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ANALYSIS | Congress' Battle to Hold on to Meghalaya in Times of a Hindutva Wave

Meghalaya, which can easily boast of being the country’s rock capital, is all set to go to polls and the Congress will fight hard to retain this one; so much so that Rahul Gandhi is all set to start campaigning with a rock concert, but will he emerge as the real rock star in this Assembly election?

Sneha Mordani | CNN-News18

Updated:March 3, 2018, 8:05 AM IST
ANALYSIS | Congress' Battle to Hold on to Meghalaya in Times of a Hindutva Wave
Representative image. (File photo/PTI)
As the counting of votes is set to begin, the day will decide Congress President Rahul Gandhi's fate in Meghalaya where he chose to blow the poll bugle with a rock concert election campaign.

Congress poll managers in Meghalaya see this as smart move; directly addressing the young in a language that Shillong, the rock capital of India, understands. It also helps that the number of registered young voters in Meghalaya is close to a lakh. The outreach to them is writ large.

The polling was held in the state on February 27. Ousted from their stronghold of Assam and losing Manipur despite getting more seats than the BJP, the Congress is looking at retaining this north eastern state, which is small but certainly not insignificant.

However, adding to their worries is the recent development of five of its sitting MLAs quitting the party.

Senior journalist and Editor of The Shillong Times, Patricia Mukhim believes these are telling signs that all is not well in the party fold. "Senior people leaving the Congress is certainly a setback. Also, the MLAs who have left know that the Congress will find it difficult to return to power and some of them have chief ministerial aspirations. They believe if they remain in the Congress, they will have to go with Dr Mukul Sangma as the AICC is unlikely to change the CM face,” she says.

Meghalaya’s story in the 2018 elections is going to be that of Congress’ attempt at retaining one of its very few bastions.

David Laitphlang, a journalist covering Meghalaya for over two decades is of the opinion that like every other political party, the Congress too has its own share of SWOT. “By virtue of being the most established party in the region and the state and having churned out several noted leaders and statesmen, I feel that its strength is its past. Its weakness is that everyone seems to be in a hurry to reach the pinnacle using whatever means available, fair or unfair.”

But defection is only one among the many headaches the party has in Meghalaya. The Congress is not in power in the Centre and the state heavily depends on the Centre for funds, which would turn out to be an important deciding factor.

Congress is aware of this and hence the jibe from Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, who, while speaking at a rally said that the Bharatiya Janata Party was "funding" the National People’s Party for the Assembly elections. The NPP is an ally of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance both at the Centre and in Manipur.

Veteran politician PA Sangma led NPP in Meghalaya until his death in 2016. His elder son Conrad Sangma, Lok Sabha MP from Tura, is now at the helm of affairs and the party sends two MLAs to the 60-member Assembly.

Mukhim believes that it is Conrad Sangma who can pose the real challenge to Mukul Sangma if the BJP-NPP combine does manage to overthrow the Congress. “The Khasi-Jaintia people seems to have reposed faith in this party and if you ask me then Conrad Sangma is the only CM face that can give Mukul Sangma a run for his money,” she says.

But it won’t be a cake walk for the BJP despite of the strong anti-incumbency factor and Congress’s track record of poor development.

“The people of Meghalaya know that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the poster boy of BJP and its fringe organizations. From my experience, I find Hindus in this state to be the most secular in the country, open minded and peace loving without any innate desire to foment trouble on ethnic, communal or religious lines. That’s why we’ve been one of the most peaceful states in the region. Besides, the party here is not as organized as in the other parts and is faced with a lot of infighting,” Laitphlang says.

But he also concedes that the BJP will gain from the support of NPP. “Definitely, since the NPP has conveniently lent both its shoulders to fire from,” he says. The NPP is contesting independently but has reached a tacit understanding with the BJP.

Patricia Mukhim explains, “The people of Meghalaya don’t usually vote on issues and ideologies. They vote for personalities and how the candidate is able to help them at a personal level and how approachable he/she is.”

She further adds that if the BJP candidate works hard in building a personal rapport, it will take him places. While the Modi phenomenon did make everyone sit up and take note, the politics surrounding the beef ban and imagery of minorities under attack seems to have put off the people.

The Congress, in the meanwhile, has alleged that the BJP will use its money power and ride piggy back on NPP.

Speaking to the media while visiting Shillong, Congress General Secretary in-charge of Meghalaya, CP Joshi hit out at the BJP for allocating Rs 70 crore for churches in Meghalaya and that too without a recommendation from the state government. But is the role of the Church in Meghalaya, a state with over 70% Christians, really that significant in electoral politics?

“The church has never been an influential factor, but it does carry out a whispering campaign. Whether people actually listen to such whispers is a different matter. It does covertly push people to vote candidates from its own denomination,” says Patricia Mukhim.

The election in the 45-year-old state is undoubtedly a high stakes battle and will be perhaps the most bitterly fought one in the state’s history. If the BJP steals a win, it will further give a push towards its agenda of a ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’, while retaining Meghalaya will give a much-needed relief to the beleaguered Congress and its newly appointed party President. But will corruption allegations and a poor track record of development lead the Congress to face the music?

The writer is a News Anchor and Special Correspondent with CNN News18.

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| Edited by: Sanchari Chatterjee
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