The Trinamool’s choice of the freebie route to impress Meghalaya’s electorate is not working and, instead, the party is fighting to shake off the ‘outsider’ tag that it is burdened with.
The Trinamool has unveiled its ‘Ten Pledges For Meghalaya’ that includes promises of monthly doles to women, unemployed, senior citizens, widows, farmers and people working in the tourism sector, laptops for school and college students, and many other promises.
The party has pumped in a humongous amount of resources into the state, and is easily the highest spender in the poll battle.
From paying and feeding thousands of people to attend its rallies, to plastering towns and villages with posters, banners and festoons — the Trinamool is pulling out all stops to bag as many seats as it can, in the Assembly elections next month.
But somehow, none of that is working on the ground. That’s because other parties, primarily the (NPP) which led the ruling coalition in the state for the past five years, are also making a lot of promises.
And, above all, the Trinamool is looked upon as an ‘outsider’ party by a vast majority of the tribals of Meghalaya.
The ‘Outsider’ Tag
The albatross around the Trinamool’s neck is the ‘outsider’ tag that has stuck to it. In this tribal state of Meghalaya, that’s a definite disqualification. And the Trinamool’s rivals are leaving no stone unturned in repeatedly hammering the fact that the Trinamool is a Bengal-based party with barely any influence outside the confines of Bengal.
The ‘outsider’ tag, however, does not have the major negative impact in the Garo Hills districts of the state, as it does in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills districts.
That’s because the Garo Hills districts have a substantial number of non-Garos and the dominant Garos have gotten more used to co-existing with non-Garos, than their Khasi and Jaintia brethren.
The Garo Hills is home to other non-Garo tribes like the Rabas and Hajongs. And over the past few decades, some of the districts in the Garo Hills, especially those adjoining Bangladesh, have witnessed an unabated influx of Bangladeshi Muslims.
The illegal influx of Bangladeshi Muslims occurred under the patronage of earlier Congress governments in the state. This influx has turned many parts of Garo Hills into Muslim-majority areas.
Of the 24 Assembly constituencies in the Garo Hills, Muslims (Bangladesh-origin) form a significant part of the electorate in at least ten seats and play a major role in deciding the electoral outcomes in those seats.
That’s why the ‘outsider’ tag does not have as much impact in the Garo Hills as it does in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. But even so, a large section of the Garos, and other indigenous tribals of the Garo Hills, are wary of a party led by a lady from Bengal.
However, the Trinamool’s rivals are driving the ‘outsider’ point home among the electorate and their task has been made easier by the fact that the Trinamool chairperson, Mamata Banerjee, is widely perceived to be whimsical, histrionic, mercurial, short-tempered and lacking in substance outside her own state.
Her disjointed, angry and rhetorical speeches at public gatherings in Meghalaya have only contributed to strengthening the poor perception about Mamata Banerjee.
To add to that, leaders of the NPP, the (UDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been highlighting the Bengal Chief Minister’s poor track record in governance and the financial mess that her own state is in.
“Mamata Banerjee has doubled the debt burden of her own state in eleven years because of her irresponsible populist policies and financial mismanagement. Her party will do the same in Meghalaya and ruin our state,” said NPP president and Chief Minister Conrad Sangma.
Sangma, and other leaders of his party, have been highlighting this in their campaign speeches. And their repeated criticism of Banerjee are having the desired effect.
“Mamata Banerjee is not a good leader, Her policies have not helped Bengal and will inflict a lot of harm on Meghalaya. She is a dkhar (outsider) who does not understand our state,” Elister Lyngdoh, a businessman who runs a couple of restaurants at Nongpoh that falls midway between Guwahati and Shillong, told Swarajya.
Bakyntiew Mawlong, a farmer who runs a homestay in East Khasi Hills district town Mawsynram (the wettest place on earth), told Swarajya: “The Trinamool has no existence in Meghalaya. The Trinamool was formed in our state by turncoats from the Congress, and its murky start aside, the party has little to offer to us. Mamata Banerjee has ruined Bengal and her policies will ruin Megahalaya”.
Donbok Shullai, a retired school teacher who is also the headman of a locality in Jowai, the administrative headquarters of West Jaintia Hills district, claims that “everyone knows that the Trinamool is a Bengali party”.
“This Bengali party has entered Meghalaya and is trying its luck here for its own selfish reasons. It is opportunistic and will harm Meghalaya,” Shullai, whose son is a bureaucrat, told Swarajya.
Such sentiments echo in the Garo Hills as well. “Any party can contest elections from any state in a democratic country like ours. But what matters is the intention of the party. Why is the Trinamool suddenly interested in Meghalaya? Where was the party before (former chief minister) Mukul Sangma and some other MLAs broke away from the Congress to join the Trinamool last year?” wondered Salseng Marak, a social worker who runs an NGO in the East Garo Hills district’s capital town Williamnagar.
Salsen’s sister Deborah Marak, a schoolteacher in Tura (West Garo Hills), told Swarajya: “The Trinamool is present in Meghalaya today only because Mukul Sangma and the other MLAs were very unhappy in the Congress and thus broke away to join Mamata Banerjee’s party. They chose to join the Trinamool not for ideological or altruistic reasons, but for their selfish political interests and narrow gains. How can we, the tribals, support such a party?”.
The Trinamool has been fighting the ‘outsider tag’, but with little success. State BJP president Ernest Mawrie’s statement late last week that the Trinamool is led by an ‘outsider’ invited a sharp riposte from the Trinamool.
“In that case, we can say that the BJP is also led by Narendra Modi who is an ‘outsider’. If Modi can come to Meghalaya to campaign for his party, why can Mamata Banerjee not come and do the same?” asked Trinamool state president Charles Pyngrope.
Retired bureaucrat Banteilang Swer who is a well-known figure in Shillong, provides an answer: “The BJP, all said and done, is a national party and Modi is accepted as a pan-Indian politician. The BJP and its associates have been working in Meghalaya for decades and even though they have had a marginal political presence, they are known. That’s not the case with the Trinamool and its chief at all”.
Khynshewbha Nongbri, a social entrepreneur and Swer’s neighbour in Shillong’s Nongthymmai (Charles Pyngrope won from this seat on a Congress ticket in 2018) told Swarajya, that the Trinamool is too closely associated with Mamata Banerjee for the comfort of the tribals of Meghalaya.
“Mamata Banerjee does not inspire much confidence and is not popular. She is a leader from Bengal and her opportunism in Meghalaya will fail, like it did in Goa,” she said emphatically,
Trinamool’s Promised Doles Don’t Impress
One of the primary reasons why the Trinamool’s promised doles have not been able to generate any perceptible tide in its favour is that, the quantum of the doles is too less.
In a state where everything from foodgrains and fuel to clothes and cots are expensive, a promised dole of Rs 1,000 a month to a woman of every household or Rs 100 a month to a student of a government school is too meagre.
“What will I do with one thousand Rupees? It will hardly make any difference to me. And we know better than to believe politicians and their empty promises. Doles like what the Trinamool has promised only prove that it wants to buy our votes. It is an insult to us tribals. It should have, instead, offered a concrete plan on how to increase our earnings,” Shibulin Kharmawphlang, a pineapple grower in Nongpoh, told Swarajya.
What has also not gone down well with the tribals of the state is that the doles have been unveiled by dkhars (outsiders) led by Mamata Banerjee and her nephew Abhishek.
“It is demeaning for us to accept charity from a dkhar party (Trinamool). We are proud tribals and we cannot be taken as fools. Everyone knows that there are no free lunches and all doles come for a price,” said Bitlang War, Jowai-based owner of a couple of buses that ply on the Shillong to Khlieriat route.
Banri Nongrum, a single mother who runs a small tea stall at Umroi (the airport that serves Shillong), had applied for and obtained the Trinamool’s Meghalaya Financial Inclusion for Women Empowerment (MFI-WE) card that will entitle her to a monthly dole of Rs 1,000 if the Trinamool comes to power.
“I was excited about this scheme initially. But then my friends and neighbours told me that it is an empty promise and the Trinamool is only collecting our details for some unknown sinister purpose (read ). I’ve heard that Mamata Banerjee promises a lot to people but gives little when she gains power. I’ve heard that Trinamool leaders in Bengal are very corrupt and are siphoning off funds meant for the poor in Bengal. I don’t want this happening in Megahalaya,” the mother of three minor children told Swarajya.
A large number of Khasis, Jaintias and Garos staying in towns and villages of the state who spoke to Swarajya said they were distrustful of the Trinamool. Few believe that the Trinamool can come to power and keep its promises.
Almost everyone believes that the Trinamool’s promised doles are mere gimmicks and will never turn into reality. Many also believe that the Trinamool is not a permanent political player in Meghalaya and will “pack its bag and leave” once elections are over.
Banteilang Swer, the retired bureaucrat in Shillong, puts it succinctly: “The Trinamool’s promises sound hollow because they cannot be trusted. Not only because it (the Trinamool) has no roots in Meghalaya and its entry into the electoral arena here is driven by sheer opportunism, but also because its leader (Mamata Banerjee) evokes zero trust”.
Given such negative perceptions and even antagonism towards the Trinamool, it is doubtful if the regional party from Bengal can create enough impact in Meghalaya to make it a contender for power in the hill state.
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