By Ashis Biswas
In Meghalaya, where State Assembly elections are due next month, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a constituent in the outgoing ruling coalition led by the National Peoples’ Party (NPP), is facing tough times. State BJP leaders find themselves beyond their depth as they struggle to counter strongly negative vibes among large segments of voters, mostly generated by the functioning of their assertive BJP colleagues in neighbouring Assam.
The BJP known for its strong stand against beef eating, is yet to find significant political support in a state with 80% -plus Christian population. State party leaders have spoken to local media persons about their problems — in particular, their thankless task of occasionally justifying/explaining the implications of pronouncements made by senior party leaders in neighbouring Assam.
Meghalaya voters are no less critical of the BJP’s proposal to implement the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the upgrading of the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
In 2018, the BJP had won only 2 out of 60 seats, but later increased its strength to 6 by encouraging defections from other parties. However, in the Northeastern states, defection being a politically acceptable phenomenon, the actual strength of a party may not necessarily be reflected in the number of seats at any given time. Starting virtually from scratch to establish a foothold in the state, – in 2018, the BJP in Meghalaya finds it increasingly hard to work out a convincing pre-poll campaign.
State BJP leaders have reported at length their pre-campaign agonies because of issues and controversies created in other states, especially Assam, in their interactions with their central leaders. There has been little change in the ground situation, though. For one thing, the BJP has its strongest NE base in Assam, followed by Tripura. The party has long term plans to expand from Assam into other states in the region.
Assam Chief Minister Mr, Himanta Biswa Sarma, whose aggressive pro Hindutva political campaigning has helped the BJP to grow in the region, is the sole NE representative in the BJP’s apex policy-making level. He heads the party’s overall campaign strategy and planning for the NE region as a whole. Given this background, observers think the chances of Meghalaya BJP leaders securing much relief/help from central leaders vis-a-vis their problems with Assam are slim.
Nor is it only a question of beef and related issues. Relations between the two states have been unusually frosty of late because of the killing of six Khasi tribespeople by Assam policemen during a clash over territorial jurisdiction some time ago. The intervention between the two concerned Chief Ministers at the highest level prevented a worse breakdown of law and order, close to the sensitive, disputed , interstate border — but only just.
The Christian church lost no time in condemning Assam for the unwarranted loss of human lives, along with criticizing Mr Sarma for what it perceived as his ‘shifting statements’..
These difficulties have somewhat damaged the BJP’s poll prospects in Meghalaya. A sure indication that to go with the BJP politically could be ‘bad news’ at present was available in the recent , unexpected decision taken by the National People’s Party led by Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, to fight the 2023 elections on its own.
The unceremonious ‘ditching’ from the major partner in the erstwhile ruling coalition in which the BJP was a minor ally, has left the saffron party rudderless. The state party is in a drift, not knowing how to proceed in this situation. One example of its present confusion is the present level of its unpreparedness.
The NPP has already announced a list of 58 candidates, while the Indian National Congress has so far put up 40. New entrant Trinamool Congress (TMC) has announced a list of 52 candidates. Its leader, former Chief minister Mr Mukul Sangma will be contesting from two seats. Most of the smaller regional parties/outfits too have announced their nominees.
The sole exception (up to now ! ) is the BJP! Unofficial reports suggest that the party cannot find too many people willing to fight on its symbol. State leaders have been reduced to look for defectors from other camps to fill the void .
This is not to suggest that the party has abandoned battle stations. State leaders stress that the BJP’s prospects are better in the Garo hills, in Tura and adjacent areas, which account for 24 seats. The BJP’s limited success in the 2018 polls, too happened in these areas. This time Mr Nurul Momin, the Deputy Speaker of the Assam Assembly, has been camping here conducting the pre-poll offensive.
His objective: to counter what he describes as the baseless, motivated anti BJP campaign among Christians and other minorities , suggesting that the consumption of beef will be totally banned in the state and later in the region, if the pro-Hindutva forces become stronger! He has reportedly instructed local leaders to highlight the wide range of developmental activities and schemes carried out with generous financial assistance by the central party leadership since 2018.
Despite being plagued by occasional defections, the TMC is putting up a serious campaign. West Bengal Chief minister Mamata Banerjee is scheduled to visit Meghalaya on Jan 18 and to address a public rally the same day. Other leaders including her nephew MP Abhishek Banerjee, MP Mr Derek O’Brien and Dr Manas Bhuyan, a Minister of West Bengal, will accompany her.
As for Congress, its youth leaders have been upset over what they a feel to be a sidelining of the aspiring younger generation in the nomination of candidates. They have protested to their central leaders, urging upon them not to bypass sincere party supporters and workers who have stayed loyal to the party during its present difficult times.
Party leaders feel that the Bharat Jodo march led by Mr Rahul Gandhi has made a positive impact in the Northeast region and the country as a whole. (IPA Service)