The electoral space in Meghalaya, which goes to the polls on Tuesday, is a crowded one. Apart from the ruling Congress and the newly revitalised Bharatiya Janata Party, at least five other regional outfits stand a realistic chance of winning a few seats in the 60-member Assembly.

Add to that local strongmen who contest elections without official party affiliations. In 2013, 11 of the state’s 60 incumbent legislators fought elections as independent candidates.

This congestion has often meant fractured mandates and political volatility. Between 2000 and 2010, as many as eight different governments ruled the state. Since 2010, though, Meghalaya has witnessed a rare extended period of stability.

The Congress’s Mukul Sangma, who took over from DD Lapang after yet another squabble within the government that year, and returned as chief minister in 2013, has managed to keep his legislators together and quell all dissent. The last time a chief minister served a complete term in Meghalaya was in the 1990s, when the Congress’s Salseng C Marak ruled.

Congress’s woes

Mukul Sangma’s record as chief minister has been mixed, by all accounts. He has managed to provide stability and rein in the many insurgencies in the state. But his government also faces charges ranging from corruption to legislators holding offices of profit. It is evident that developmental work, such as roads and infrastructure, is limited to certain belts in the state. This has led to discontent even among traditional Congress voters.

Besides, the government must deal with charges that it did not do enough to stave off a ban on coal mining, enforced by the National Green Tribunal in 2014. Apart from making direct contributions to the state economy, mining had created a host of jobs that are now lost, and ancillary industries that are flailing.

Internally, the Congress party was troubled. Mukul Sangma’s iron-fist style of governance might have kept internal rebellions at bay but it has also created disaffection within party ranks. Many of the party’s legislators have drifted away alleging lack of internal democracy.

A drift towards the Opposition?

The Congress’s loss may have been the Opposition’s gain. The two major rival parties include the BJP and the National People’s Party, founded by the charismatic Garo leader, PA Sangma, and now headed by his son Conrad Sangma. The Congress renegades have found new homes in both parties.

But unlike in neighbouring Assam and Manipur, the BJP in Meghalaya has not quite been the natural refuge for Congress legislators wishing to defect. Here, the National People’s Party may have beaten the BJP at its own game. In December, as many as eight incumbent legislators, including five from the Congress, joined the homegrown party. The corresponding number for the national party is significantly lower. In January four MLAs, including one from the Congress, joined the BJP. In a state, where the candidate often matters more than the party, that may hurt the saffron party.

The saffron tint

But it has not been smooth sailing for the Opposition, especially the BJP, either. Last year, the saffron party took a hit after the Union government issued a notification that banned the sale of cattle for slaughter in animal markets. In the tribal and Christian-majority state, this was seen as a ploy to ban beef and interfere with local food habits. Though the order has now been withdrawn, the BJP is struggling to shed its anti-Christian image in many parts of the state.

The National People’s Party, which is an ally of the BJP at the Centre and in Manipur, is also being viewed with suspicion in many parts. Voters often refer to it as the “English name of the BJP” although the two parties have not declared any pre-poll alliance in Meghalaya. The Congress has cashed in on these suspicions, with Mukul Sangma labelling the party as an “agent of the BJP”.

Speaking to in January, however, Conrad Sangma sought to dismiss these misgivings. They would “never compromise on the core ideologies of the party and let people down”, he insisted. In public rallies, the party has tried to make light of its connections with the BJP and has trained its guns on the Congress’s alleged misrule.

The National People’s Party also invokes the memory of it founder, PA Sangma, who remains a popular political figure even after his death in 2016. Conrad Sangma’s two siblings, Agatha Sangma and James Sangma, are also standing for elections.

The Delhi card

The BJP’s election campaign has tried to side-step the issue of religion, focusing instead on the corruption charges against the Congress. It also cashed in on the fact that it is the party in power in Delhi, holding the keys to Central funds.

The BJP has flown in an array of national leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to the tiny hill state. All of them promised better, inclusive governance and a “change”. But change, analysts claim, is a nebulous word in Meghalaya. While most Congress legislators may have migrated to the National People’s Party, most of the BJP cadre consists of former Congress workers.

Yet, hill states in the North East often tend to vote for the party in power at the Centre: the BJP swept Assam in 2016 and cobbled together a ruling coalition in Manipur in 2017. While it may not be strong enough to reach a majority on its own, or even come close, the party could play an important role as kingmaker in Meghalaya. With its deep pockets and control over the Central coffers, it could be the glue binding together the Opposition in case of a fractured mandate. And a fractured mandate is what political observers in the state almost unanimously predict.