Poll-vaulting in Meghalaya: Path ahead for all parties promises to be bumpy

By Sanjoy Hazarika

(India Today)

Over 30 years ago, I drove from Shillong, capital of Meghalaya, through the town of Nongstein and then to Tura, the second largest city of that small state. I was assured of good road conditions and a journey of six or seven hours, it took me 12 hours, much of it on bumpy jungle tracks. There wasn't a single signboard to tell us we were going the right way.

We did come across a sign that warned of tigers and my Bengali driver let out a trembling moan and prayer. When we hit a fork in the road, he asked in desperation, "Which way?"

Go straight, I said, counting on luck. It turned out to be the right decision.

A few days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually flagged off the BJP's quest for power in Meghalaya's elections early next year, while inaugurating the 261-km sector of highway from Nongstein to Tura. I'm sure it's well marked, smooth and straight, but I worry for the magnificent forests and the wild animals.

It's also likely to be a rough ride for the incumbent Congress, headed by Chief Minister Mukul Sangma. But that doesn't mean it will be easy for the BJP. For more than 30 years now, rarely has any party secured a majority in the 60-member Meghalaya assembly.

The state has been a test bed of coalition politics since the 1980s, when two parties were tied in a dead heat and after hours of exhausting negotiation, the chief ministership was decided by a toss of the coin. It was a unique solution and worked well for some time. But political parties aren't always inclined to stick to bargains.

Meghalaya also pioneered peaceful political negotiation in the region at the height of the Naga and Mizo insurgencies and, today, its tradition of strong regional politics is well established. That is why the BJP stitched an alliance with the late Purno Sangma's National People's Party, now run by his son and successor as MP, Conrad. Given the history of small indigenous parties, which hold the balance of power, the BJP is likely to try and strengthen the alliance despite the urge to go it alone, banking on Mr Modi's charisma.

Mr Modi is a popular man in the region, despite the dent in his party's fortunes in his home state and the Congress's surprisingly robust performance there. Events in Gujarat will raise hopes that good governance will emerge as a campaign priority in Meghalaya too: the state has among the worst health indices in the country; domestic abuse is troublingly high despite the matrilineal system; poverty and vulnerability remain huge challenges.

Earlier this year, the state government pioneered a social audit scheme, engaging professionals to assess whether government programmes were reaching targeted households. This initiative (no other state has it) may help Dr Sangma in the political battle of his life.

Sangma came to power nearly five years ago, outmanoeuvring his party colleague, the crafty DD Lapang, a veteran chief minister. He has survived a turbulent bout in office despite stiff inner-party opposition, allegations of corruption and worse, of being a non-tribal in a state run by tribal power, and sporadic movements aimed at toppling his government on the issue of Inner Line Permits (ILPs) for non-tribal people.

The 'anti-outsider' violence and displacement of the early 1980s is largely a thing of the past, but it still simmers, as the pro-ILP agitation showed. The BJP faces a challenge in overcoming its image as a party of the 'mainland'. The beef controversy and attacks by cow vigilantes in other parts of the country had the party and its allies on the defensive, trying to reassure the people of Meghalaya that their meat-eating proclivities and Christian beliefs (nearly 60 per cent of the population is Christian) would not be threatened.

The 'insider-outsider' syndrome, which has long and deeply troubled Meghalaya and other states of the northeast, could be as significant a factor as anti-incumbency and the state's tradition of forcing coalitions. Despite the new highway, the path ahead for all parties promises to be as bumpy as the old Nongstein-Tura road. Read More