Shillong: The entry of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) into Meghalaya last week caught everyone in the northeastern hill state off guard.
Speculation had been rife about the TMC’s expansion into the state given several rumoured meetings between former chief minister and senior Congress leader Mukul Sangma and political strategist Prashant Kishor, whose political consultancy I-PAC counts the TMC as a client. But few had anticipated what was to come.
On Wednesday, Sangma and 11 other Congress MLAs — 12 of 17 party legislators — announced that they would be joining the TMC fold. In an interview to ThePrint after the jump, Sangma said the Congress had lost its drive to fight and win an electoral battle in the state.
Two days later, he was named the TMC’s legislative party leader in the state.
The move marked TMC’s foray into Meghalaya’s political landscape — part of the leadership’s plan to extend to states beyond West Bengal, including Tripura, Goa and Haryana.
But as the party seeks to establish a base in the hill state, ThePrint spoke to political experts and leaders of other parties in Meghalaya, who indicated that the TMC’s success would depend on several factors — the personality-driven politics of the state, voting patterns in the three hilly regions, and the strength of the coalition between the ruling National People’s Party (NPP) and its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Style of politics
In October last year, the Khasi Students’ Union, an influential students group, had put up posters accusing all Bengalis in the state of being Bangladeshis. This was symptomatic of the anti-Bengali sentiment that many in the state are known to harbour.
However, experts and leaders told ThePrint that it’s unlikely that these dynamics will affect the West Bengal-based party’s chances.
“Meghalaya politics has always been personality-centric, individual-centric. The party as a powerful entity was a phenomenon of the ’70s…” said Paul Lyngdoh, working president of the United Democratic Party (UDP), which is in coalition with the NPP-led government in the state.
Shillong Times Editor Patricia Mukhim concurred. “It’s very personality-driven. Nobody cares about manifestoes, ideology. The only time they care about ideology is when they speak of the BJP and say that it’s anti-minority and anti-Christian,” she said.
UDP general secretary Jemino Mawthoh said he doesn’t see the TMC doing well.
“It would all depend on how the personalities who have joined the TMC will be able to explain to the public about the difference between Congress and TMC here. They will need to justify and explain why they jumped over to the TMC ship,” he said.
The Khasi-Jaintia vs Garo vote
Of the 12 new TMC joinees, four legislators are from the Khasi-Jaintia region while the rest are from Garo Hills. In this context, Mukhim explained the typical voting patterns in the state.
“There’s a huge social segregation between how Khasi and Jaintias think, which is different from how Garos think… In Khasi-Jaintia Hills, there will be a resistance towards the TMC,” she said.
“Mukul Sangma is popular in the Garo hills, but he has no following in the Khasi-Jaintia sector, which controls more than half of the assembly,” Lyngdoh added.
Of the 60 seats in the Meghalaya assembly, 29 are from Khasi Hills, seven from Jaintia Hills and 24 from Garo Hills. In the 2018 elections, Sangma had won from the Songsak and Ampati constituencies of the Garo Hills.
“The TMC will take a very long time to grow in Meghalaya. But the fact of the matter is that the TMC as it has emerged today in Meghalaya is seen as a rebel group of the Congress. It will only impact the Congress vote share that will be to the interest of the regional parties,” Lyngdoh said.
Earlier this month, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma had remarked on ThePrint’s Off The Cuff that the defections from the Congress will work in his party’s favour. “If we analyse it politically, it will only help the party (the NPP) and therefore, we are seeing that there is a complete division within the Opposition.”
Responding to this, Mukul Sangma said in his interview to ThePrint last week: “That’s how he looks at (it), but then how we do things are different.”
An ‘unhappy’ coalition
In the 2018 assembly polls, the NPP won 20 seats while the Congress emerged as the single largest party with 21 seats. However, the NPP clinched power as it formed a coalition with the UDP, the People’s Democratic Front, the BJP, the Hill State People’s Democratic Party, and two Independents.
Following a resignation and losses in the 30 October bypolls, Congress numbers eventually dwindled to 17. Now, the party is down to five MLAs.
However, the coalition in power itself has been wracked by tensions.
The Centre’s decision to implement the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act and the perception of the BJP as an “anti-minority” party in the state hasn’t augured well for its coalition partners.
Speaking about the alliance, CM Conrad Sangma had said: “If the numbers don’t come in, if you don’t get enough MLAs, and if you’re not able to fulfill the desire of the people and develop and work on governance, nothing matters… We are working with the BJP in Meghalaya, in Manipur and other states. But we have been very clear also that we continue to maintain our identity as a party.”
The BJP has two seats in the state assembly.
Meghalaya Health Minister and BJP leader A.L. Hek told ThePrint that “they can run the government without the BJP, but they cannot run the government without the blessing of the BJP”.
“Everything has to be approached at the Centre. They have to have that management,” he said.
Asked if Centre-state relations will be hampered if the TMC clinches power in the future, the UDP’s Jemino Lyngdoh spoke of “having all kinds of problems with the Centre even with the NPP”.
“We were hoping when we talked about the implementation of Inner Line Permit and the inclusion of Khasi and Garo language in the eighth schedule… We thought that the Centre will be understanding. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been happening, the problems are multiplying,” he said.
Congress leader R.G. Lyngdoh said the “NPP is going to be a force, there’s no two ways about it”. “It has got some acceptance among some sections of people. But its system of governance leaves a lot of other chances for other parties to hit it,” he added.
“The unfortunate part is coalition governments don’t work. Everybody has authority but no one takes responsibility and havoc is created. We can see that happening now,” he said.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)