Regional parties may alter course of Meghalaya elections

Mairang/Shillong/Jowai (Meghalaya): The decline of the Congress in the North-East has led to a resurgence of regional parties. This seems to be playing out in poll-bound Meghalaya as well, with the challenge to chief minister Mukul Sangma’s government coming from the National People’s Party (NPP) led by Conrad Sangma.

Also posing a threat to the Congress is a rare pre-poll alliance of the United Democratic Party (UDP), Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP) and Garo National Council (GNC).

While UDP and HSPDP are dominant in the Khasi and Jaintia hill regions, GNC plays a crucial role in the Garo hills.

Meghalaya’s 60-member legislative assembly goes to the poll on 27 February.

If indeed this election pans out in favour of regional forces, it could alter the political landscape of the hill state. No regional party has formed a government on its own with the exception of the All Party Hill Leaders Conference (APHLC), at the first assembly elections, in 1972.

“People in Meghalaya have two key concerns—development and employment. Congress has been tested here for too long and BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) will take time to find its footing, given the demography of our state. For us, this time around, regional parties are the only option. We feel that only regional parties can understand the real issues that people face and address them,” said Miky Pde, a 35-year-old utensil shop owner in Jowai.

For voters like Pde, the issue of regional outreach is significant. He feels that under Sangma, an MLA from Ampati constituency in Tura hills, the focus has been on that region. “Jaintias and Khasis have been ignored. This would not be a problem if regional parties were in power in the state,” he added.

Meghalaya is broadly divided into three regions—Tura hills, Khasi hills and Jaintia hills—with a total of 24, 29 (including Ri-bhoi district) and 7 assembly constituencies respectively. While the NPP has been a key political player in Tura hills, it is slowly gaining prominence in the other two regions, which have traditionally been UDP and HSPDP strongholds.

“The problem with regional parties is that they have strongholds in certain pockets and not in the state as a whole. Traditionally, people in Meghalaya have preferred a national party like Congress over state parties. So long Congress was the only alternative and the regional players were not so strong. This time around, however, NPP has emerged as a major player in this election,” said R.K. Sathpathy, professor of political science in North Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong.

NPP was formed by former Lok Sabha speaker P.A. Sangma in 2013 after he parted ways with Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party. After P.A. Sangma’s death in 2016, his son Conrad Sangma took over. Several voters in the ongoing elections attach a “son of the soil” sentiment to Conrad Sangma.

“This election is all about regional parties. In the past they had always needed Congress to make them stronger but this time around we are hopeful Conrad Sangma will be able to stitch together an alliance of regional parties. He is a young leader and he can bring a change in the state,” said L. Rema, a 32-year-old drug store owner in Mairang.

She went on to add that there is an apprehension among voters that regional parties like NPP could ally with BJP in a post-poll scenario.

Such apprehensions stem from the fact that while NPP is BJP’s ally in Manipur, both NPP and UDP are part of the North East Democratic Alliance or NEDA, a platform that aims to bring together political parties from the North-East.

“Our state president has made it very clear that we are not going to have an alliance with BJP in Meghalaya. The formation of government in Manipur is a Manipuri situation and we have no say in that. What happens in Manipur is not going to happen in Meghalaya,” said Erwin K. Syiem Sutgna, senior NPP leader and candidate from North Shillong.

“We are the choice right now. We are a young party which has not really been tested on the electoral stage. We have a dynamic leadership and we have a cohesion which other parties have not displayed,” he added.livemint