"The most important thing is to get rid of the most corrupt government. That is the big priority," Union Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology, Culture, and Tourism Alphons Kannanthanam, who is also the BJP election in-charge for the upcoming Meghalaya Assembly Election, told Firstpost.
As Meghalaya votes on 27 February to elect its new Assembly, the quietness of the hills and the winter cold have slowly given away to noisy campaigns and rising political heat.
The roar from Kannanthanam is quite bold and brimming with confidence if it is to be compared to the disastrous performance of the BJP in the state's last Assembly election in 2013. The BJP had not only lost all the 13 seats that it had contested but also forfeited deposit in all the seats. All candidates combined, the party could garner only 16,800 votes which was a meager 1.27 percent of the share among the total valid votes. The ruling Congress fought in all the 60 Assembly seats of the state winning 29 and forfeiting deposit in three constituencies. Its candidates amassed 4,58,783 votes collectively with a vote share of 34.78 percent.
Five years since, things have changed drastically for both parties. BJP has literally captured the national scene under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. In the last couple of years, the Congress is completely on the defensive leave alone letting out a big offensive.
Meghalaya is too tiny compared to other big states like Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. Perhaps no other state election in Meghalaya has got so much importance as the upcoming polls. The contest has become more of a prestige battle between the Congress and the BJP than a political one.
Divided into three distinct hilly regions — the Khasi Hills, Garo Hills and the Jaintia Hills — Meghalaya has 11 districts in total that fall locally under the administrative control of three councils — the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council, the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council and the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council respectively — which were formed as per the provisions of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution of India.
The districts of North Garo Hills, East Jaintia Hills, South West Khasi Hills and South West Garo Hills came into being in 2012 with the number of districts going up to 11 from seven. Meghalaya has a unicameral legislature with 29 seats from the Khasi Hills, seven from the Jaintia Hills and 24 from the Garo Hills. Out of the 60 constituencies, 55 are reserved for scheduled tribes. Meghalaya has two Lok Sabha constituencies — Shillong (Khasi and Jaintia Hills combined) and Tura (Garo Hills) — with the former covering 36 Assembly seats while the latter has 24 Assembly constituencies under its belt. Carved out of Assam covering an area over 22,429 square kilometres, Meghalaya became a full-fledged state on 21 January, 1972 sharing its north and east borders with Assam and on the south and west with Bangladesh. The state shares 443 kilometres of international border with Bangladesh.
Last minute defections jolt Congress
A year ago Mukul Sangma, Leader of the Opposition Donkupar Roy and United Democratic Party's president Paul Lyngdoh had come up with a spectacular impromptu performance when the trio took the stage to sing The Beatles 'All My Lovin' at the chief minister's elder daughter's wedding. The video became viral as it ruled the web for a while. A year on Mukul Sangma is back in the news again but this time on the question whether the five-time MLA from Ampati seat will get a third term as a chief minister.
Just ahead of the state election, five Congress legislators including former deputy chief minister Rowell Lyngdoh, former cabinet ministers Prestone Tynsong, Coming One Ymbon, Sniawbhalang Dhar and Ngaitlang Dhar resigned as MLAs and left the party to join the NDA-affiliate National People's Party (NPP). The jolt was such that it immediately prompted Congress president Rahul Gandhi to replace state Congress president and former chief minister DD Lapang with Celestine Lyngdoh with less than two months for the polls. Celestine Lyngdoh was also appointed the president of the 13-member Pradesh Election Committee.
"We will try as much as we can. Less time for the elections doesn't mean that we will surrender," said Celestine Lyngdoh as the enormity of the task he was entrusted with sinks in. He also denied that the party is going through an internal crisis.
"Everything is alright. These people have left the party for their own selfish interest. They feel with the BJP at the Centre they are safer," said the Meghalaya Congress president, who is also a cabinet minister in the state.
Congress Lok Sabha MP from Shillong Vincent H Pala took these defections in the party's stride.
"I don't expect people to leave. But many more are joining. But these things happen during election time," he said.
In a reprieve to the party which lost seven MLAs in quick succession to other parties, independent legislators—Brigady Marak, Ashahel D Shira, Michael Sangma and David Nongrum—had already applied for party ticket while NCP legislator Marthon Sangma also shifted allegiance to the Congress.
Allegations of corruption weigh on Mukul Sangma government
Apart from the defections what the Congress should worry about is the numerous allegations of corruption against the Mukul Sangma government. Those in the Congress, however, believe to the contrary.
"Allegations don't prove charges. Why don't people use the RTI instead of putting wild allegations? We have the courts. They should go to the court. If they have proof they should file an FIR. All these charges are baseless," said Celestine Lyngdoh taking a potshot at the BJP without naming it.
Coming at an inopportune time for the Congress, the CBI on the orders of the Meghalaya High Court booked public works department minister Ampareen Lyngdoh and additional chief secretary PS Thangkhiew for alleged irregularities during recruitment of teachers for lower primary schools in 2008-09. Ampareen Lyngdoh was the state education minister during the period.
Following the CBI case, there is a buzz that she might go over to the BJP camp which the PWD minister vehemently denied.
"What is wrong with the people? Why will I go to the BJP? I will not leave the Congress," Ampareen Lyngdoh told Firstpost from Shillong. "Case or no case every Indian citizen is innocent unless proven otherwise. I am maintaining my stand at the court that if one accuses me of anything one has to have substantial evidence and one has to prove it in the right forum. I will cooperate and I am looking forward to its closure. It's going on and on for nine years. Actually, it's not even troubling me anymore. I am filing my nomination shortly," said Ampareen Lyngdoh. She represents East Shillong constituency.
The Meghalaya Congress president confirmed that "Ampareen will stick allegiance with the Congress and won't shift over to the BJP."
No real development?
Another allegation that the Mukul Sangma-led Congress government is facing is the lack of development in the last five years. Congress obviously chose to differ on this opinion. As per comptroller and auditor general (CAG) of India, the fiscal deficit for the state is estimated to be at Rs 818.26 crore at the end of FY18.
"The lack of development is only a perception. Meghalaya is far developed than the other states in the region," Pala said.
NGT ban on coal mining may put Congress into electoral crisis
A National Green Tribunal order on 17 April, 2014 banning coal mining which "had directed the authorities to ensure that Rat hole mining and illegal mining is stopped forthwith throughout the State of Meghalaya, as well as the illegal transportation of coal does not take place" has gradually burgeoned into a political issue apart from being an environmental one. Located in the Jaintia Hills, the sudden ban on coal mining brought gloom to the lives of coal-miners as they went jobless overnight. Although many shifted to turmeric farming gradually, the Congress is likely to be on a sticky wicket in the seven constituencies of the region because of the NGT decision.
"The NGT ban was not brought by the Congress. We have done enough to help the affected people. The matter is now sub-judice. I can't talk much," said Celestine Lyngdoh.
The Shillong MP said that Meghalaya was not the only state to suffer because of the NGT ban on coal mining.
"Coal mining was banned in Goa as well by the NGT. It is not an issue. People are understanding now. The state government can do little in this regard. Except for a few constituencies, there is no problem in the others," Pala said indicating at the hurdle Congress faces.
Congress downplays BJP's growing grip in Meghalaya
Apart from reasons that make anti-incumbency a big risk for the Mukul Sangma government, the rise of the BJP in the last five years is only making matters hard for the Congress. However, the Congress state unit refused to see BJP as a threat at all.
"BJP will not get more than two seats. They will have to work hard even to get that," the state Congress president said claiming that the Congress would remain in power. He went on to take on the BJP for allegedly imposing its ideologies on eating habits in other parts of the country while referring to the beef ban.
"We are safe. But what they are doing elsewhere is a lesson for us. They are interfering with religion. People are neither accepting the ideologies of the BJP nor their style of politics. We are also not worried about the rallies by (BJP president Amit Shah) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi," said Celestine Lyngdoh.
Modi is likely to address three rallies in the three hill regions of the poll-bound state.
The challenge for the Congress is getting bigger as the NCP also chose to junk its alliance partner in order to fight the elections alone.
"So far as I know we are fighting on our own," Pala said.
Congress fears a fall from above
No matter what the Congress leaders say in public but in their heart of hearts, they know that the BJP threat is for real and can't be ignored. Without an incredible defence, Kannanthanam's "big priority" will come true on 3 March—the counting day—and the Congress will fall from a height far higher than the Shillong Peak.
Updated Date: Jan 23, 2018 10:54 AM