Meghalaya 2023: How Himanta Biswa Sarma Thwarted Congress' Bid To Prevent An NPP-BJP Government

Jaideep Mazumdar

Mar 06, 2023, 05:39 PM | Updated 05:39 PM IST

Himanta Biswa Sarma (L) and Conrad Sangma
Himanta Biswa Sarma (L) and Conrad Sangma
  • According to NPP leaders, the Congress joined hands with the VOPP, an overtly parochial and anti-non tribal party, to encourage Khasi tribal groups to launch protests against the NPP’s bid to form the government.
  • The Congress, which won just five seats in the just-concluded assembly elections in Meghalaya, staged a bid to run away with the verdict and prevent the NPP-BJP combine from returning to power in the state.

    As in 2018, the elections to the 60-member assembly threw up a fractured verdict this time too with the Conrad Sangma-led National People's Party (NPP) emerging as the single largest party with 26 MLAs.

    The NPP had led the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) that ruled Meghalaya for the past five years since 2018.

    The United Democratic Party (UDP), another constituent of the MDA, won 11 seats this time.

    Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), People's Democratic Front (PDF) and the Hill State People's Democratic Party (HSPDP) which were also junior partners in the MDA, won two seats each. 

    But the MDA had disintegrated before the elections and all the five partners contested against each other. 

    While the Congress won five seats this time, the Trinamool Congress also won five and the newly-formed Voice Of People's Party (VOPP) won four seats.

    Two independents also won. Elections to one assembly seat was countermanded after the death of the UDP candidate there.

    The NPP and the BJP agreed to join hands even before the election results were announced.

    Conrad Sangma met Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma in Guwahati last Tuesday (28 February) night.

    The two decided to revive the alliance between their parties and stake claim to form the government after the declaration of results. 

    Soon after the results were announced on 2 March, the NPP received the support of two independent MLAs.

    The two HSPDP legislators also extended support to the NPP-BJP combine. 

    Armed with letters of support from the six MLAs — two from BJP, two from HSPDP and two independents — that gave him a slender majority of 32 in the 59-member house (elections to the one seat will be held later), Sangma met Governor Phagu Chauhan on Friday (3 March) to stake his claim to form the government. 

    But the Congress, which faced the ignominy of all its MLAs in the last assembly defecting to other parties, activated its bid to prevent the NPP-led alliance from returning to power. 

    According to NPP leaders, the Congress joined hands with the VOPP, an overtly parochial and anti-non tribal party, to encourage Khasi tribal groups to launch protests against the NPP’s bid to form the government. 

    These tribal groups, including some NGOs, with a perceived sectarian and communal outlook, launched street protests.

    Reportedly backed by the Congress and the VOPP, they forced the HSPDP president to announce that he had not authorised the two newly-elected MLAs of his party to extend support to the NPP. 

    The Khasi pressure groups were led by the Hynniewtrep Youth Council (HYC) and included the Hynniewtrep Integrated Territorial Organisation (HITO), Hynniewtrep National Youth Movement, Ka Sur U Paidbah ka Bri U Hynniewtrep and Saindur Tipkhur-Tipkha Ieng Ehrngiew Hynniewtrep as well as other organisations whose aims and ideologies are sectarian, divisive, communal and even border on separatism. 

    These pressure groups issued threats to the two HSPDP and two independent MLAs who had extended support to the NPP, staged demonstrations against them and even attacked their properties. 

    Allegedly egged on by the Congress, the pressure groups asked the four legislators to announce withdrawal of support by Sunday (5 March) morning or face “dire consequences”.

    Open threats were even issued to lynch the four MLAs. 

    The pressure groups announced they want the UDP (which emerged as the second-largest party with 11 MLAs) to take the lead in government-formation and promised to get the PDF (two MLAs), VOPP (four MLAs), the HSPDP (two MLAs) and the two independents on board. 

    The Congress, with five MLAs, promptly announced their support to efforts to form a non-NPP, non-BJP government. 

    The pressure groups justified their opposition to the NPP on the grounds that the state needed a Khasi as the Chief Minister.

    “We want a Khasi chief minister. Meghalaya has been ruled for too long by Garo chief ministers,” said HYC vice-president Donbok Kharlyngdoh.

    The Congress leaders also spoke to Trinamool’s Mukul Sangma. Sangma had, along with 11 other Congress legislators, defected to the Trinamool in November 2021 over serious differences with state Congress chief Vincent Pala. The two have been sworn adversaries since then. 

    But overcome by the lure of being part of a UDP-led government, the Trinamool agreed to offer its support to efforts to form a non-NPP non-BJP government in the state. 

    Sangma, who served for nearly eight years as the Congress chief minister, swallowed his pride while agreeing to be a junior partner in such a government. 

    What’s more, Sangma, a Garo, had no qualms in supporting the sectarian demand raised by the Congress-backed pressure groups for a Khasi chief minister. 

    Congress state president Vincent Pala, who lost the elections, said that his party would extend outside support to a UDP-led government.

    “A UDP-led government will be in a majority and offer stable and clean governance,” he said. 

    With Congress promising outside support, some UDP leaders calculated that a government led by their party would enjoy a majority of 31. 

    The Congress hoped that the sectarian Khasi groups would be able to apply enough pressure through strong street protests and intimidatory tactics to prevent the NPP from forming the government in the state. 

    “The Congress had hoped that the street protests by the pressure groups led by the HYC and HITO will gain momentum and become so fierce that the NPP would abort its attempt to form the government and would step aside to allow the formation of a UDP-led government with support from the Congress,” a NPP leader who was in the know of the Congress’ machinations told Swarajya

    That is when Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma stepped in.

    Sarma has many friends cutting across the political spectrum in all states of the region and many politicians owe their careers and much more to him. 

    Sarma had, in his past avatar as trouble-shooter for the Congress in the region, done a lot of favours to many politicians in Meghalaya.

    For instance, he was instrumental in installing Mukul Sangma as the chief minister of the state in April 2010. 

    The incumbent Congress chief minister at that time, D D Lapang, was facing acute dissidence and Sarma was sent by the Congress ‘high command’ to resolve the issue.

    He prevailed upon Lapang to step aside in favour of Mukul Sangma. 

    Anyway, the Assam chief minister swung into action on Saturday (4 March) noon and started calling up leaders of the UDP, PDF and even the Congress. 

    Sarma reportedly called in some of the many favours that leaders of the UDP and PDF owe to him. And he prevailed on them to join the second edition of the MDA. 

    The Assam Chief Minister also persuaded Mukul Sangma, who had just suffered electoral disgrace after losing in one constituency and barely scraping through in another (he had contested from two seats) with a lead of only 372 votes, to back off from supporting the Congress’s game plan. 

    It is learnt that both UDP and PDF leaders assured Sarma that they would “favourably consider” his request to them to re-join the MDA and be part of the next government in the state. 

    After late-night confabulations, leaders of both the parties announced Sunday (5 March) that they have extended support to NPP and would rejoin the MDA.

    Leaders of the UDP and PDF called on NPP chief Conrad Sangma at his residence Sunday noon and gave him their letters of support signed by all MLAs. 

    By Sunday afternoon, the news of the UDP and PDF returning to the MDA became public. The Congress was left shell-shocked. 

    The Trinamool, which had ambitions of forming the government but won just five seats — two of its MLAs won by very slim margins of 10 and 18 votes — retreated into a shell. 

    The Khasi pressure groups also saw the writing on the wall and slunk back to their preserves. But not before the state administration threatened them with strong action if they went ahead with their threats and carried out any more attacks on MLAs or the latters' properties. 

    “These pressure groups are actually bullies who chicken out when they are confronted. They had threatened to disrupt the scheduled swearing-in ceremony of the NPP-led government at the Raj Bhawan Tuesday (March 7) and even said they would put up roadblocks to prevent the Prime Minister, Union Home Minister and others from entering the Raj Bhawan. The state administration told them they would face the full force of the law enforcement machinery if they staged even a minor protest. They were told they would be arrested and slapped with non-bailable sections. They got the message and backed off,” said a senior officer of the state home department. 

    All these developments happened at a fast pace and the Congress was caught unawares.  

    Conrad Sangma will now take oath on Tuesday as Chief Minister of Meghalaya for the second successive term with a solid majority. With Himanta Biswa Sarma’s intervention, the new MDA government will have the support of 45 MLAs, or two-thirds of the assembly’s total strength. 

    The Congress, which has been outfoxed, along with the sectarian VOPP and the Trinamool, have announced that they will sit in the opposition benches and will play the part of ‘responsible opposition’. 

    An NPP leader who won the elections and is slated to get a cabinet berth told Swarajya that the game has now shifted to the opposition camp. 

    “Wait and watch what happens to the Trinamool and the Congress. Both are likely to suffer splits and the Trinamool may even cease to exist in the assembly with its MLAs joining some other party en masse,” said the NPP leader. 

    Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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