A candidate murdered days before the polls, MLAs switching parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s amped up campaigning to win another northeast state, and the ruling Congress hoping to hold on – the run-up to the Meghalaya Assembly elections on February 27 was filled with twists and turns.

On polling day, 67% of voters chose their representatives for 59 seats. Election to the 60th seat, at Williamnagar, was countermanded after its Nationalist Congress Party candidate Jonathone Sangma was killed in an explosion on February 18.

There were reports of 30 electronic voting machines malfunctioning in the Garo Hills – an area crucial to any party that wants to win the state, as its five districts will elect MLAs to 24 of the 60 seats in the state Assembly.

Crucial battle for Congress

For the Congress, saving Meghalaya is crucial since it is one of its two remaining bases in the northeast. If the party loses, it will be left with only Mizoram. Mukul Sangma’s record as chief minister has been mixed – he provided stability in areas hit by insurgencies, but his government faces corruption charges.

The Congress is fighting a battle on several fronts. First, a crowded electoral space – an aggressive BJP, at least five regional parties, and local independents. This could weaken its voter base.

Second, there has been an anti-government sentiment after the National Green Tribunal’s 2014 ban on coal mining in the state. This affected the economy and reduced jobs, and the people blame the Congress for not doing enough to fight the ban. The BJP has promised a solution within eight months if voted to power.

Third, the Congress’ internal battle. Many legislators allege a lack of democracy in the way Mukul Sangma leads the party.

However, there are a also few things the Congress has going for it. For the first time since the 1990s, a chief minister served a complete term in Meghalaya, testament to the level of stability Sangma managed to bring ever since he took over in 2010, and returned to power in 2013. Development work got a boost, but the new roads and infrastructure was limited to certain belts.

This time, Mukul Sangma contested from two assembly seats – Ampatigiri and Songsak – in the Garo Hills.

Where BJP could lose

The BJP is hopeful of winning in Meghalaya after its victories in Assam and Manipur. Several national leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, flew in to campaign.

But, the BJP has been struggling to shed its anti-Christian image in many parts of the state, particularly in the Garo Hills.

According to analysts, the BJP’s popularity was growing in the hill state but people’s view of the party began to change in 2017, when the Centre passed a notification banning the sale of cattle for slaughter in animal markets.

While the ban was withdrawn, all tribal states in the northeast reacted sharply to it. In the Garo Hills, the BJP saw mass resignations, including that of the president of the its West Garo Hills unit Bernard N Marak. “Before they came up with the notification, the BJP was growing in the Garo Hills,” Marak had told Scroll.in. “But because of their dictatorial attitude, it’s all over now. They tried to trample over people’s religious and cultural beliefs. That had never happened before.”

Among the 45 candidates who contested the polls this time are former Congress Minister AL Hek and ex-State president of the Nationalist Congress Party Sanbor Shullai.

The third challenger

The National People’s Party, founded by Garo leader PA Sangma, and headed by his son Conrad Sangma have attracted many Congress defectors. It has also given the people who find the BJP to be too communal an attractive local alternative.

Proof of the party’s rise lies in the number of strong leaders it has been able to attract ahead of the elections. The party is an ally of the BJP at the Centre and in Manipur, but it does not have a seat-sharing arrangement in the state.

Exit polls

Exit polls predicted a close contest between the Congress and the National People’s Party.

CVoter said the ruling Congress will win between 13 and 19 seats, and the NPP will get 17 to 23 seats. The BJP will get between four and eight seats. The United Democratic Party and its ally Hill State People’s Democratic Party will win between eight and 12 seats.

AxisMyIndia said the BJP will win only five seats in Meghalaya, while the Congress will bag 20. The NPP is predicted to win 14 seats, and the UDP-HSPDP alliance, 11.

2013 election

In 2013, the Congress won 29 seats, independents won 13 and the United Democratic Party won 8. The National People’s Party won 2 seats, while the BJP won none.