As electioneering for the 27 February polls came to a close Saturday (25 February), people in Meghalaya heaved a huge sigh of relief.
Because the long weeks of campaigning have been unusually vitriolic and acrimonious, thanks to the newcomer Trinamool Congress.
Trinamool Congress leaders from Bengal who campaigned in Meghalaya like party chief Mamata Banerjee, her nephew Abhishek Banerjee, Lok Sabha MP Mohua Moitra and others, introduced a massive dose of vicious mud-slinging and vitriol that has been completely alien to Meghalaya's politics till now.
The Trinamool leaders' primary targets were the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the National People's Party (NPP), primarily the latter's leader and incumbent Chief Minister Conrad Sangma.
The Trinamool accused Sangma of massive corruption and projected itself as the only party that can ensure all-round development of Meghalaya.
The political visitors from Bengal projected their party as the primary opposition party at the national level capable of fighting the BJP. They also tried to paint the BJP as a Hindu majoritarian party that can never serve the interests of the Christian tribals of the state.
Meghalaya also witnessed, for the first time in its history, political violence that Bengal is so notorious for.
Inspired by the vicious mud-slinging launched by the Bengal Trinamool leaders against the NPP (which led the ruling alliance in the state for the last five years), its party cadres clashed with NPP workers.
These clashes took place mostly in the Garo Hills where the Trinamool is strong, thanks to former Congress leader and chief minister Mukul Sangma who defected with eleven other Congress MLAs to the Bengal regional party in November 2021.
Most of the MLAs who defected from the Congress to the Trinamool are from the Garo Hills, which has 24 of the 60 seats of the Meghalaya Assembly. That, and the influence of Mukul Sangma, has made the Trinamool a significant player in the Garo Hills.
"We have never witnessed such caustic campaigning filled with antagonism, mud-slinging and personal attacks which are completely alien to tribal society and our ethos. I blame the Trinamool for bringing this negative style of campaigning from Bengal to Meghalaya," sociologist Aldea Khongwar told Swarajya.
Election campaigns in Meghalaya have, till now, been quite colourful with songs, dancing and good-natured quips between rivals, says former bureaucrat Pynshai War.
"This is the first time very harsh and ugly words were exchanged and campaigning became so acerbic. It has left everyone with a bad taste in the mouth," War told Swarajya.
The Trinamool also stands accused of injecting massive amounts of money into the campaigning.
"Such humongous use of money for campaigning has never been witnessed in Meghalaya earlier," said William Marak, a professor of political science at a government college in Tura.
It is worth mentioning here that the Trinamool spent huge sums of money in the Goa Assembly elections exactly a year ago. But it failed to win even a single seat and almost all of its candidates lost their security deposits.
It won't fare so badly in Meghalaya, though. The Bengal provincial party is expected to win about ten seats in the Garo Hills and, at best, a couple of seats from the Khasi and Jaintia Hills.
The Trinamool has not found acceptability in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills where it is widely viewed as a Bengal-based party which has no business in entering the political fray in the tribal state.
The NPP is expected to win 15 to 18 seats, while the United Democratic Party (UDP) — which was also a constituent of the ruling alliance — is expected to win eight to ten seats.
The BJP, say poll pundits, will win four to five seats while the Congress will bag five to six seats. The regional parties and Independent candidates will pick up the remaining seats.
The fractured mandate will trigger an intense round of political negotiations to form alliances. And this is where the BJP holds a massive advantage.
The saffron party's trump card in the North East — Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma — is a very astute politician with friends in every party.
Political analysts say that Sarma will play a crucial role in government formation in Meghalaya this time as well. Earlier, when he was with the Congress, Sarma had played a pivotal role in installation of Congress governments in Meghalaya.
Sarma had confidently told Swarajya during the initial stages of campaigning that the BJP will be part of the next government in Meghalaya. Sarma, incidentally, is quite close to Trinamool's Mukul Sangma as well.
That throws open the possibility of Mukul Sangma walking away from the Trinamool and joining hands with the BJP and other smaller parties to form the next government.
If that happens, it will not be the first time that political rug is pulled from under Mamata Banerjee's feet in the North East.
The Trinamool had won a few seats in two successive polls in Manipur in the past, but suffered the ignominy of all its MLAs deserting the party after the polls. This could well happen in Meghalaya as well.
Mukul Sangma and the other MLAs joined the Trinamool for their own convenience, contends political commentator Alwin Kharkongor.
They were not drawn to the Trinamool on ideological grounds, and the Trinamool anyway lacks a coherent ideology. "That it why it will be easy for them to leave the Trinamool at the drop of a hat," said Kharkongor.
The curtains have come down on the most belligerent and ugly poll campaign that Meghalaya has witnessed in its history. The actual power-play will only start after the results are known by early afternoon of Thursday (2 March). And it will be advantage BJP then.
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