Assembly elections

As Meghalaya heads closer to polls, a homegrown party seems to have advantage over Congress, BJP

But some local residents view the National People’s Party as indistinguishable from the Bharatiya Janata Party.

In June, Philemon Lyngdoh, a seasoned politician based in Jowai in Meghalaya’s West Jaintia Hills district, joined the National People’s Party, which claims to have a pan-India presence but has little influence outside the North East of India. Lyngdoh is now the party’s executive member and the president of its election committee in Jowai. But till early last year, the party, founded in 2012 by former Lok Sabha Speaker PA Sangma, was nowhere on Lyngdoh’s radar.

Lyngdoh, who began his career in the Congress before shifting loyalties to the Meghalaya-centric United Democratic Party, really wanted to be part of the Bharatiya Janata Party. It was, as Lyngdoh recalled, the obvious choice. The BJP had won a resounding victory in neighbouring Assam in 2016 and the ruling Congress, reeling from a series of corruption allegations, was decidedly on the wane in Meghalaya.

Anti-BJP sentiment

But then things suddenly changed. Starting mid-2017, a strong sentiment that the BJP was not respectful of local traditions swept Meghalaya. This was triggered largely by the Union government’s decision in May to ban the sale of cattle for slaughter in animal markets – a notification that has since been withdrawn.

“I looked forward to [Narendra] Modi, but some agendas of the BJP are controlled by the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], which is a Hindu organisation,” said Lyngdoh. “And with the Congress going down, there is no other option except NPP [National People’s Party]. The regional parties only speak for the Khasis, but the NPP enfolds everyone.”

The Khasis are the dominant tribe in Meghalaya. The Garos and Jaintias are the two other major indigenous ethnic groups.

Indeed, in poll-bound Meghalaya, between the Congress’s alleged corruption and the BJP’s perceived communalism, the National People’s Party seems to be on the ascendant. Political analysts say that the most telling testament to this party’s rise in Meghalaya lies in the number of prominent faces it has been able to attract to its fold ahead of the Assembly elections scheduled for February 27.

“People want a change, they are fed up of the Congress,” said S Loniak Marbaniang, a veteran politician from the state and a retired professor of mathematics from the Shillong-based North Eastern Hill University. “In rural areas, the BJP is still considered untouchable for its anti-cow slaughter stand so NPP is the only viable alternative.”

The National People’s Party is an ally of the BJP at the Centre and in Manipur. The parties do not have a seat-sharing arrangement in Meghalaya.

The defection game

Elections in the North East have been a game of defections over the last few years, which the BJP has mastered to the hilt. As its electoral victories in Assam and Manipur suggest, the saffron party has gained hugely from it.

But in Meghalaya, the National People’s Party may have beaten the BJP at its own game. As many as eight incumbent MLAs, including five from the Congress, joined the homegrown party earlier this month after resigning from the Assembly in December. Along with the eight legislators, several Congress renegades from the state’s powerful autonomous district councils also joined the party. In contrast, only four MLAs and a handful of district council members have joined the BJP. Compare this to November 2016, when several powerful tribal leaders flocked to the BJP in the wake of its victory in the Assam Assembly elections earlier that year.

The National People’s Party has so far enjoyed little clout in Meghalaya’s political ecosystem. It sends only two members to the state Assembly, and the face of the party, PA Sangma, considered one of the tallest leaders from the North East, died in 2016. But it has slowly started inching towards relevance in the last year or so, starting from the Manipur elections where it emerged as kingmaker after winning four of the nine seats it contested. It is now buoyed in Meghalaya after it snared the lion’s share of pre-poll defections.

Advantage underdog?

Conrad K Sangma, PA Sangma’s youngest son and president of the National People’s Party, referred to the party’s early gains as “70% of the elections”, asserting that “90% people vote for candidates”.

“It is about individuals, personal contact,” said Sangma. “The party plays the role of attracting the winning candidates. Parties do not make you win. In Manipur, BJP won 21 seats. Look at the data of these 21 people who won. Almost all of them are Congress people including [Chief Minister] N Biren Singh who joined them only a few months before.”

A Garo Hills-based student leader said the party has also benefitted from its underdog status. “People tend to stick with the underdog,” he said. “And PA Sangma, of course. Conrad has a decent reputation, but most importantly he is PA Sangma’s son. I wish I was PA Sangma’s son!”

BJP not afraid

Representatives of the BJP insist that its fortunes will not be affected by legislators joining the National People’s Party.

Its state unit president, Shibun Lyngdoh, said: “BJP is a big party, why should we bother that some people joined the NPP [National People’s Party]? NPP is a partner of the BJP in Delhi, so thinking that, many people joined them. But I am sorry to tell them that here we are fighting the elections on our own.”

However, there seem to be few takers in Meghalaya for the proposition that the BJP and the National People’s Party are separate entities with little to do with each other. In the Garo Hills particularly, where suspicion of the BJP runs high, people often refer to the National People’s Party as the “English name of the BJP”.

Conrad Sangma insists that this contention is not true and points out that his party’s name is not a literal translation of the Bharatiya Janata Party anyway. “If that were the case it [the party’s name] should be Indian People’s Party.”

‘Agent of BJP’

The Congress, however, has gone all out to link the party to the BJP. Chief Minister Mukul Sangma has labelled the National People’s Party as an “agent of the BJP”.

In an interview with Scroll.in, Abu Taher Mondal, senior Congress legislator and former Meghalaya Speaker, said it was well-known that the “BJP and NPP are having an alliance”.

Apart from the Congress’s accusations that it was colluding with the BJP, the National People’s Party is also having to contend with misgivings about its ability to run a government. Its detractors cite the case of the Garo Hills Autonomous Hill District Hill Council where, despite emerging as the single-largest party in the last elections, it squandered the opportunity because of an internal squabble. When asked about the episode, Sangma claimed that the politics of autonomous councils was significantly different from that of state-level electoral politics.

But will the National People’s Party side with the BJP after the polls if that is required to form a government after the results?

“Post-poll scenario, we will see when the situation arises,” said Sangma, adding that the “state government has to work with the Central government no matter what”.

Indicating that his party was open to the idea of a post-poll alliance with the BJP, Sangma pointed out: “85% of our revenue comes from the Centre. But we will never compromise on the core ideologies of the party and let people down.”

The BJP’s Shibun Lyngdoh was more circumspect. “Post-poll alliance is after post-mortem,” he said. “We will have to see the results and then only we can say.”

But Marbaniang contended that a post-poll was inevitable. “We are in all likelihood going to have a fractured mandate,” he said. “Since the BJP is at the Centre, for a stable government, the NPP just cannot avoid the BJP.”

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