By Barun Das Gupta
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. Politics in Meghalaya has undergone a sea change since then. This time, the 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 the BJP will succeed in registering a major gain in the next assembly. The State is divided into two broad zones: one dominated by the Khasias and Jaintias and the other by the Garos. Observers give a maximum of eight to ten seats to the BJP. The Congress tally may come down to around twenty seats. It is expected to emerge as the single largest party though 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 contesting the assembly polls.
In the last elections, the NPP won just two seats in the Meghalaya assembly but in the five years since then the party has made great strides. The NPP is in alliance with the BJP in Manipur and Rajasthan but its leader Conrad Sangma has clarified that the alliance does not mean the NPP believes in the BJP ideology. Obviously, he is keeping his options open.
Meanwhile, the 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 the BJP last year. The BJP played up his desertion as a huge setback for the Congress and big gain for itself. The wheel turned full circle earlier this month when Chaudhury was dismayed to find that the BJP had denied him nomination. He resigned forthwith and came back to his old party, the Congress. The Congress lost no time in giving him the ‘ticket’.
Both BJP and Congress are giving great importance to 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 brightened Congress electoral prospects much but it has certainly enthused the grassroots level Congress workers in the State. If the Congress wins around twenty seats, it will become the determining factor in ministry-making. This is precisely what the BJP is afraid of. It knows its limitations in Meghalaya but is trying desperately to prevent another Congress-led government being formed.
The BJP has another disadvantage in predominantly tribal Meghalaya where most people are Christian. The 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 organized 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 the 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 part of the normal every day diet of the tribals across the north-east. Any forcible ban on beef-eating will only alienate and antagonize the tribal people from the party 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 prove counter-productive. (IPA Service)