The majority mark has always eluded political parties in Meghalaya, except in 1972 — the year of its statehood — when the All Party Hill Leaders’ Conference bagged 32 seats.
The regional party merged with the Congress six years later, but it made the Congress strong enough to be the single largest party in the eight Assembly elections since.
With 29 seats of a maximum of 60, the Congress registered its best performance in 2013. And it helped Chief Minister Mukul M. Sangma become the face of the party in the State, more so after his predecessor D.D. Lapang opted out of electoral politics at 83 last year.
Simultaneously, Dr. Sangma has also challenged the legacy of Purno A. Sangma, former Lok Sabha Speaker who died in March 2016, in the western part of Meghalaya, including the Garo Hills. Mandate 2018 in Meghalaya is as much of a battle for the Congress to retain one of its last bastions in the country as it is for the 53-year-old Dr. Sangma to be the undisputed leader of the Garo Hills, arguably the power centre.
Why did he join politics?
All that a young Dr. Sangma wanted to be was a doctor. Born to teachers Binoy Bhushan M. Marak and Roshanara Begum at Ampatigiri, now the headquarters of South West Garo Hills district, he graduated in medicine from the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal, capital of Manipur. He joined the Zikzak Public Health Centre as a medical and health officer in 1991. Zikzak is one of the two administrative blocks under the Ampati Assembly constituency that Dr. Sangma has been representing since 1993, first as an Independent and then as a Congress candidate. Associates say he gravitated towards politics by developing his grass-roots contacts as a doctor.
How did he rise in Congress?
Meghalaya gave India’s first coalition government in March 1978, underscoring ethnic and sub-regional differences that made fractured verdicts a rule since the Assembly elections that year.
The compulsions of coalition saw Dr. Sangma, an Independent, being made chairman of the Meghalaya Transport Corporation in 1993. He soon joined the Congress, which saw in him a leader who could rival the grip P.A. Sangma had on the Garo Hills.
He lost to P.A. Sangma in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections (from Tura) but kept climbing in the Congress hierarchy.
From Home and Education Minister, he was made Deputy Chief Minister in April 2005 but stepped down from the post five months later after police firing killed five persons at Williamnagar in East Garo Hills district. Dr. Sangma became the Deputy Chief Minister again in 2009, but dissidence in the Congress saw him replace Mr. Lapang as Chief Minister halfway through the term.
Dr. Lapang weathered several coup attempts and fended off allegations of scams to become the second Chief Minister after Salseng C. Marak (1993-1998) to complete a term since 2013.
What are the challenges?
Keeping his flock together has been a challenge throughout Dr. Sangma’s reign for almost eight years. Last year, he lost 13 MLAs in the Congress-helmed Meghalaya United Alliance. Seven of them were from the Congress who joined an upbeat Bharatiya Janata Party, whose presence in the State has been minimal so far.
The BJP, though, is seen as less of a rival than the regional National People’s Party (NPP), founded by P.A. Sangma and commandeered by his son Conrad. The NPP, allegedly helped by the BJP, is trying to wrest back the Garo Hills from Dr. Sangma, besides expanding its base to the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, comprising 36 of the 60 Assembly seats.
This is the first Assembly election after P.A. Sangma passed away, and the NPP has an emotional advantage.
Dr. Sangma has also been accused of shielding Ministers involved in scams, including in teachers recruitment, and doing little to counter the National Green Tribunal’s ban on mining that has destabilised the coal and limestone-based local economy touching the lives of a fifth of the State’s 3.2 million people.