Tura: Western Meghalaya’s Garo Hills region, comprising 24 assembly seats, is the battleground of two Sangmas — Chief Minister and National People’s Party (NPP) chief Conrad K. Sangma and his predecessor Mukul M. Sangma of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) — and their families. The BJP and Congress, eyeing the Garo Hills pie, also have some lesser-known Sangmas ready for the electoral fight.
This time, 59 assembly seats, following the death of one candidate, go to polls Monday and votes will be counted Thursday.
The fight has been more intense in the Garo Hills than in the eastern half of the state straddling the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. Reason: The party that manages to win the most seats in Garo Hills has often formed the government, with the CM being from the matrilineal Garo community.
To a great extent, Conrad is banking on the legacy of his father, former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Agitok Sangma. He is confident, but also somewhat anxious about the possible outcome. He is contesting from South Tura.
“We are confident that people will choose us yet again and our numbers will be more this time. We will have a better mandate. We have always adopted a humble and focused approach, not taking things lightly and more importantly, never taking the opponent lightly. Hopefully, it should be good,” CM Sangma told ThePrint after addressing an election rally in North Garo Hills Wednesday.
He added that his father’s ideology is the driving force behind his efforts, though the thought of “not letting him down” is sometimes worrying.
“It is these principles I learnt from my father that keep me going. But as a human being, I do get worried as well — if I let him down. I don’t allow it to affect my sense of purpose, which I am here for,” said the chief minister.
On the other hand, Mukul M. Sangma, who was Meghalaya’s chief minister for almost eight years until 2018, is counting on his experience and appeal to wrest the position back from Conrad. Once the face of Congress in Meghalaya, he joined the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in November 2021 along with 11 other Congress legislators. He is contesting from two seats — Songsak in East Garo Hills and Tikrikilla in West Garo Hills.
The Congress bagged 21 seats in the 2018 assembly election while NPP won only 19. But with the support of six other parties, including the BJP which could manage only two seats, the NPP-led Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) government was formed.
In the last leg of the NPP campaign in the vote-rich rural strongholds of Garo Hills, Conrad attacked Mukul, calling him a “dictatorial leader” representing a “party from outside the state”.
“Mukul Sangma left the Congress, as he thought there was no future there, but he failed to calculate that people of Garo Hills will never accept a party that is from outside when they have the option to choose a party from their own state,” said Conrad while addressing a rally at Dadenggre Thursday, according to a press release issued by the NPP.
Speaking to ThePrint in Shillong earlier this week, Mukul, who is also a doctor, countered that: “When you are thinking about the state, you are talking about forming a government to take care of the needs of the people, not just electing a representative in your respective constituency. Should I be like a frog in the well, self-centered and close-minded?”
“There’s a burning desire, a thirst for change. The state has never been subjected to the kind of injury it had to go through. Corruption has crippled the state and left the coffers dry. The people have been robbed by those in power to satisfy their swelling greed,” the former CM said.
Conrad recalled how he had seen more than 30 elections — he has been campaigning since the age of 12. He remembered travelling across ”every nook and corner of northeast” with his father. “We have a lot of challenges, and we have been through a lot. I faced some difficult situations in the past, where our politics was not as stable as it could have been. But having gone through it all, now we are here,” he told ThePrint.
Voters dissatisfied with both Sangmas
Across Garo Hills, people mainly talked about roads, health facilities, and education.
People from 39-Resubelpara and 38-Mendipathar constituencies in North Garo Hills boarded pick-up trucks heading to the NPP rallies Wednesday afternoon. Some travelled 14-15 km on cycles and motorbikes for a glimpse of Conrad. The chief minister campaigned for Timothy D Shira in Resubelpara and Marthon Sangma in Mendipathar.
Among the four constituencies in North Garo Hills comprising about 1.35 lakh voters, 29,197 are from Mendipathar and 39,387 from Resubalpara.
People from around five villages of Resubelpara, inhabited by the Garo and Rabha populations, attended the public rally at Darampara field.
Kricklen K Sangma, 28, said people in both constituencies are “not quite satisfied” with the work of the government — the current or the previous.
“The road along Daram was repaired in 2021. The Dekachang Bridge over the Damring River has not been completed for the past 10 years,” he said.
“They said the Damra–Bajengdoba road construction would be completed in 2025. We don’t know when that will happen. The roads are much better in the border villages of Assam. We have one primary health centre at Resubelpara. For good treatment, we have to visit the Goalpara civil hospital in Assam,” said 28-year-old Rajib Rabha.
Resubalpara is located at a distance of 136.1 km from Guwahati, 39 km from Goalpara in Assam, and 82 km from Tura in West Garo Hills.
Referring to the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Baldwin Marak, 55, said he had once applied for construction of a household latrine under government scheme, but does not have one yet. Nor does Rajib Rabha.
“There was a proposal to make around 12,000 toilets around 2018-19 — some have not got it yet. We applied once, but authorities said they did not receive funds from the central government. I made mine with bamboo,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin and his friend Vincent Momin, 35, are daily wage labourers from Resubalpara. They were critical of both the Sangmas who were chosen to form the government.
“Mukul Sangma is also the same. Both have not worked for us,” said Vincent.
Besides the problem of sanitation, villagers of Resubelpara and Mendipathar said they sometimes find it difficult to draw water from the well as the households are not connected through piped drinking water under Jal Jeevan Mission.
“We are not connected through the Jal Jeevan Mission because it is considered an urban area,” said the vice-president of Mendipathar block, 63-year-old Admeral Marak.
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For the love of P.A. Sangma
In the last town of Mendipathar in North Garo Hills, 77-year-old Nirendra Momin and 65-year-old Donald Sangma said they need good roads and drinking water facilities for at least 67 households in their area. Momin said he got a toilet built under the government scheme in 2020.
The two senior citizens from Mendipathar, along with 60-year-old Mening Marak from Resubalpara, said they are supporting Conrad because of his father, describing him as “a good man, and the father of the Garo community who delivered his promises.”
At Resubalpara, Baldwin said he had complaints against the government but was attending the rally only because of his admiration for P.A. Sangma.
“We strongly feel connected to him. Conrad is not like his father though.”
While Conrad attended separate meetings in the two constituencies where people gathered to pray for his party before he took to the stage, tens of thousands attended a TMC rally at Rajabala in West Garo Hills the same day. It was presided over by party chief Mamata Banerjee and national general secretary, Abhishek Banerjee.
The rally is said to have boosted the confidence of TMC in the plain belt region that has the largest share of Muslim voters across the state. Mukul reportedly took the strategic decision to contest from Tikrikilla, besides Songsak in the East Garo Hills district, hoping to influence the minority-led constituencies into supporting TMC.
‘Mukul should not have deserted Congress’
In the village of Gambegre, about 16 km from Tura in West Garo Hills, Congress supporters lashed out at Mukul.
“TMC is a party from outside Meghalaya. We don’t know why Mukul Sangma joined it, but we don’t consider it as a local party,” said 42-year-old Witherson Momin.
Along with Witherson, Thaling M Sangma (37), Phagen M Sangma (63), Prebinath Marak (53) and Starson Marak (48) also decided not to attend Mukul’s rally at Gambegre Wednesday.
“He (Mukul) would have become the next chief minister had he stayed with the Congress,” Momin remarked.
There are seven candidates in the fray from the Gambegre assembly constituency with 31,436 registered voters. Ahead of the elections, Gambegre MLA Saleng A Sangma shifted from Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to the Congress. The NCP is one of the six political parties supporting the NPP-led MDA government.
(Edited by Smriti Sinha)
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