Meghalaya Assembly Election: BJP uses corruption plank to attack Congress govt; NPP maintains safe distance from 'Hindutva'
Whether the Wards Lake in Shillong will have lotus in it alone or so will the Meghalaya Assembly, only EVMs will be able to tell us on 3 March.
Moving on from the humiliation of 2013 when the party failed to win a single seat in the 13 Assembly seats it fought, the BJP in 2018 is determined to ensure a complete turnaround of fortunes in poll-bound Meghalaya. Creating a development versus corruption scenario, the party is also trying to cash on the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With party president Amit Shah setting a steep target of achieving 'Mission 40' in a 60-seat Assembly, the stakes are high this time.
For the BJP to win 40 out of 60 seats in Meghalaya will be no mean task, even with the best poll-winning brains of Modi and Shah combined. Way back in 1998, the party had won three Assembly seats but has made little progress since then. However, this track record will not count for much when the state votes on 27 February, with the party going out all guns blazing, attracting members from other political parties and betting big on the development agenda.
"Only recently, four sitting MLAs joined the BJP. Before that, four former MLAs joined the party. If BJP had no prospects, why would they join the party? Meghalaya had seen no development for the last 10 years. There had been a lot of corruption. Politics of development is catching currency in the state. When states like Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh are getting the benefit of development from their respective BJP governments, why should Meghalaya be denied this?" BJP national spokesperson Nalin Kohli told Firstpost.
The party is optimistic this time, far more than it has been before. "We are working very hard. We are hoping to form a government. We have not finalised the names of the candidates yet. We have shortlisted the names and have sent them to our Central Election Committee for approval. The announcement of names will be made in a phase-wise manner. We want to fight in as many seats as possible," said Meghalaya BJP president Shibun Lyngdoh.
Wooing the Christians
But while there is high hope, the BJP is treading cautiously, given the state's large Christian majority population. There is a certain kind of uneasiness as to how a Hindutva-based party will conduct itself in a Christian-dominated state provided it comes to power.
According to the 2011 Census, Meghalaya had a population of 29,66,889, of which 14,91,832 are males and 14,75,057 are females. The population density per square kilometre is 132. The literacy rate stood at 74.43 percent. Of this, Christians numbered 22,13,027, which is 74.59 percent of the total population. Hindus followed at 3,42,078 (11.53 percent), while the Muslims numbered 1,30,399 (4.40 percent). While the Khasis, Jaintias, and Garos are the leading tribes in the state, Koch, Rabhas, Bodos, etc. also reside in Meghalaya. According to the 2011 census, Khasis and Jaintias mostly inhabit the state's eastern districts while Garos are a majority in the western parts. All three major tribes have a matrilineal system in place.
"Propaganda remains propaganda. It will disappear very soon. It is the propaganda of other parties. It has not created difficulties for the BJP. People accept BJP as a development-oriented party. They are happy with the way our president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are leading from the front," Lyngdoh said.
In Meghalaya, although not on paper, the Church does play a key role in determining the political trajectory of the state. The BJP could be seen going the extra mile to keep this community in good humour, for instance, by appointing a Christian, Alphons Kannanthanam, as the BJP election in-charge in the state.
"BJP has a positive agenda while the Congress had a negative and divisive agenda. Meghalaya is an educated state. The Church is a respected institution in the state and it is non-political," Kohli said.
BJP delinks RSS?
The BJP, however, firmly denies that its parent organisation — the RSS — is providing them any kind of help. "The RSS is a social organisation. BJP is a political party. I don't see any combination here. RSS is in Meghalaya since 1980. BJP was part of the government in 1998. The BJP works like any other political party. The RSS has its own members. These members are free to support any candidate from any party. There is no connection between the two entities," Lyngdoh said.
NPP maintains a safe distance
Irrespective of the rhetoric the party is employing, even the NPP, a constituent of the NDA, is playing it safe by not entering into a pre-poll alliance with the BJP. "NPP is a part of NDA, there is no doubt about it. But in Manipur, we went independent. If and when we are at a stage where we can form the government, we will take their support if required. But let the results come out first. Why take the trouble now?" the Meghalaya unit BJP president said.
The BJP national spokesperson also did not consider a big development. "NPP is a part of NDA. They are entitled to fight the polls alone. In any case, our common adversary remains the Congress. We are fighting in almost all the seats. The only objective is that the Congress government in Meghalaya should go," Kohli said.
Targeting the Mukul Sangma government
BJP's strategy has so far been to relentlessly target the Mukul Sangma government on corruption and development front. "Mukul Sangma as chief minister doesn't have a good relationship with his own ministers. Ministers call him a dictator. All files go through his table. Due to his approach, so many senior Congress leaders are leaving the party and joining other parties. Sangma has not done anything good for the state. He is busy helping his own family," Lyngdoh said.
Targeting the chief minister, Kohli said, "The roads in many parts of Garo hills up to the Assam border are very good, but after that they are terrible. Chief Minister Mukul Sangma is from the Garo hills, but the region still has wooden bridges at many places."
NPP hopes for a comeback
In 2013, the NPP was nearly wiped out of its home base of Garo hills, but it somehow retained face by winning two seats. Five years later, the party finds itself in a much stronger position and could possibly play a key role in the formation of the next government.
"The NPP is the only party that is North East-oriented, although it has national aspirations. We are constantly focussing on issues related to the tribal community besides addressing concerns of the religious minorities. We are also focussing on economic development and are coming out with a vision document. The economic measures have been never seriously implemented in the state," Tura MP and NPP national president Conrad Sangma told Firstpost from New Delhi.
Although the party has not entered into a pre-poll pact with the BJP, a post-poll alliance is almost a certainty if the party is in a position to form the government, although the Tura MP did not say it in as many words. "Even in Manipur, we did not ally with them. Election is different, and governance is a separate thing. There are political compulsions on the ground. Many leaders might not like to give away their seats for others to contest. Partnering is not an easy process. Therefore, we are going on our own. We are trying to fight in all the seats. Let's see," he said.
"Political compulsions" could well mean antagonising the Christian voters although the NPP president didn't elaborate. With the RSS factor almost automatically linked with BJP, the regional outfit could hardly afford such a huge risk. "What the BJP and the RSS do is an internal matter between them and I don't have any say in that. But the Christian community is also not happy with how the Congress ruled for last 20 years. In fact, many leaders are joining the NPP as they want to see change," said Conrad Sangma.
The NPP president, however, did not announce himself as a chief ministerial prospect, saying the party will decide on the issue after the votes are counted. "The MLAs will decide. We are not going to force anyone. If we have the numbers, we will think about it," said Conrad Sangma.
What is perhaps a little problematic for the party is that it is not strong enough in the Khasi and Jaintia hills. "We have been traditionally strong in the Garo hills. This is due to the good work of my late father PA Sangma (Purno Agitok Sangma). But we normally don't have that kind of base in the Khasi and Jaintia hills. The senior leaders who have joined the party have been helping us in that aspect," the NPP president said.
A look into the political prism
"The slogan now is 'Congress hatao, BJP lao'. The allegations of corruption, particularly against Ampareen Lyngdoh in the recruitment of 274 school teachers and the subsequent CBI case against her, has done the Congress great harm. In a way, bad days for the Congress may have just started. It's not that people are pro-BJP; it's just that they want change," said South Asia Views managing editor and Guwahati-based senior journalist Rajib Chowdhury.
"Development has been scarce in the last five years in the state. Unemployment is huge while Mukul Sangma's family amassed huge wealth through various contracts. The government will be formed by the NPP and BJP together, with the party having more seats leading the coalition. The grapevine is that an MLA from the party which wins more seats will become chief minister. It's unlikely that Conrad Sangma will return to Meghalaya from New Delhi," Chowdhury said.
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