By: Dipak Kurmi
The upcoming Meghalaya assembly elections, scheduled for February 27th, will witness a political face-off between the ruling National People’s Party (NPP) and the newly emerged Trinamool Congress (TMC). The current election appears to be a reiteration of the 2018 elections, where the two prominent leaders of the Garo community, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma and his predecessor Mukul Sangma, were engaged in a fierce political battle. Mukul Sangma, who was then a member of the Congress party, is now contesting the election under the TMC banner, led by Mamata Banerjee.
The ongoing political battle in Meghalaya has now escalated into a full-fledged turf war between the Sangma families. Apart from Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, his brother James, who is a minister in his cabinet, is also participating in the polls. Meanwhile, Conrad’s sister Agatha is still serving as the Lok Sabha MP from Tura. Several other members of the Sangma family, including Conrad’s uncle Thomas Sangma, brother-in-law Sanjay Sangma, Cousin Ian Botham Sangma, and Agatha’s brother-in-law Chireng Peter Marak, are also contesting the elections on the NPP ticket. From the opposing TMC party, Mukul Sangma’s family members are in the fray, including his wife Dikkanchi Shira, daughter Miani Shira, brother Zenith Sangma, and Zenith’s wife Sadhiyarani Sangma, who are all incumbent MLAs. It is noteworthy that this familial political rivalry has been ongoing since the 2018 assembly elections when Conrad Sangma and Mukul Sangma were the main contenders for the chief ministerial post.
One notable aspect of the current political battle in Meghalaya is that both chief ministerial candidates face a challenge not only from each other but also from possible allies, whom they may require to form the government in case of a hung assembly, as it happened in the 2018 elections. The United Democratic Party (UDP), which supported the incumbent Conrad Sangma led government, has expressed its desire for a Khasi Chief Minister. In the 2018 assembly elections, the NPP won 19 seats and formed the government with the backing of UDP (8), Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP, 2), People’s Democratic Front (PDF, 4), BJP (2), and one independent candidate. However, in the current elections, all of these parties are contesting independently, and some leaders, mainly from Khasi areas, have raised concerns over the dominance of Garo leaders in Meghalaya’s politics.
On February 11, UDP candidate Process T. Sawkmie made a strong statement, emphasizing the need for a Khasi Chief Minister in Meghalaya. He highlighted that development work in the state, under two consecutive Garo Chief Ministers in the past 13 years, has primarily been focused on the Garo Hills region. Sawkmie cited examples such as the international standard stadium, which was initially planned to be built in Shillong, but was ultimately taken to Tura. He also mentioned that the state’s first university will be established in Tura, a town in the Garo Hills. These statements are significant in the context of the upcoming assembly elections, where multiple parties are contesting, and the UDP has expressed its desire for a Khasi Chief Minister.
It is notable that in the 2018 elections, the UDP supported the incumbent government led by Conrad Sangma, who is from the Garo community, to form the government in the state. Meghalaya is home to three major tribal groups, namely Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo, each residing on hills bearing their name. The Khasi community is the largest, comprising 70 percent of the population. While the Khasi and Jaintia communities share similar linguistic and cultural traits, the Garos have distinct traditions. The Garo Hills region holds 24 assembly seats, while the remaining constituencies are located in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. Since its formation in 1972, Meghalaya has had 12 Chief Ministers, with seven hailing from the Khasi community.
However, the longest-serving CMs have been from the Garo tribe, including stalwarts such as Williamson A. Sangma and Conrad’s father, P.A. Sangma. The last Khasi Chief Minister was D.D. Lapang, who stepped down in 2010 and was succeeded by his then-deputy Mukul Sangma, who later contested the 2018 elections under the Congress party’s banner. In the 2018 elections, Conrad
Sangma’s NPP emerged as the single largest party, winning 19 seats, and formed the government with the support of other parties. Both Conrad and Mukul face the challenge of not only winning in the 24 Garo Hill seats but also overcoming the perception of Garo dominance among the Khasis and Jaintias. Other parties in Meghalaya, especially those in the Khasi Hills, aim to capitalize on this sentiment. Along with the Garo bias accusation, Mukul faces an additional identity crisis as the TMC is perceived by indigenous tribes as a “Bengali party”. In the past, the state has seen violent clashes between tribals and Bengalis. However, Mukul’s supporters argue that his personal popularity is strong enough to counter this perception as Meghalaya usually votes for candidates, not political parties. In the 2018 assembly elections, Conrad’s NPP won 19 seats and formed the government with the support of UDP (8), HSPDP (2), PDF (4) and BJP (2) along with one independent candidate.
Many political leaders in Meghalaya are switching parties, making it an open season for defectors due to the challenge of forming a stable government. The TMC emerged as the principal opposition party overnight in November 2021 when former Chief Minister Mukul Sangma and 11 other Congress MLAs joined it. In fact, nearly two dozen Meghalaya MLAs have resigned from their parties since then. The BJP, which only won two seats in the 2018 elections, is hoping to increase its tally by fielding turncoats. Interestingly, both current BJP MLAs, Sanbor Shullai and Alexander Laloo Hek, won their seats on tickets from other parties in the past, with Shullai winning on an NCP ticket and Hek on a Congress ticket.
Both Conrad and Mukul are facing challenges in their respective constituencies. According to a conspiracy theory, the BJP, which played a key role in the formation of the previous government by ensuring that smaller parties sided with the NPP, does not want Conrad to become the Chief Minister again due to his ambition to make the NPP a pan-Northeast party and his opposition to controversial issues such as CAA and AFSPA. If Conrad requires BJP’s support again, the latter may fuel the demand for a non-Garo CM from a smaller party that may have more influence in the government. Such theories gained further credibility as PM Narendra Modi addressed a rally on February 18 in Tura, the stronghold of Conrad. The 2018 assembly elections in Meghalaya witnessed the BJP winning only two seats but playing a crucial role in the formation of the government by supporting the NPP along with other smaller parties. Mukul Sangma is facing challenges in both of his constituencies, Songsak and Tikrikilla, which has led to speculation that he is not confident of winning in either seat. In Songsak, he is facing Nihim Shira of the NPP, whom he defeated by a narrow margin of less than 2,000 votes in the 2018 assembly elections. Meanwhile, in Tikrikilla, the sitting MLA Jimmy Sangma, who had joined TMC with Mukul and later switched to NPP, is now contesting against him, making it a prestige battle. The results of the election, which will be announced on March 2, will be a significant moment in the ongoing rivalries between the two Sangmas as well as the larger interethnic tensions in Meghalaya. (The writer can be reached at email@example.com)