The electoral dynamics of Meghalaya is possibly the most complex in the country. At any given point of time, there are at least five separate political forces vying for a slice of a tiny electorate, which returns 60 members to the state legislature.
This complexity is not uniform, and changes as we travel from west to east, across the Garo Hills, the Khasi Hills, the Jaintia Hills, and sections of plains in between. While the Congress has always been the party to beat since the state was formed in 1972, the last time any one party won a simple majority was the All Party Hill Leaders Conference of William Sangma in 1972.
No one party has ever gotten more than 40 per cent of the vote, successful smaller parties either change form or wind up, and to add to the confusion, fresh political outfits with befuddling acronyms are born with every election. Thus, only the foolhardily brave, or knowledgeable locals, would venture to predict the outcome of the assembly elections due in Meghalaya next month.
This is how the legislature stands as Chief Minister Conrad Sangma seeks re-election:
Sangma, an ace lead guitarist and heavy metal music fan, is head of the National People’s Party (NPP; formally abbreviated as NPEP in electoral records), and leads a coalition government of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). His allies include the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), three smaller parties (acronyms: UDP, PDF, HSPDP), and two independents.
This is the results map of the 2018 assembly elections:
As readers can see, the results map is a patchwork quilt, since there were no cast-iron pre-poll alliances in 2018; the coalition was stitched together only after the results were declared.
The situation is broadly the same in 2023. Consequently, NDA allies will be contesting against each other in a number of seats. This apparent contradiction encapsulates the electoral dynamics of Meghalaya more than probably anything else, and it happens because the constituencies are so small.
In 2018, for a voter turnout of 87 per cent, the average votes cast in a seat were less than 27,000. The victory margins in a full one third of the 60 seats were less than 1000 votes; and in ten of those, the winning margin was less than 500 votes. Who on earth would have the confidence to forecast outcomes with any serious degree of surety in such circumstances?
And yet, for all that, we may trace an element of continuity over the past few decades, and map some changes which will manifest themselves in the elections next month.
One early turning point came in 1999, when the late Purno Sangma (Conrad’s father, and a popular former speaker of the Lok Sabha) started the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) along with Sharad Pawar, after they were expelled from the Congress for raking up Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins.
Sangma’s departure didn’t translate into electoral success for the NCP in Meghalaya over the next two decades, since the scales still swung between the Congress and a host of smaller parties (primarily BB Lyngdoh and his UDP).
Then, in 2012, Sangma Sr. quit the NCP after Sharad Pawar disapproved of him being nominated by other parties as their candidate for the Indian presidential elections. That set into motion a fresh chain of events which can still be felt in the state.
In 2013, Purno Sangma formed the NPP, but it was Mukul Sangma of the Congress who became Chief Minister again. The NCP was instantly reduced to a bit player. This was followed by a dramatic change at the centre in 2014, when a victorious BJP embarked upon an aggressive, extensive, investment-rich engagement with the North East.
Unfortunately, Purno Sangma died in 2016, and the NPP’s leadership passed to his son, Conrad. But already by then, the regional dynamics had started to change rapidly, with Meghalaya being no exception. And in May 2016, the North Eastern Democratic Alliance, a confederation of non-Congress parties, was set up under the convenorship of Assam’s current Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma.
The results of the BJP’s single-minded focus on the North East are self-evident. Today, every single state government in the region is a member of the NDA.
Specifically in Meghalaya, the BJP has gone from nil seats and one per cent of the vote share in 2013 to a remarkable 9.6 per cent and two seats in 2018. That may not seem like much to readers in the rest of India, but this is huge in Meghalaya, where even the Congress and the NPP poll less than 30 per cent.
According to the BJP’s state unit president, Ernest Mawrie, the party is expected to double its vote share and win 10-15 seats next month. While we won’t know if that is the case till counting day, it is clear that many of the dynamics detailed above are now coming together in the state.
For the Congress, it is a final opportunity to regain relevance in a region where it was the principal political force for seven decades; it is all but finished in most of the rest of the North East, for good. But the probability remains low, especially since a number of sitting MLAs are joining the BJP, and a sizeable chunk of the ‘Others’ vote is moving to it as well.
To various extents, and in various ways, every state now wants to be a part of the new India story. Meghalaya is no different. Perhaps that is why Conrad Sangma was so effusive in his praise of the Prime Minister, when Narendra Modi visited Shillong last month to inaugurate a slew of projects. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, the times they sure are a-changing, and the state with it.
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