Meghalaya has thrown up a fractured mandate yet again. Like the last assembly election in 2013, no single party managed to breach the halfway mark of 30 seats. As in 2013, the Congress emerged as the single largest party with 21 seats. But unlike the previous elections, there is a close second this time: the homegrown National People’s Party, founded by the late PA Sangma, former Lok Sabha speaker.
The party won 19 of the 51 seats it contested, clocking over 20% of the total votes. It is a dramatic improvement on its 2013 performance, where it had won only two seats with a vote share of less than 9%. In 14 of the 32 seats it contested in 2013, the party had lost its deposit. Today, the National People’s Party may be able to call the shots on who forms the next government in Meghalaya.
On Saturday evening, an unusually taciturn Conrad Sangma, PA Sangma’s youngest son and party president, refused to reveal any of his cards. The party was “talking to everyone” was all he would admit. In an earlier interview with Scroll.in, however, Conrad Sangma had insisted that it would “never compromise on the core ideologies of the party and let people down”. He added that he was open to having a “working relationship” with the BJP, which is perceived to be anti-Christian in Meghalaya.
But these results should not come as a surprise. Formed in 2013, the National People’s Party has steadily spread outside its base in Meghalaya and is now the only regional party to have legislators in three states of the North East. In the Manipur elections in 2017, it emerged as kingmaker after winning four of the nine seats it contested. This time, it looked set to win two seats in Nagaland as of Saturday evening, which could be crucial in a closely fought election.
In Meghalaya, as elections approached, the National People’s Party benefited from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s anti-Christian image. It also outdid the BJP in the game of defections. The party attracted into its fold several high-profile Congress leaders who would have otherwise flocked to the BJP, as they have in neighbouring Assam and Manipur.
The BJP’s loss was, thus, the National People’s Party’s gain. As many as eight incumbent MLAs, including five from the Congress, have joined the party in the last few months. Speaking to Scroll.in in January, Conrad Sangma, had referred to these early gains as “70% of the elections”, asserting that “90% people vote for candidates”. Saturday’s results suggest he was not very off the mark. But Conrad Sangma now admits that the party had been “hoping for a few more” seats.
The National People’s Party’s has done well in spite of widespread apprehensions about its ties with the BJP. While the two parties do not have a formal alliance in Meghalaya, the National People’s Party is part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance at the Centre and of the coalition in Manipur. As the BJP lost out because of its Hindutva baggage, there were those who feared that voting for the National People’s Party meant indirectly voting for the saffron party.
But its credentials as a local party and the legacy of PA Sangma – who remains one of the most recognised names in Meghalaya politics even after his death in 2016 – helped it offset those anxieties. Also, many voters seemed to have viewed it as the only middle ground between the BJP’s supposed communalism and the Congress’s alleged corruption.
The party’s performance in its home turf of Garo Hills illustrates this choice. The region was the hub of protests against the BJP’s perceived attempts to control indigenous eating habits. These protests were triggered by a notification by the Union government which banned the sale of cattle for slaughter in animal markets. Though the notification was later withdrawn, fears about the BJP remained. While the BJP predictably failed to open its account in the Garo Hills, the National People’s Party won 11 of the 23 seats there, emerging as the single largest party.
BJP or not?
But will the National People’s Party be betraying its mandate if it sides with the BJP to cobble together a coalition? While the BJP won just two seats, it remains the party with control over the Central coffers. Both of these factors could go a long way in attracting some of the regional parties that the National People’s Party needs to form a government.
The next government in Meghalaya may or may not see a National People’s Party chief minister, but it has established itself as a force to reckon with in the North East. In a region where local outfits flock, by default, to the party in power in Delhi, PA Sangma’s party has retained its own centre of gravity.