By: Dipak Kurmi
As Meghalaya prepares to hold elections on February 27, it appears that there are no pre-poll alliances in the state. Each political party is contesting independently without any formal coalition. The current ruling Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) comprises of six major parties – National People’s Party (NPP), United Democratic Party (UDP), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), People’s Democratic Front (PDF), Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP), and Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement (KHNAM), but they have all announced their candidates for the 60-seat assembly separately. Despite the absence of any formal alliance, the political situation in Meghalaya remains complex.
According to Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times, it is a common practice for political parties to avoid forming alliances before elections in order to preserve their own vote bank, but they may consider doing so after the election. However, Professor Prasenjit Biswas from the Department of Philosophy at North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU) in Shillong notes that even if political parties are not formally allied, there is a tacit understanding on the ground regarding which parties are supporting each other. Therefore, the political situation in Meghalaya may not be as straightforward as it seems, even though each party is contesting the election independently.
Although the ruling allies in Meghalaya, the National People’s Party (NPP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have been accusing each other of various wrongdoings, they are not ruling out the possibility of forming an alliance after the election. The NPP has been accusing the BJP of being anti-Christian in order to secure the Christian vote, while the BJP has been alleging corruption against the NPP to position itself as a more honest alternative. Despite these accusations, both parties are keeping their options open and are not ruling out the possibility of working together after the election results are announced. Conrad Sangma, the Chief Minister of Meghalaya and the leader of the National People’s Party (NPP), has stated that his party is contesting the election on its own without any pre-poll alliance.
However, Sangma has also indicated that his party may consider forming alliances with likeminded parties after the election, just as they have done in the past. Therefore, although the NPP is not currently part of any formal alliance, they are open to the possibility of collaborating with other parties after the election results are announced.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Meghalaya has referred to some of their election contests as “friendly fights” and believes that their allies will eventually support them, with the main opposition being the Trinamool Congress (TMC). M Chuba Ao, who is in charge of the BJP in Meghalaya, has stated that although the BJP is contesting the election on its own, they are confident that their allies will support them later. The TMC is seen as the BJP’s main opponent in the election.
Professor Prasenjit Biswas has pointed out that at the constituency level, political parties in Meghalaya could support opposition candidates. It is also possible for seemingly competitive contests to end up as post-poll alliances. For example, in Amlarem, the United Democratic Party (UDP) candidate is Lahkmen Rymbui, but the Education and Home Minister, who is very close to Chief Minister Sangma, is also from the UDP. According to Patricia Mukhim, the UDP is seen as the “proverbial onion” that every political party needs to make their post-poll “curry”, meaning that the party may be a key factor in forming post-election alliances.
The main opposition in Meghalaya, which was previously occupied by Congress, has now been taken over by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) after 12 of the 17 Congress MLAs, led by Mukul Sangma, joined the party in November 2021. To counter the rise of TMC, the ruling National People’s Party (NPP) has labelled it as the “Bengali Party.” However, TMC is fighting in 52 seats to disprove this charge. According to TMC state president Charles Pyngrope, if they were seen as a Bengali party, they would not have been able to contest so many seats, and they expect to win more than 20 seats. TMC believes that Meghalaya needs a clean government, and they have the potential to provide that, as the current government has allegedly misgoverned and is corrupt.
Although Mukul Sangma’s association with TMC could help the party change its “outsider” image, some people remain unconvinced. Mathew Lyngdoh from Nongthymmai in East Khasi Hills district has raised concerns that TMC may not understand the unique issues faced by the state’s three major tribal communities – Khasis, Jaintias, and Garos.
The Trinamool Congress (TMC) has promised to provide 3 lakh jobs, Rs 1,000 per month to every unemployed youth and woman, and to resolve the Inner Line Permit (ILP) issue if it wins the election. According to Professor Prasenjit Biswas, due to the lack of organisational leadership in the Congress, TMC may have an upper hand and could win around 10 seats.
In 2018, Congress was the largest party in Meghalaya with 21 MLAs, but now it has no representation in the Assembly. To engage with voters, Congress has opted for a subdued campaign similar to Gujarat. It has released a five-point manifesto to make Meghalaya a “fivestar” state, which includes ending corruption, eliminating power cuts, and eradicating drug culture, among other things. Vincent Pala, the state president who has represented Shillong in the Lok Sabha since 2009, is contesting the assembly election. However, Professor Biswas believes that while Pala may be a charismatic leader, he is not an organisational man and Congress is likely to win no more than two seats in both the Garo and Khasi-Jaintia Hills.
In a state where 74% of the population is Christian, BJP is facing difficulty in removing its anti- Christian image. The party is relying on the popularity of Narendra Modi, known as the “Mfactor”. BJP has two MLAs, Sanbor Shullai and Al Hek, who are attempting to win re-election.
In the 2018 elections, BJP contested in 47 seats, won two, and obtained a vote share of 9.63%. It’s hard to predict which party will receive the most votes, as many people are not revealing their voting preferences. However, they are willing to talk about issues that matter to them, such as corruption, nepotism, the border dispute with Assam, the poor education system, the Inner Line Permit, ethnic conflicts, drug abuse, and the challenges faced by single mothers in the state.
The ruling NPP has been accused of corruption by opposition parties and even by some of its own allies. In Meghalaya’s political arena, entire families hold significant positions. For instance, Conrad Sangma’s brother James, a powerful minister, is contesting the election from West Garo Hills. Additionally, Transport Minister Sniawbhalang Dhar’s nephew Dasakhiat Lamare, who is also a minister, is again in the fray. NPP has also given tickets to the Lyngdoh sisters, Ampareen, a former Congress MLA, and Jasmine. Moreover, Mukul Sangma’s wife Dikkanchi Shira, daughter Miani Shira, and brother Zenith Sangma, all TMC MLAs, are seeking re-election.
According to Biswas, no party will win more than 20 seats in the upcoming election, while the magic number to form a government is 31. Biswas also sees a possibility that the NPP could form an alliance with the TMC. This would require Conrad and Mukul Sangma to come together, and one of them would have to give up their chief ministerial ambitions. Biswas says that politics is about what is possible, and that there could be a surprising alliance between the NPP and TMC after the election. There is a polarisation between the Khasis and Garos, with each wanting a CM from their own tribe. It is worth noting that Conrad’s father, PA Sangma, was elected to the Lok Sabha on a TMC ticket, which creates a link to the past.
Angel Kharmlang, a first-time voter from Kynton U Mon village in Nongkrem, is disappointed with all political parties. “I will vote for NOTA. The dropout rate in schools is high, and although the literacy rate is 74%, the quality of education is poor. People are literate, but not educated. Parties should prioritize improving the education system before asking for votes.” (The writer can be reached at email@example.com)