With the Assembly elections due early this year, the northeastern state of Meghalaya is set to be a tough battleground in the region for the ruling Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), National People’s Party (NPP) and other regional parties.
With a population of 29,66,889 as per the 2011 Census and spread over an area of 22,429 square kilometers, Meghalaya has roughly as many people as Jamaica, living in as big a country as the Central American nation, Belize. It was carved out of Assam as an Autonomous State in April 1970 and declared as a full-fledged state in January 1972. It is a narrow stretch of land and shares about 443 kilometres of international border with Bangladesh in the south.
Demographics of the state
The population in Meghalaya comprises 14,91,832 males and 14,75,057 females according to the 2011 Census. The northeastern state has a large of Scheduled Tribes population of 2,555,861 persons and 17,355 people from the Scheduled Castes.
The state has a high sex ratio (number of females per 1,000 males) of 989. The sex ratio in rural parts is 986 while for urban areas it stands at 1001.
The literacy rate is 74.43 percent with males having a higher literacy rate (75.95 percent) compared to females (72.89 percent).
The population in the hilly state comprises tribal groups predominantly, namely the Khasis, Jaintias, Garos, and other tribal communities such as Koch, Rabhas, and Bodo.
A majority of the population in Meghalaya is Christian (74.59 percent) followed by Hindus (11.53 percent), Muslims (4.40 percent), Buddhists (0.33 percent), Sikhs (0.10 percent), and Jains (0.02 percent) as per the Census 2011 report.
There are eleven districts in the state: East Khasi Hills, West Khasi Hills, South West Khasi Hills, Ri Bhoi, West Jaintia Hills, East Jaintia Hills, East Garo Hills, West Garo Hills, North Garo Hills, South West Garo Hills and South Garo Hills district. The official languages of Meghalaya are Khasi, Pnar, Garo and English, along with regional dialects of Koch, Boda, Abeng, Dual, Uibok, Chisak Megam to name a few.
Key players in 2018
In its long and unstable 46-year-old political history, the state has seen eleven chief ministers, six of whom belonged to Congress, including the first Williamson A Sangma (originally in All Party Hill Leaders Conference and later shifted to Congress in his 1976-1978 term as chief minister) and the incumbent Mukul Sangma who leads the Congress-led Meghalaya United Alliance government.
This year's state election presents a unique challenge to all the parties involved. Elections to the Meghalaya Assembly are due in the first half of this year as the term of the present Assembly expires on 6 March.
Bharatiya Janata Party:
Speaking to Firstpost, H Srikanth, a political science professor at the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, said that people in Meghalaya are not very keen about the BJP. "BJP may not have much clout, though it may claim so," he said.
During a recent visit to the West Garo Hills district, BJP president Amit Shah expressed his confidence of overthrowing the Mukul Sangma-led Congress government in the state. "While on my way to Tikrikilla (to address a public rally), I did not have hope but after seeing the response of the people in Tikrikilla, and the anger of the public against (the Mukul) Sangma government, I am convinced that the next government will be of the BJP," Shah said on 6 January. BJP is also trying to woo voters with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Act East Policy to boost infrastructural development in the region. Most recently, the Centre announced a Rs 70 crore tourism package to develop religious and spiritual circuits in the state.
Another reason why Meghalaya will be a tough nut to crack is that more than 60 percent of the population are Christians. BJP, with its support for a Hindutva nation and reserved views on beef consumption, will have a hard time in convincing the voters.
For the Congress, it will be imperative to retain the state after its string of defeats elsewhere in the country. Moreover, it has greater chances of doing so due to its strong political presence over the last several decades in the state. On 8 January, NCP legislator Marthon Sangma and four other Independent candidates - Brigady Marak, Ashahel D Shira, Michael Sangma and David Nongrum - announced they would be joining Congress ahead of the Assembly polls. It was a recovery of sorts for the party when a few days earlier, five MLAs quit the party to join the NPP — an ally of the BJP-led NDA, bringing down the ruling party's strength to 24 in the state Assembly.
Following this, Congress president Rahul Gandhi appointed a new Meghalaya Congress unit chief, Celestine Lyngdoh, replacing DD Lapang. He also formed the Pradesh Election Committee under Lyngdoh.
"Congress is in a state of crisis, with many of its members leaving the party to join NPP. In the Khasi Hills, people are generally pro-Congress. It's possible a coalition may become necessary with a truncated majority for Congress," said Srikanth.
It is important to note that parties as entities don't matter as much as the people involved in them, Srikanth points out. "In the North East, parties don’t matter. People jump from party-to-party, but it is the people that matter. The only party with a strong hold in Meghalaya is Congress," he said.
United Democratic Party:
Among regional parties in the state, United Democratic Party (UDP) has a strong following in the northeastern state. Adter Congress and NCP, it is the third-largest party in Meghalaya. For the upcoming elections, it has forged an alliance with Hill State People's Democratic Party (HSPDP) and the Garo National Council (GNC). The UDP is against national parties ruling the state and believe the "communal" BJP and "cancerous" Congress must not be allowed to come to power.
National People's Party:
Apart from the above, one of the regional parties gaining prominence in the last few years is the NPP. The party chief Conrad K Sangma expressed his confidence to win the upcoming elections and replace the Congress government in Meghalaya. "NPP would not be the single largest party but the single majority in the 2018 election," Sangma said at a rally for party candidate Sniawbhalang Dhar on 9 January. It currently holds two seats in the Meghalaya Assembly.
Aam Aadmi Party:
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has also decided to contest 35 seats in Meghalaya, claiming they "have a good chance of winning". "We are aam aadmi and we will have common man as candidates. We have few retired officers, few intellectuals who want to contest and we prefer our candidates be to be AAP candidates," AAP state president Wanshwa Nongtdu told reporters in Shillong. Again the chances of AAP winning are slim as regional parties have a greater base than national parties in the region, except for Congress.
None of the above parties have declared a chief ministerial candidate so far.
Electoral history till 2000
1972: In the first Assembly election held in the state, only four parties (Communist Party of India, Congress, All Party Hill Leaders Conference and Independents) contested the polls. Of these three parties, except CPI), formed the Legislative Assembly with APHLC holding the majority (32 seats). Williamson A Sangma was the appointed chief minister.
1978: This time around, HSPDP got elected to the Assembly (14 seats) and APHLC's share went down to 16 seats from the previous election. However, Congress gained a stronger foothold and managed to win 20 seats.
1983: More than 10 years after the first Assembly election, Congress cemented its presence in the state winning 25 seats in 1983.
1988: With seven parties contesting in the state in 1988, Congress won with a vote share of 32.65 percent. So far, the BJP had not contested the polls.
1993: BJP contested the Assembly election in Meghalaya in 1993 for the time but did not win any seat. By the 1990s, the number of regional parties in the state had also risen with HSPDP, APHLC, Hill People Union and Meghalaya Progressive People's Party elected to the Assembly.
1998: Congress wins 25 seats, and is still in majority, followed by UDP with 20 seats. Garo National Council also made its way to the Assembly for the first time with one seat.
Vote-share in the past
Analysing data from the Election Commission of India (EC) on the vote shares parties received in Meghalaya in the last two Assembly elections, it shows Congress had the larger vote share in both 2008 and 2013.
In 2008, Congress won 25 seats in the Assembly, while trailing it was the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) with (15 seats. Congress' share in the Assembly grew further in 2013 at 29 seats while Independent candidates grabbed limelight with 13 seats.
In both these elections put together, the BJP won just one seat in 2008.
Congress had the maximum vote share in both election. In 2008, with 3,62,617 votes, the party captured 32.9 percent of the votes, followed by NCP at 20.76 percent. BJP polled a mere 2.67 percent while United Democratic Party (UDP) received 18.37 percent of the vote share.
In 2013, Congress' vote share improved to 34.78 percent followed by UDP at 17.11 percent. However, NCP's share in the vote dropped drastically to 1.84 percent. As a regional party, NPP received 8.81 percent in the state.
Key issues plaguing Meghalaya
Following the National Green Tribunal's (NGT) ban on coal mining in the state in 2014, lives of 1.5 lakh families dependent on coal mining in Meghalaya were crippled. A majority of the families from the lower income group in the state worked in coal mines. The effect of the NGT ban is still palpable. "The ban adverself affected coal miners and their families. The money that was flowing in from this industry three-four years ago isn't there anymore," Srikanth told Firstpost. Moreover, job opportunities in Meghalaya are limited as there is no alternate source of income from industrial activity. "There is no mobilisation of internal resources for development in the state. There is no industrial activity in the state. In recent times, the government is trying to develop horticulture as an alternate means of livelihood," Srikanth added. "States in the North East depend more on Central government funds than revenue generated with the state economy," he also said.
2) Drug abuse
In September 2016, the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly voiced concern over the rising use of drugs, especially heroin, and said it was the highest in the country, surpassing even Punjab, according to a report in The Times of India. State home minister HDR Lyngdoh had said state police and other agencies were probing the matter and had seized various kinds of drugs between 2013 and 2016, including heroin, cannabis, cough syrup, sedatives and other substances. Lyngdoh attributed easy access of drugs from Myanmar, the second largest illicit opium producing country in the world, as a major reason.
Insurgency in Meghalaya began in the 1980s as a movement against the socio-economic and political domination of the dkhars (outsiders). Initially, various militant groups such as Hynniewtrep Achik Liberation Council (HALC), Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), Achik Matgrik Liberation Army (AMLA), and Achik National Volunteers Council (ANVC) which eventually lost their hold.
In 2009, the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) was created with an aim of creating a separate ‘Garoland' in the western parts of Meghalaya. Calls for a separate state for the tribe has grown in the last few months. On 18 March, 2014, the Meghalaya Assembly had rejected a resolution for the creation of a separate "Garoland" state in Garo Hills in the western part of the state.
While insurgency in the state has declined over the last few years, it still remains a threat with frequent calls for bandhs disrupting day-to-day functioning. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), insurgency-related fatalities registered a sharp decline of 57 percent in 2016 as compared to 2015 in the state. Some of the major reasons for insurgency and illegal activities in the state are porous borders with Bangladesh, tribal aspirations and ineffective autonomous district councils, according to a report published by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
"Compared to other northeastern states, militancy has been brought under considerable control under the Congress government," said Srikanth. He gave the example of HNLC, which had a strong presence in Khasi and Jaintia Hills. "The HNLC are now neutralised to a considerable extent now through development. However, this is not so in the Garo Hills, which is severely underdeveloped, thus raising the risk of militancy in the area," he said.
He also added that for the past few years, Shillong has been largely peaceful with no bans imposed on Independence and Republic Day.
Infrastructure facilities in rural Meghalaya are dismal comapred to its urban counterparts. Lack of medical facilities, motorable roads and transportation make life difficult for those living in rural parts of the state. As per a report in The North East Today, even if a path for road construction is made, it is mostly never completed or is dug up and left like that. Recently, North East Democratic Alliance chairperson Himanta Biswa Sarma blamed the Mukul Sangma-government for under-developement in the state.
"Compared to the Khasi Hills in Meghalaya, Garo Hills is hardly developed. It is poorly connected, especially in the interior areas," said Srikanth.
A UN report states that the availability of road infrastructure is quite poor in Meghalaya when compared to other states. The road density in Meghalaya is one of the lowest in the northeastern region.
Poverty also acts as a hindrance in the state's development process. As per a Planning Commission report, 11.9 percent of Meghalaya's population lives under the poverty line. In rural Meghalaya, 12.53 percent of the population are BPL, while the figure for urban areas of the state is 9.26 percent.
In Meghalaya, the infant mortality rate is 30, close to the national average of 41, as per the latest National Health Family Survey 2015-16. The under-5 mortality rate stands at 40. Only 21.8 percent of the households use clean cooking fuels. The rest depend on firewood, coal etc. The parties that come to power in the upcoming state election will have to re-evaluate the state of public healthcare and policy.
Meghalaya is likely to go to polls this February.
With inputs from agencies
Updated Date: Jan 16, 2018 22:03 PM