How Meghalaya Dealt A Double Whammy To Rahul Gandhi

Jaideep Mazumdar

Mar 05, 2018, 12:01 PM | Updated 12:00 PM IST

Congress president Rahul Gandhi in Mohali. (Raveendran-Pool/Getty Images)
Congress president Rahul Gandhi in Mohali. (Raveendran-Pool/Getty Images)
  • Himanta Biswa Sarma outsmarted Congress veterans like Ahmed Patel, Kamal Nath and Mukul Wasnik to form the next government in Meghalaya.
  • More importantly, Rahul Gandhi suffered yet another blow that boosted his reputation as a clueless politician.
  • As soon as early trends during the counting of results for the assembly polls in Meghalaya showed that the Congress would emerge as the single largest party, Congress president Rahul Gandhi asked his senior party colleagues Ahmed Patel, Kamal Nath and Mukul Wasnik to rush to Shillong to help the party unit in the state form the next government. The three dutifully landed in Shillong on Saturday afternoon and reached out to the other parties and Independent legislators.

    But it was an exercise doomed for failure. The Congress did emerge as the single largest party with 21 MLAs, 10 less than the simple majority required to form the government (the Meghalaya Assembly has 60 seats). The National People's Party (NPP) founded by Purno Agitok Sangma (who was expelled from the Congress in 1999 for revolting against the party slavishly choosing Sonia Gandhi to head the party) bagged 19 seats, the United Democratic Party (UDP) got six seats, the People's Democratic Front (PDF) got four seats, while the BJP and the Hill State People's Democratic Party (HSPDP) got two each.

    Gandhi’s apparent calculation was that the senior Congress leaders sent from Delhi could purchase newly-elected Independents and engineer defections from the other parties. After all, the Congress has been doing this in Meghalaya and the other states, especially of North-East India, for a long time now. Ahmed Patel, touted as a skillful negotiator and political strategist, has been particularly adept at this dubious game. Patel has, in the past, successfully installed many minority Congress governments in states.

    But what Gandhi did not realise is that the days of harakiri are over. What he also failed to realise is that broadly speaking, all the non-Congress parties in Meghalaya fought bitter electoral battles with the Congress and there were slim chances of their supporting a Congress-led coalition government that Patel and company were trying to cobble together. But most of all, he (Gandhi) seemed ignorant and oblivious of the fact that the NPP, the UDP and the PDF were constituents of the BJP-promoted North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), which is an anti-Congress front in the North-East. The HSPDP also has strong ties with the BJP and was a constituent of the North East Regional Political Front (NERPF), which had pledged allegiance to the NDA before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The NERPF later merged with the NEDA in 2016.

    It was, thus, natural for these four parties (NPP, UDP, PDF and HSPDP) to take in the BJP and form, as NPP chief and late Purno Sangma’s elder son Conrad Sangma said, a “secular non-Congress government” in Meghalaya. These four parties and the BJP, between them, have 33 MLAs, three more than the simple majority required in the house. Gandhi perhaps wished that the four parties could be convinced, through dubious means of course, to break away from the BJP’s anti-Congress front and support the Congress.

    That, as Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is also the convenor of the BJP-promoted North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), told newspersons in Shillong on Sunday, speaks volumes about Gandhi’s “political immaturity”. Sarma, who has no love lost for Gandhi (read this interview), mocked the latter and said that had Gandhi known about the political realities in Meghalaya, he would not have despatched Ahmed Patel and the other leaders to Meghalaya on a mission doomed to fail.

    But it is not as if Patel and company did not try. They, in fact, tried their best. But they were repeatedly and, at times, quite unceremoniously, snubbed by the leaders and legislators of the four parties aligned with the BJP at the national and regional levels. A senior leader of the HSPDP told Kamal Nath that “the Congress game of engineering defections and purchasing MLAs with sacks of notes is over”. An NPP legislator, who was approached by Patel told the latter to “get out of Shillong”. Newly-elected PDF MLA Banteidor Lyngdoh pretended to play along with an emissary of Patel, who approached him and reportedly recorded the whole conversation with Patel’s emissary where the latter promised him a huge sum of cash. Patel got to know of this and rushed out of Shillong.

    Kamal Nath was also insulted by a few NPP, UDP and HSPDP MLAs he had approached. Unfazed, he even had the gall to approach the two newly-elected BJP legislators late Saturday evening to offer outside support to a Congress-led coalition government in return for “huge benefits”. The BJP duo not only turned down the offer, but one of them – Sanbor Shullai – rudely asked Kamal Nath to “get lost”. This was after Kamal Nath had already met Meghalaya Governor Ganga Prasad on behalf of the Congress legislature party to lay claim to form the government. Kamal Nath argued that being the single-largest party, the Congress should be granted the first chance to form the government.

    “It was stupid on the part of Congress leaders from Delhi to approach us to align with the Congress. Doing so would have amounted to disrespecting the memory of our late founder, Purno Sangma. We have nothing in common with a family-run enterprise (the Congress) that is unprincipled and has done nothing for Meghalaya,” a senior NPP leader told Swarajya. PDF legislator Lyngdoh said: “Our primary rival in the election was the Congress and we pitted ourselves against that party. It was stupid on the part of the Congress to think that we can now support them. I pointed this out to the Congress leader who approached me on behalf of Patel, but he told me that politics was the art of the impossible. My reply was that our politics is different from the Congress brand of unprincipled politics and hence we are anti-Congress. These people (the Congress) have no shame”.

    Also, the negotiation skills and strategies of the Congress leaders were no match to that of Himanta Biswa Sarma’s. He rushed to Shillong from Agartala, where he was stationed as news of the BJP sweep was coming in, to help the formation of a non-Congress government in the hill state. Though belonging to a broad non-Congress front (the NEDA), the parties had some problems with each other that had to be sorted out. The UDP was not on the best of terms with the NPP and the HSPDP had some issues with the BJP because of their common support bases. The PDF MLAs also had some issued with the NPP and the UDP.

    Sarma conducted a series of negotiations throughout Saturday night and till early Sunday morning to iron out all these differences and also to keep the Congress at bay. By Sunday morning, when the church bells in Meghalaya’s picturesque capital of Shillong started tolling, all loose ends had been tied up and the stage was set for the formation of the NPP-led coalition government. The Congress had clearly lost out; Patel’s famed political skills lay in tatters and Gandhi suffered yet another blow that strengthened his reputation as a clueless politician.

    Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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