in the new assembly, gaining well over the 11 that they had won in 2008. With corruption becoming synonymous with the UPA all thanks to the several scams that have been unearthed in its second innings, the party had made fighting graft one of the most important points in its agenda. In its manifesto, the UDP had promised to set up an effective Lokayuta in Meghalaya, besides taking steps to reduce crimes against women which was on the rise. Other points mentioned included the demarcation of the international border, solving the decades old boundary dispute with Assam, generating more jobs in agriculture and allied sector, improving cleanliness and tackling the traffic menace in the capital. Prominent faces amongst the 57 candidates of the party were Bindo Lanong (East Shillong) and Paul Lyngdoh (West Shillong) , besides Dr Roy (Shella).

The state unit of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) which was dealt a crucial blow with the exit of stalwart Purno Sangma who resigned after the party refused to support his candidature for the Presidency received another jolt when the outgoing CM out rightly rejected their offer of an electoral alliance. With both sons of
The Battle for Garo Hills: NPP vs NCP
Purno deserting the party and his daughter and MP Agatha refusing to campaign for NCP candidates, Rajya Sabha MP Thomas Sangma was asked to resign and contest from North Tura constituency whereas state president Sanbor Shullai filed in his papers from South Shillong. Speaking to reporters during the release of their manifesto, Shullai had said that they would do well in the Garo hills inspite of some of its legislators jumping over to the newly launched NPP. Though he himself did not contest the elections, former CM and Lok Sabha Speaker P A Sangma who joined the National People's Party (NPP) after he lost out to Pranab Mukherjee in the race to the Raisina Hills campaigned heavily in his native Garo Hills for his sons - the former leader of Opposition in the state Conrad and his elder brother James. Even their sister Agatha who is presently with the NCP joined her father to help her brothers. Sangma stressed the need to wipe corruption from the state by appointing a Lokayukta, taking concrete steps to save the environment and promised to fight for reservation in Central government jobs for the people of North east. The outfit was hoping to piggy bank on the popularity of Purno in the west and emerge as a key player in the process of forming the next government. The two parties whose manifestos were pretty much alike, fielded 32 and 21 candidates respectively.

Meghalaya is home to many different tribes - the Garos, the Khasis, the Jaintias and the Bhois being the biggest. With each of these communities having varied aspirations and facing specific problems, many smaller regional parties have come up in the state over the years, each having a small yet significant vote bank. Apart from reiterating its demand for the creation of a separate Garo-Jaintia state, the Hill State People's Democratic Party (HSPDP) laid stress on issues like the influx of migrants, opposing the proposed extraction of uranium, separation of the joint Assam - Meghalaya cadre and improving road connectivity in the far flung areas. Supremo H S Lyngdoh also manged to get in the big fish - Nongkrem legislator Ardent Basaiawmoit after he left the UDP last year. Like the HSPDP, the Garo National Council (GNC) continued to raise the demands for a separate Garo state to be carved out of the three districts of West Garo hills, East Garo hills and South Garo Hills. The Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement (KHNAM) led by Pyndapborthiaw Saibol promised to work for the implementation of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) in the state - a provision which makes it mandatory for any Indian citizen to carry a domestic travel document in a place or region that implements it. Other priorities of the KHNAM included the scrapping of the Indo-Nepal Treaty of Friendship in Meghalaya, changes in the Land Transfer Act, renaming the state to better reflect the diversity of the state. Other parties in the fray included BJP, North East Social Democratic Party (NESDP) and Meghalaya Democratic Party (MDP). 


The exercise to elect the new government in Shillong was held on 23rd February. Though, outlawed militant organization - the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) which is fighting for a separate homeland for the Khasis called for a 
Meghalaya 2013: Results
36 hour band, people from all parts of the state came out in large numbers to fulfill their most important duty. Like so many times in the recent past, the high turnout at the booths despite the threat of violence has proved that the electorate is slowly becoming aware that democracy is the way forward. The much awaited results which were declared on the last day of the month certainly surprised even the most seasoned political observers. Mukul Sangma did the impossible, well almost, as he took the ruling Congress just two short of a simple majority in the Vidhan Soudha. The CM retained his seat by a margin of over 9,000 votes whereas his wife and brother also registered big victories. As compared to 2008 elections, the INC increased its strength by 4 seats making it the clear winner with twenty-nine seats. Except for South Garo Hills and West Khasi region, the party's performance in the five other districts exceeded expectations. By coming so close to forming a majority government, the INC has rendered several regional parties insignificant and raised expectations that unlike in the past, it will deliver on key issues, especially with the sword of Damocles no longer dangling over its head.

In sharp contrast to the exemplary numbers of the Congress, the regional outfits would have wished to do much better than what they eventually finished with. The UDP, which was being looked upon as the primary competition to the INC managed to get only eight seats. Donkupar Roy and Paul Lyngdoh scrapped past their opponents but former Deputy CM Bindoo Lanong was beaten by INC's Ampareen Lyngdoh by a whopping 5000 votes. With a significant chunk of the NCP's top leadership in the state deserting it, only two of its candidates were elected, a drastic fall of 12. Even the NPP - the party which quite literally was born out of the NCP did not have the dream debut that some sections of the media were talking about with only two of its nominees making the cut. The biggest shock for the party came when Conrad Sangma was beaten by Clement Marak of the Congress. It seems as if the 2013 Meghalaya elections may well have signaled the end of the political career of Purno Sangma whose habit of switching sides seems to have driven the people away from him. Meanwhile, the HSDPD was the pick of regional parties, doubling its strength to finish on four. Veteran leader Hoping Stone Lyngdoh lived up to to his 'unbeatable' tag retaining his seat of Nangtoin. He is the only person to have made it to the legislature each time since 1978. The GNC and the NESDP won a seat each. Thirteen independents were also elected which translates to over 20 per cent of the strength of the house.


As expected, the incumbent CM and the architect of the Congress's spectacular victory - Dr. Mukul Sangma was sworn in as the 24th Chief Minister of Meghalaya after he got "unconditional" support from the NCP and 11 independents.
Meghalaya 2013: Region-wise Break-up
With several members of his family making the cut, it seems that the Mukul Sangma clan has become the new first family of the state politics, snatching the title from the Purno Sangma clan which had a forgettable election. This was sweet revenge for him as he was beaten by Purno in the 2004 MP elections from Tura. However, his task is only half done. Apart from keeping his flock together, he needs to work on the ground to keep the momentum going in favour of his party ahead of 2014 polls. This is primarily important because unlike the Left in Tripura, the Congress has not swept Meghalaya. For the regional parties, they seriously need to have a rethink on their ideology. Instead of fighting for the rights and aspirations of one community, they need to expand their horizons and raise issues that find resonance with people across the state. Forming alliances with other players to consolidate the non-INC votes could be the key. Also, many believe that it is too early to write off Purno. The veteran leader still has a clout in some pockets and will campaign even harder to make a come back on the biggest stage of them all. While the Congress holds an edge, winning the two Lok Sabha seats from the state will certainly not be a cake walk for it considering the dynamics in the 'Abode of the Clouds'.

SOURCES

(1) Meghalaya Times: Corruption free state, effective Lokayukta tops UDP's manifesto (Link)

(2) Shillong Times: NCP confident of clean sweep in Garo hills (Link)

(3) The Hindu: NPP releases manifesto (Link)

(4) Meghalaya Times: HSPDP releases manifesto for 2013 assembly polls (Link)

(5) Meghalaya Times: 345 candidates in fray for Meghalaya Assembly polls 2013 (Link)

(6) Northeast Today: Khasi Rebel Outfit To Boycott Meghalaya Polls, Calls Shutdown (Link)

(7) Times of India: Mukul Sangma sworn in as Meghalaya Chief Minister (Link)