It was a development rumoured to be in the offing since September. And finally, after months of deliberation, former Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma left the Congress along with 11 party colleagues to join the Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee on Wednesday. In one leap, the Congress was reduced to five members in the 60-member Assembly, while the TMC became the principal opposition.
In Meghalaya, which is scheduled to go to polls in early 2023, the key political rivalry that has played out for the past several years, and is likely to sharpen now, however, is the one between two Sangmas and their families.
On one hand is Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, who heads the National People’s Party government in coalition with the BJP, and on the other is his predecessor Mukul Sangma. Both of them share a surname, belong to the same tribe, the Garo, and have their base in the same region of Meghalaya﹘ the Garo Hills.
Mukul Sangma’s wife Dikkanchi Shira, brother Zenith Sangma and daughter Miani Shira (children take the mother’s surname in the matrilineal societies of Meghalaya) are all MLAs. They have all joined the TMC with him, as have all the remaining four Congress MLAs from the Garo Hills region. This has wiped out the Congress in the Garo Hills in a single stroke. It has also made the forthcoming assembly elections in Meghalaya a crucial one for both the Garo chieftains, Mukul Sangma and his rival Conrad.
While Mukul started his own political dynasty, Conrad was born into one, being the son of former Lok Sabha speaker and Congress veteran Purno A Sangma, who founded the Nationalist Congress Party along with Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar before going on to start the NPP.
Conrad’s brother James Sangma is currently a minister in the state government, while his sister Agatha Sangma is the Tura Lok Sabha MP. She won the seat, one of only two in Meghalaya, in 2019 by defeating Mukul Sangma, who, after losing the chief minister’s seat in 2018, had tried to switch to national politics.
The Congress had emerged as the single largest party in the 2018 assembly with 21 seats. The NPP was a close second with 19. However, it was the NPP that formed the government, because smaller parties like the BJP, which won two seats in the Meghalaya assembly, the United Democratic Party, which won six, and the People’s Democratic Front, which won four, all supported the candidature of Conrad Sangma as Chief Minister.
The wind across India at that time was blowing strongly in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP, and the arrival of current Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma in Shillong soon after the results had helped seal the deal with the smaller parties that saw the NPP-led coalition come to power.
But things are now different at the national and regional levels, and also within the state.
The popularity of the BJP and even that of Mr Modi has waned in comparison. The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which is deeply unpopular across Northeast India, and the enduring mess that has resulted from the National Register of Citizens exercise have created pockets of determined opposition to the saffron party. The border conflicts between Assam and its smaller hill state neighbours, including Meghalaya, which flared up almost immediately after Sarma took over as CM, have brought into focus the perceived bullying by the BJP of smaller parties and communities.
Hindu nationalism’s obsession over food taboos, particularly beef, is unpopular among the tribal Christian majorities of these states. In the Northeast hills outside Assam, local BJP leaders generally distance themselves from the party position on the issue. In Meghalaya, for instance, Sanbor Shullai, one of the two BJP MLAs in the assembly, and a minister, hit headlines earlier this year for encouraging people to eat more beef.
Brand TMC, however, has a different kind of unpopularity to overcome.
For a very long time, the politics in the state, and the broader region, has had an anti-outsider character. The principal faultline in the politics of the hill states was and remains tribal versus non-tribal. Since Bengalis happen to be the largest non-tribal minority, and states such as Meghalaya border Bangladesh, a strong anti-Bengali politics has been in existence for decades.
Geographically and politically, the state can be divided into the Garo, Khasi and Jaintia Hills. The capital city of Shillong is located in the Khasi Hills, but it was and is quite distinct from the rest of the state, including its immediate surroundings. The Garo Hills have 24 assembly seats, while the Khasi and Jaintia Hills between them have 28, excluding Shillong which has eight seats.
Each of the hills – Khasi, Jaintia and Garo – is inhabited by a different tribe. The Khasi and Jaintia tribes are closely related to each other by culture and language, while the Garo tribe is distinct from both. Shillong city itself, while predominantly Khasi, has a mixed cosmopolitan population that includes people from various tribal communities as well as Bengali, Nepali, Bihari, Punjabi and other minorities.
The exits of Sangma and Charles Pyngrope, a Khasi leader from Shillong, from the Congress, was sparked by the elevation of Vincent Pala, a Lok Sabha MP who comes from the Jaintia Hills, to the state party president’s position in August.
Political power typically ends up getting divided between several parties and independents in Meghalaya. This has deep historical roots going back to the existence of 25 statelets with their own chiefs in the Khasi Hills, a kingdom divided into two parts – hills and plains – in the Jaintia Hills, and numerous separate chieftainships in the Garo Hills. The nature of political power being diffused, it is the individual candidate rather than the party symbol that becomes most important. Thus, Sanbor Shullai, the BJP minister, arguably won despite his party rather than because of it. He had earlier won on an NCP ticket, and may win again from some other party.
In their strongholds in Garo Hills, Mukul Sangma is quite capable of winning his own seat and ensuring the victory of his immediate family members, regardless of the party symbol.
Charles Pyngrope, a powerful Khasi leader from Shillong who has joined TMC, is similarly likely to win on any symbol. For the rest, it will be a matter of their own popularity in their constituencies, and local organisation and communication, apart from campaign finances.
The government is already facing a degree of anti-incumbency. The opposition, however, will be fractured even more than usual in Meghalaya, with new parties – of which the TMC is only one – in the fray. The Congress split has left it with no presence in the Garo Hills. The Khasi Hills always has a plethora of parties contesting, a situation that favours the existing alliance. The advantage will, therefore, lie with the NPP and Conrad Sangma.
However, should the NPP lose ground by even four or five seats, the smaller allies may find themselves in their dream position of kingmakers.
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