Meghalaya Assembly Elections 2018: Clout of Independent MLAs, first-time voters likely to tilt balance
This year 84 candidates have filed their nomination as Independents, only three of whom are sitting MLAs in Meghalaya
Shillong: Politics in Meghalaya isn’t driven so much by ideology as by personality, group loyalty, and convenience. Predictably, over the years, Meghalaya has seen a steady rise in the number of Independent legislators who are quite ready to capitalise on any political opportunity that presents itself before them.
Independent members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) have often called the shots in the current Mukul Sangma-led Congress government; in a party already struggling with in-fighting, their shenanigans have, on occasions, threatened to derail the government altogether.
Between 1998 and 2008, there were only five Independent MLAs in the legislative Assembly. By 2013, their numbers had increased to 13. Independent candidates in Meghalaya more than doubled their collective vote share from 13 percent to 27.7 percent in just five years from 2008 to 2013.
This year 84 candidates have filed their nomination as Independents, only three of whom are sitting MLAs. The other 10 Independents in the House have aligned themselves with either the Congress, BJP, National Peoples’ Party (NPP) or the NCP.
"Compared to 2013, the number of Independent candidates filing nominations this year is less,” said joint chief electoral officer Tangseng G Momin. "However, the support that some of the candidates enjoy in certain pockets of the state is much more than the candidates representing major political parties. The fact that 13 of them were elected to the assembly is proof of their support."
The fact that Independents emerged as the second largest group of legislators after the Congress in the 2013 polls highlights their growing clout. The power shift has been slow but nevertheless significant. This has forced major political parties to woo them.
Some of the most prominent Independents who have emerged as front-runners in this election are former BJP vice-president Edmund Sangma and Sayeedullah Nongrum, who was once chief minister Mukul Sangma’s political secretary.
Nongrum explained his decision saying, "The people of my constituency want me to contest. Since I didn’t get a Congress ticket and I can’t go against the party’s decision, I have decided to contest the elections as an Independent. I have the support of Garos, Hindus, Rabhas as well as from the minority community who form a major chunk of the voter base in my constituency. If I am elected I will do whatever a legislator needs to do for the benefit of his constituency."
Edmund Sangma and Sayeedullah Nongrum are both expected to emerge victorious from their respective constituencies. Another Independent candidate who is likely to create ripples in state politics is Mawhati MLA Julius Dorphang, who was arrested for sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl in the infamous Marvelene Inn case that rocked the state last year.
The former Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) militant turned politician, who is currently behind bars awaiting trial, is believed to be a strong contender in Mawhati. If he wins, he’ll become the first person from Northeast India to have won elections from jail.
Speaking over the phone, Dorphang’s lawyer who declined to be named, clarified, "The presence of the legislator is not necessary for filing a nomination under the Representation of People’s Act. Until he's proven guilty by a court of law, Julius is free to contest elections."
Robert G Lyngdoh, former Meghalaya home minister, believes "People are looking at potential teams that will emerge out of the elections. They understand that for a system to deliver they can no longer look at individuals. As things stand at the moment, fewer Independents will be elected to the Assembly with the emergence of stable political parties."
One of the major factors that will decide who comes to power in Meghalaya will be the new voters in the electoral rolls this year. Almost 45 percent of the existing electorate will be voting for the first time, making them a key factor in determining the outcome.
"It's the lack of confidence in regional parties that more and more Independents are being elected to the Assembly. Over the years the electorate in Meghalaya had no viable alternative; hence Independents were preferred over the Congress or other regional parties. This time the situation is different, as several parties, especially the NPP, have emerged as strong alternatives to the Congress," professor R K Satapathi, head of the political-science department of North-Eastern Hills University (NEHU) said.
Out of the 84 candidates who have filed their nomination papers to contest elections as Independents, only a handful will win. But even so, Independents could play a major role in the formation of a new government in Meghalaya.
Looking at the voting trend over the three decades until 2013, Independents have gradually ceded space to the rival political parties. While their vote share fell from 22.5 percent of the total vote in 1983 to an all-time low of just over 12 percent in 2003, it bounced back dramatically to 27.7 percent in 2013.
But it's the fragmentation of the vote between the national parties that gives Independents their real clout. With the Congress fighting anti-incumbency and the NPP, BJP and the United Democratic Party trying hard to dislodge the Congress, political observers predict that the role of the Independents and smaller regional parties will be key in shaping the political future of Meghalaya.
Pranjal Sarma is a Guwahati-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
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