With several vested interests, Meghalaya’s mandate is rather uncertain. Yet, Congress may ultimately emerge as the single largest party
Meghalaya, the only State in the North-East which is headed by a Congress Chief Minister, is going to polls next Tuesday. In 2013, the Congress won 29 seats in the 60-member House. Together with the United Democratic Party's (UDP) eight legislators, it formed the government with Mukul Sangma of the Congress heading the coalition. The politics of Meghalaya has undergone a sea of change since then. This time, BJP is making a desperate bid to dislodge the Congress and come to share power in alliance with some regional parties.
Political observers in Meghalaya do not think that BJP will succeed in registering a major gain in the next Assembly. The State is divided into two broad zones: one dominated by the Khasis and Jaintias and the other by the Garos. Observers give a maximum of eight to ten seats to BJP. The Congress tally may come down to around twenty seats. It is expected to emerge as the single-largest party, though still, far short of a majority. The UDP has made an alliance with the Hill State People's Democratic Party (HSPDP), but the alliance has influence only in the Khasi-dominated areas.
The real game will begin after the results are out on March 3. The composition of the new House will determine who forms the next government. There are two possibilities. One is a Congress-dominated alliance, the other is a BJP-dominated fragile rainbow coalition. Depending on the number of seats won, the possibility of a Congress-UDP alliance government cannot be ruled out.
The National People's Party (NPP), basically a Meghalaya-based party founded by the late Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Sangma will be a factor in the Garo area. His son Conrad, a member of the Lok Sabha, is now the leader of the party. Sangma's daughter Agatha who was a Minister of State in the UPA government and another son of his are both contesting the Assembly polls.
In the last elections, NPP won just two seats in the Meghalaya Assembly but, in the five years since then, the party has made great strides. NPP is in alliance with BJP in Manipur and Rajasthan, but its leader Conrad Sangma has clarified that the alliance does not mean that NPP believes in the BJP ideology. Obviously, he is keeping his options open.
Meanwhile, BJP has suffered a loss of face on the eve of the elections. Manas Chaudhury, a scion of an old Bengali Congress family of Shillong, a former minister and a former editor of The Shillong Times, joined BJP last year. BJP played up his desertion as a huge setback for the Congress and a big gain for itself. The wheel turned full circle earlier this month when Chaudhury was dismayed to find that BJP had denied him a nomination. He resigned forthwith and came back to his old party, Congress. Congress lost no time in giving him the 'ticket'.
Both BJP and Congress are laying great emphasis upon winning Meghalaya. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah have campaigned in Meghalaya. Congress president Rahul Gandhi came on the last day of campaigning. His visit may not have significantly brightened the Congress's electoral prospects but it has certainly enthused the grassroots level Congress workers of the State. If the Congress wins around twenty seats, it will become the determining factor in the process of ministry-making. This is precisely what the BJP is afraid of. It knows its limitations in Meghalaya but it is still trying desperately to prevent another Congress-led government from being formed.
BJP has another disadvantage in the predominantly tribal Meghalaya where most people are practising Christians. BJP's hard Hindutva line has not gone down well with the people here. But, the party's beef ban issue has touched a raw chord among the people. So much so that Bernard Marak, a BJP leader, last year announced that if his party comes to power in the State, it will make beef cheaper.
The matter did not end there. Bernard Marak, Bachu Marak, and Wilver Graham Dango eventually resigned from the party over the beef issue and organised a 'bitchi-beef' festival in the Garo areas. (Bitchi is the local name for rice beer). Bernard, who was the president of West Garo Hills district of BJP, said that by hosting the festival "we wanted to show to the world that there is no law that can prevent our way of life and food habits."
Indeed, beef forms a part of the normal everyday diet of the tribals across the North-East. Any forcible ban on beef-eating will only alienate and antagonise the tribal people from the clout of zealous Gau-rakshaks. Any official move to impose the typically Hindu conservative way of life on all the peoples of a country as vast and varied as India is bound to become counter-productive.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)