Meghalaya elections: Regional parties queer Congress poll pitch

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Umsning/Mairang/Shillong: The incumbent Congress is up against its toughest ever electoral challenge in Meghalaya.

Regional forces, some of whom were traditional allies, have parted ways with the Congress, triggering a splintering of the vote bank. Defections from within the Congress party have only compounded these problems.

The Congress and its chief minister Mukul Sangma, therefore will need an extraordinary effort to regain power in a state, which it has dominated for the last four decades.

The state, with a 60-member legislative assembly, goes to poll on 27 February.

“All my life I have voted for Congress but this time I will not support them. I feel disappointed now because Congress is no longer how it used to work earlier. Its leaders are out of touch with ground realities, there is no development and everything goes into the pockets of middlemen,” said Marboh Barwing, a 62-year-old in the transport business from Umsning town in Ri-Bhoi district of Meghalaya, who has been a loyal Congress supporter for almost 40 years.

The decline of the Congress in Meghalaya and other north-eastern states became visible in 2014 general elections. The party which had won 13 out of 25 Lok Sabha seats in 2009, could only secure eight seats in 2014.

Led by one of its last remaining regional satraps, Sangma, Meghalaya is a high-stakes election for Congress, particularly to contain its eroding political presence in the North-East. In the last three years, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has wrested power from the Congress in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur.

In the Meghalaya elections, Congress is challenged by regional forces like Conrad Sangma-led homegrown National People’s Party (NPP), a rare pre-poll alliance of the United Democratic Party, Hill State People’s Democratic Party and Garo National Council as well as the new entrant BJP.

In the run-up to the state polls, the incumbent party faced a series of defection with some of its top leaders joining NPP and a few joining BJP.

And with regional parties pulling away, it can no longer rely on either their support or that of independents to claim a majority in the assembly.

Barring the first election of 1972, the Congress has always been the single-largest party in every assembly election in Meghalaya and has secured at least one-third of the total seats.

Senior party leaders concede that there is a problem, but are confident they will be able to overcome it.

“Congress has been in power in Meghalaya for so long and barring good road connectivity, there is not much to their credit. So many schemes got launched and money is being sent but the money does not reach us because of local level corruption,” said Pyndeng Nongbri, a potato farmer from Mairang constituency in West Khasi Hills district.

H. Donkupar R. Lyngdoh, a senior Congress leader and Meghalaya’s home minister told Mint on the sidelines of a public meeting in his Sohiong constituency that while the party was facing an electoral decline in the region, Meghalaya would not be affected.

“As far as Congress party is concerned, there is some decline which we have seen (in the NorthEast) but it is not that much… It depends from state to state. We have to investigate why this happened. As far as Meghalaya is concerned, I see there is no threat at all,” he said, adding that the mood of the people in Meghalaya was to support the Congress party.

R.K. Sathpathy, professor at the department of political science in North East Hill University (NEHU) in Shillong, feels that the elections are significant for the Congress, specially because of the BJP’s renewed interest in North-East politics.

“People in Meghalaya have historically showed preference for a national party over a regional party and so long till now Congress was the only alternative. This time, however, the elections have opened up with stronger regional alternatives, a feeling that Congress has been tested for too long and the fact that there is a long drawn anti-incumbency with people being fed up of local corruption,” he said.

Sathpathy added that Meghalaya points to a larger problem faced by Congress in the region. “Politically, the Congress took the North-East for granted and taking advantage of this, the BJP pursued it more aggressively,” he added.

Results of the elections in Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland will be declared on 3 March.livemint