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Toning up in Meghalaya

Statesman News Service |

The politics of Meghalaya is already heading towards commotion. Both the ruling Congress and the BJP are faced with multiple challenges ahead of the assembly election, due in February next year. Regional groups, like Conrad Sangmaled National People’s Party, are also in the fray and are waiting for “good days” as the exodus from the Congress seems to favour the regional parties like the NPP and People’s Democratic Front and also the BJP.

The latest round of supposed desertion by five senior leaders including a former deputy chief minister MR Rowell Lyngdoh, P N Syiem, Prestone Tynsong, Sniawbhalang Dhar and Ngaitlang Dhar — they seemed to be opting out from seeking party tickets — has certainly put the Congress leadership under pressure.

The Congress’ Lok Sabha MP, Vincent Pala says, rather caustically, that such an exodus will have no adverse impact on the party. If his words are to be taken seriously, it may not be wrong to suggest that the Congress is only gearing up for a poorer show with lesser number of MLAs than it has now. It’s not only the soft spoken Pala, several other Congress leaders, including a few in New Delhi, are whispering about a “fractured” mandate.

Well, to a large extent, the Congress leadership in the state need not be blamed. North-east politics has more often been marred by a syndrome known as “when New Delhi shivers, the North east shivers”. This, of course, is a Congress legacy as the grand old party always prided itself on having a grip in the region, riding mostly by the factor that it ruled in Delhi.

Ideology and political commitment were never the criterion. But in the run up to the next year’s exercise, the Congress knows it pretty well that even as “beef ban” is a major issue, only one such issue cannot help them check the forward march of Amit Shah and the party. For its part, the BJP’s much ambitious roadmap is also not without hurdles.

The pro-Hindutva tag is a big handicap. It goes without saying that Meghalaya is a state with three major tribal groups — Khasis, Jaintias and Garos — and the locals are mostly Christians. The Congress has been extremely popular in the state and hence the going is tough for the BJP as it is wedded to the controversial “Hindutva agenda”.

“The move for a beef ban has affected BJP immensely. In principle, unlike other North-eastern states, people have not accepted the saffron party,” a local Christian citizen K Barnabas told this writer. Here comes the relevance of good groundwork being done by the BJP’s poll managers. So, unlike what used to be the usual ploy in states like Uttar Pradesh, the Hindutva card is not being played up in Meghalaya.

The BJP leaders are, therefore, working hard trying to project development as a major issue and lacing it up well with the charges of corruption against chief minister Mukul Sangma’s government. There is also a push to encash the “popularity” of Narendra Modi as a vote catcher, especially in urban pockets.

Ironically, but not without good reason, even Congress leaders privately admit that by harping on the issue of “corruption”’, the BJP could highlight and hence exploit one of the chief demerits of the Congress regime. Hence, the BJP strategists informed top party leaders, Ram Madhav and Amit Shah that the party’s known “pro-Hindutva ideology” may not have many takers in Meghalaya, but when it comes to corruption, it may win over a substantial section. It is now common knowledge in Meghalaya that the chief minister has promoted his family members.

In fact, his wife Dikkanchi Shira, is a sitting legislator, and owns as many as six coal mines. The BJP leaders have already raised this bogey and say there has been a conflict of interest when the chief minister wrote, seeking revocation of the ban on mines. The Congress faces other problems too. There are reports of serious differences between Meghalaya Pradesh Congress Committee chief DD Lapang and Mukul Sangma.

On real polity, apparently, the chief minister has the backing of Congress vicepresident, Rahul Gandhi. But on another plane, party leaders in the state have complained about a financial crunch despite being in power. “Elections in the North-east are often like festivals and one cannot do without making necessar y investments,” says Pala.

A few Congress leaders also met AICC treasurer Motilal Vora and sought funds from the high command where too things are not very bright for the Congress leadership. On the contrary, the pro-Hindu BJP of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now considered a “cash-rich party” and thus has attracted a following in Meghalaya where it had negligible presence three years ago. Pala sums it up well, “There is an expectation from the BJP since it is in power in the Centre. Leaders may not dislike the Congress per se. Some people can stay without power and some cannot”.

However, the Mukul Sangma camp has not yet given up. He is known for being a tough fighter and in the past has successfully given stalwarts like the late Purno A Sangma — the former Lok Sabha Speaker and fellow Garo tribal leader — a run for his money.

Therefore, even as beleaguered Congress leaders in rural pockets and at block levels are moving out of the party to either join the saffron party or the NDA constituent NPP, the Mukul Sangma camp has indicated locally they could field “new faces” in many constituencies. To an extent, Congress strategists think in that case, the anti-incumbency factor could be diluted or neutralised to a large extent. The BJP leaders are aware of this proposed methodology.

“It is true, we are getting a few senior leaders and sitting legislators keen to join BJP but most are old faces and, therefore, they come with a baggage,” said a source. In principle, the BJP is also keen on trying fresh blood indicating that the seniority tag does not go well with the Prime Minister’s scheme of things as well.

To thwart attempts by rivals to dismiss the BJP as an anti-Christian party, the saffron party leaders are trying to spread a message that in Nagaland in 2003 the party won as many as seven seats on BJP tickets and all were Christians.

Moreover, Naga Christians have shown faith on the Prime Minister with regard the Naga peace talks, now in the final stage. In Goa also, the BJP has been able to win Christian stronghold seats. In fact, at one point of time, the saffron outfit also had a Christian deputy chief minister in Goa. Giving the right message to Christians remains a priority for the central BJP leadership. Therefore, acting within days of the appointment of former bureaucrat Alphons Kannanthanam as Union Minister, BJP president Amit Shah appointed Alphons as the party’s election incharge for the Meghalaya polls.

The move is clearly seen as well thought out as the BJP is determined to make inroads in Meghalaya. Alphons is a Syrian Catholic, a good orator and is also known as a no nonsense administrator. Shillong is an idyllic hill station and it need not be mere coincidence that Alphons is also the new Union tourism minister.

Everything said, the complexity of Meghalaya politics remains a puzzle in more ways than one. Voters are already talking about a “repeat” of the Goa-like machinations wherein even after winning 17 seats compared to 13 for the BJP, a lethargic Congress showed its tragic ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Politics is an art of the possible.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based freelance writer and can be contacted at [email protected])