It has been two years since the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress pulled off a landslide victory in the West Bengal assembly elections, staving off a no-holds barred challenge from the BJP and the wider Sangh Parivar. Since then, the Trinamool has tried to expand outside West Bengal but with little success.
Its first serious outing, in Goa last year, ended in dismal failure despite an expensive publicity-driven campaign. Its next challenge, in Bengali-majority Tripura, is also unlikely to yield much in dividends, especially after traditional rivals in that state, the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) announced an alliance. That makes its campaign in Meghalaya, which votes on February 27, all the more important for the party.
The TMC is currently the main opposition in Meghalaya. It pole-vaulted to that position from zero seats all of a sudden in November 2021 when the Congress there suffered a split, with 12 of its 17 MLAs under former Chief Minister Mukul Sangma leaving the party to join the TMC. That raised visions of a possible TMC-led government in Meghalaya in 2023, but at the moment, such an outcome – while not impossible – appears unlikely for a number of reasons.
The state of Meghalaya is composed of three distinct geographical regions: the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Hills, which are respectively dominated by the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo tribes. Of these, the Khasi and Jaintia are linguistically and culturally similar, while the Garo is quite distinct from both. The politics in the state generally breaks down into a separate dynamic in the Khasi-Jaintia Hills and the Garo Hills; it is safe to say that the leaders who dominate the Garo Hills would not be able to win an election in the Khasi or Jaintia Hills, and vice versa.
Both Mukul Sangma and his principal rival, current Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma of the National People’s Party, are Garo leaders. Both also have their own political dynasties. Conrad Sangma is the son of former Lok Sabha Speaker late Purno Sangma. His brother James Sangma is a minister in the state government while his sister Agatha Sangma is the Member of Parliament from the Garo Hills. Mukul Sangma, a medical doctor who rose from humble beginnings, started his own political dynasty. His brother Zenith Sangma, daughter Miani Shira, wife Dikkanchi Shira, and his brother’s wife Sadhiarani Sangma are all elected representatives from the Garo Hills.
The political battle between the TMC and the NPP in Meghalaya therefore boils down largely to a turf war between these two leading political families. There are 24 seats in the Garo Hills. A closer look at the details of some of the constituencies there, and the principal contestants, throws up a very interesting picture.
Mukul Sangma’s traditional bastion was the seat of Ampati from South West Garo Hills, close to Meghalaya’s borders with Assam and Bangladesh. He first won that seat in 1993, and kept winning it for the next five terms, up to the last assembly polls in 2018. However, in 2018 he also contested from another constituency in the Garo Hills, Songsak, and later resigned his Ampati seat, putting up his daughter Miani as the candidate there. She duly won the by-polls to that seat on a Congress ticket after he vacated it, but her father’s exit has weakened the family’s hold there. There were murmurs of discontent that Mukul Sangma had left Ampati in favour of Songsak.
This time, he is contesting from two Garo Hills seats, Songsak and Tikrikilla, while his daughter Miani is contesting again from Ampati. His own victory from both seats is by no means certain. In Songsak, he faces a strong challenge from the NPP whose candidate there, Nihim Shira, is a local stalwart of that area who won the seat twice, in 2008 and 2013, before losing to Sangma by less than 2,000 votes in 2018. Chief Minister Conrad Sangma is personally leading the campaign against Mukul in Songsak, which will make things harder for him. In the second constituency he is contesting, Tikrikilla, he faces an even trickier challenge. The sitting MLA there, Jimmy Sangma, was one of the MLAs who had switched from Congress to TMC. Last month, he switched again, to join the NPP. Mukul therefore faces an uphill battle, especially considering the population dynamics of the area. The Garos are a majority in the constituency, but there are large minority populations of the Rabha tribe, and of Bengali-speaking Muslims.
The BJP has put up a strong candidate, Rohinath Barchung, a Rabha. Barchung had contested as Congress candidate in 2013, and lost. Another Tikrikilla local, former state minister Kapin Boro, who was the losing BJP candidate from there last time, is contesting as the Congress face this time. The politics of the constituency is along tribal and community lines, which means that the Garo vote may consolidate behind either Mukul or Jimmy Sangma – but if there is a split in the Garo vote, as appears likely, both of them may face defeat.
The difficulties for the TMC are even greater in the Khasi Hills, for other reasons.
For many decades, an anti-outsider politics was the dominant form of popular politics in Shillong, the Meghalaya capital, which is in the Khasi Hills. This also radiated out into the surrounding areas. There were major riots in 1979, 1987, 1991 and 1992 in which the resident “outsiders”, known in the local language as “dkhars”, were targeted. Bengali and Nepali speakers bore the brunt of it. While all Bengalis, Hindu and Muslim, were liable to face random physical violence as Bangladeshi immigrants, the Nepali-speaking Gorkhas were also targeted on suspicion of being settlers from Nepal.
An old anti-outsider sentiment exists in these areas. The local parties, including the ruling NPP which is a party largely free of all kinds of communal politics, have therefore not missed the opportunity to characterise the TMC as a party of outsiders from Bengal. “If BJP and other national parties are according to Madam Mamata Banerjee outside parties in West Bengal, well, then, their TMC is an outside party in Meghalaya. We have our own political parties; we know how to take care of ourselves,” Conrad Sangma told an election rally in Jowai in the Jaintia Hills earlier this month. It is a point that has been repeated elsewhere as well, and it is bound to have some impact.
The TMC has limited prospects in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, where the contest is mainly between a local party, the United Democratic Party, and the rest, including NPP, BJP, Congress, a newly-launched party called the Voice of the People Party, and others, including TMC, which has a couple of candidates who can potentially win despite their party symbol. Individual candidates matter more than parties here, and historically, strong candidates have been able to win from almost any party or even as independents.
The field is also more crowded in this part of the state, especially in the Khasi Hills, which has a plethora of local parties.
Until India’s Independence in 1947, there were 25 different Khasi states, each with its own ruler, and something of that fractured polity remains to this day. Although the Khasi Hills have more seats than the Garo Hills, and people from there dominate the state’s public life, in politics it is the Garo leaders who have had long runs as chief ministers because they could muster larger numbers of MLAs. This is a bit of a sore point with many in the Khasi Hills.
There is a desire to see a Khasi chief minister for the first time since 2010, when Mukul Sangma became CM. The UDP is hoping to cash in on that, and has put up candidates on 46 seats, but the traditionally fractured nature of Khasi politics means that it will be lucky to win more than 10 seats in the house of 60. Some of its prominent faces, such as party president Paul Lyngdoh, face difficult challenges in their own seats. Lyngdoh, who is contesting from West Shillong, is up against sitting MLA Mohendro Rapsang of the NPP and BJP Meghalaya president Ernest Mawrie. Rapsang is a well-known builder with deep pockets, which gives him an edge.
Going into the elections, the incumbent NPP – despite facing allegations of rampant corruption and a good measure of anti-incumbency – appears well placed to emerge as the single largest party. It has established a strong presence in all parts of the state, built up its war chests, and will be putting up candidates in 57 constituencies. One of the constituencies it has failed to put up a candidate on shows something of the challenge it is facing from a rising power other than TMC in Meghalaya politics – the BJP.
Till date, the BJP has never won more than three seats out of 60 in Christian-majority Meghalaya. It holds two seats now, both from Shillong. Both were won by candidates who it poached from other parties – candidates who can potentially win on pretty much any party ticket. This time, the BJP has built up a larger roster of such candidates. Among its recent recruits is Martin Danggo, a five-term MLA and former state assembly speaker from Ranikor, who recently quit the NPP to join its ally the BJP. The NPP has been left without a candidate on that seat, which is currently held by the UDP.
The BJP is also mounting a strong challenge against NPP chief Conrad Sangma in his seat of South Tura, where its candidate is a former leader of an armed militant group called the A’chik National Volunteers Council, Bernard Marak, who laid down arms in 2014. Marak’s campaign is set to receive a boost with campaign rallies by Home Minister Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 18. The BJP and various organisations of the Sangh Parivar have been working hard to expand the party’s footprint in Meghalaya, and this time, the BJP is contesting all 60 of the state’s seats. The stated aim is to have a BJP-led government in the state.
After the last assembly polls in 2018, in which the Congress had emerged as the single largest party, the BJP pointsman for Northeast India, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, had helped cobble together the NPP-led coalition that ruled the state. This time around, the effort is clearly to cut the NPP down to size. The BJP appears well placed to better its highest-ever score of three. The Congress, which was decimated by defections, may also win a few seats despite fielding mostly new candidates. The TMC, UDP, VPP and others are also expected to win a handful of seats each.
The nature of the contest varies from seat to seat. This makes a fractured verdict in which no party has sufficient numbers quite likely. The real deal-making will then happen after the results are in – and that, of course, is something that the BJP excels at.
Various permutations and combinations are possible. For instance, the current combination of NPP, UDP and BJP, who together should be able to muster the numbers, could continue. A TMC-UDP combination allying with smaller parties is also possible. The eventual mix will of course be determined by the results. Ideology is hardly important for the politicians themselves, and – despite the loud rhetoric on television and social media – seems to matter increasingly less to the electorate as well, when it comes to actually voting. Election results in Meghalaya and Nagaland, both of which will vote on February 27, are increasingly determined by money. Political insiders say the cash is already flowing.
Corruption is cited as an electoral issue but the fact that the UDP and BJP were both part of the governing coalition blunts their attacks. The TMC is trying to make something of it although going by past results, cash in hand and gifts may influence more voters than moral qualms about corruption.
Moreover, the elections themselves are just a prelude. The leading role of money may continue after the results come in. The possibility of some version of “resort politics” in which a party is split, as happened in the case of the Shiv Sena, cannot be ruled out.
Electoral politics in India is increasingly a form of entrepreneurship in which large investments are made, in the expectation that the investments can be recovered with profits afterwards.
Update at 10.15 am, Feb 14: Garo Hills has 24 assembly seats. Sadhiarani Sangma is a member of the district council, not an MLA as previously described. This has been corrected.
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