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Meghalaya Assembly Elections: Post-result Manoeuvre of Greater Interest to Voters

With the addition of TMC to the poll fray, no party looks likely to get a majority on its own. In that case, just like in 2018, a post-poll alliance would be the most likely outcome.

Representational use only.

In the fragmented political space of Meghalaya, which commenced its 50th year of regular statehood on January 21, it appears none of the important political parties in the fray is sure of registering a functional majority on its own at the Assembly elections scheduled for February 27 and the results of which will be announced on March 2.

Therefore, for the enlightened electorate of Meghalaya, where turnout is usually high (86.65% in 2018), the only option, as developments had shown in 2013 and 2018, is to wait for post-result manoeuvres and know which party-led alliance stitched anew or a defunct one revived will form the ministry.

The uncertainty of Meghalaya politics is borne out by the fact that with the incumbent chief minister Conrad Sangma of the National People's Party (NPP), the state will have only three chief ministers who could complete their five-year terms. The other two are SC Marak, and Mukul Sangma. Conrad Sangma is the son of former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno A Sangma.

Election 2023 in Meghalaya sees further fragmentation of the political space with the Trinamool Congress of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee seriously trying to make its presence felt by fielding candidates in almost all of this north-eastern state's 60 constituencies.

The Congress, erosion in whose fairly strong base has been the reason for instability, appears to have managed to set its house in order under the leadership of state chief Vincent H Pala, who is currently the party's Lok Sabha member from Shillong and who was a Union minister in the second UPA government. The Congress has also decided to fight in almost all of the 60 seats. NPP, which leads the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) cobbled up by Conrad Sangma after the 2018 election results, wants to go alone.

Therefore, the other MDA partners – United Democratic Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party and Hill State People's Democratic Party – are free to chalk out their strategies.

BJP, which had fought in 47 seats and won in only two, will field candidates for all the seats this time. As NPP could bag only 19 seats, Conrad Sangma's MDA experiment aimed to outmanoeuvring Mukul Sangma-led Congress, which had emerged as the single largest party with 21 seats. Mukul Sangma would have been Congress chief minister for the third time had he succeeded in roping in smaller hill outfits.

The appointment of Shillong Lok Sabha MP Pala in late August 2021 caused more twists and turns in Meghalaya politics. It left Mukul Sangma aggrieved; as he explained later, he was not consulted by the Congress high command on Pala's appointment.

Towards the end of November 2021, the cards he kept close to his chest became an open secret, and he, with 11 other Congress MLAs, joined TMC. By default, TMC became the principal Opposition overnight in the Meghalaya Assembly.

The erosion in the strength of the Congress legislature party started when five of its MLAs joined the BJP-backed MDA. After Mukul Sangma's action, the Congress was left with four MLAs, who, after the announcement of the election schedule, are known to be contesting wearing new jerseys.

As usual, the announcement of candidate lists and defections are a simultaneous process in Meghalaya. Even Mamata Banerjee and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee have failed to stem further defection from TMC, which acknowledgedly is a defectors' party.

A few hours after Mamata Banerjee left the state after addressing her second campaign rally, which was well-attended, some TMC leaders joined other parties. Reliable reports indicate that the top brass has asked the local leaders to be more watchful. Conrad Sangma has succeeded in keeping his flock together. Still, recently a selected candidate, the brother-in-law of Tura Lok Sabha member and Conrad Sangma's sister Agatha, joined the Congress. Also recently, the lone MP of Sharad Pawer-led Nationalist Congress Party, Saleng Sangma, switched over to the Congress and has been fielded for one of the seats. The release of nominees' lists is on, and it will be some days before the parties are through this job.

While speaking to NewsClick, BJP's state chief Earnest Mawrice claimed "robust growth" of his party in the state, prompting the national leadership to fight in all the seats. But, BJP is yet to release its first list.

Circumstances have forced Congress to look for fresh faces. Pala, who is a candidate for the Assembly polls on the high command's advice, told NewsClick, "We have given a chance to a fairly good number of highly educated youths. I think they will put up a good fight. Corruption has marred the NPP-led ministry's image. As for TMC, I will say that people know what is happening in West Bengal. The Congress intends to focus, inter alia, on value-addition in farming with pre-determined market linkage. The health and education sectors are also to be prioritised."

So far, only TMC has released its manifesto, which predictably reflects in large measure Mamata Banerjee's dole-based approach to her regime in West Bengal. Naturally, the slugfest at the moment is between TMC and NPP.

Mamata Banerjee has indirectly accused Conrad Sangma of being dependent upon BJP. The TMC manifesto promises to revoke the border MoU with BJP-ruled Assam. In contrast, the convener of the North-East Democratic Alliance, Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam's chief minister, calls the shots and exercises a lot of influence. By implication, the TMC manifesto has suggested that the NPP-led ministry compromised Meghalaya's interest by giving away more than the justified area to Assam. Mukul Sangm has said, "If voted to power, we will scrap the MoU as people do not accept the survey reports."

Conrad Sangma has not taken the charges lying down and reminded his West Bengal counterpart that TMC in Meghalaya was as much a bohiragata (outsider) as she had called a national party in her state. Conrad Sangma was referring to Mamata Banerjee's outsider tag for the scores on BJP leaders who had descended on West Bengal for campaigning for the 2021 Assembly elections. Significantly, neither Mamata Banerjee nor Abhishek Banerjee reacted to Conrad Sangma's diatribe.

The Meghalaya chief minister forcefully defended the understanding with Assam on border sites over which disputes have persisted over the last 50 years. The understanding signed on March 29, 2022, in the presence of Union home minister Amit Shah in New Delhi, he claimed, had been reached following extensive consultations with the people at various levels.

"We have found that 98% of the people are satisfied with what we have done. That is the way to move ahead. There is just no question of revisiting the understanding. The remaining processes – administrative, legislative and even political – will follow."

State general secretary of NPP Nihim Dalbot Shira, when asked about TMC's manifesto provision, told NewsClick, "I can only laugh it away. It was an extensive process involving the two chief ministers and the Union home minister, who said after the signing ceremony that it marked as much as 70% resolution of the long-pending dispute that has been the reason for many skirmishes on the border between the people on both sides."

Border dispute: The two states share an 884.9-km-long boundary. There were 12 disputed locations. Serious discussions between Assam and Meghalaya started in July 2021, and the two sides agreed to take up "six less complicated locations" for an MoU. The understanding signed on March 29, 2022, was the culmination of this initiative. This formalised understanding involved 36.79 sq km, of which Assam retained 18.51 sq km, and Meghalaya got 18.28 sq km. The two sides had also agreed to take up "the six complicated sites" as early as possible to keep up the momentum. This process was started in August 2022, but an incident of violence, in which several people were killed, caused some misunderstanding which, however, was not allowed to vitiate the atmosphere for the resumption of dialogue.

The six less complicated locations are Gizang, Tarabari, Boklapara, Khanapara-Pilingkata, Ratacherra and Hahim. These fall under the Cachar, Kamrup and Kamrup Metropolitan districts of Assam and corresponding districts of west Khasi Hills, Ri-bhoi and East Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya. The complicated sites are: Langpih, Borduar, Nongwah-Matamur, Deshdemoreah Block I and II and Pisar-Khanduli (Garbhanga). Currently, eight districts of Assam touch the border of Meghalaya. These are : Cachar, Dima Hasao, West Karbi Anglong, Kamrup Metropolitan, Kamrup, Goalpara, South Salmare and Mankachar.

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