As a State used to coalition governments and the fluid loyalties of its politicians, Meghalaya has had at least a third of its 60 MLAs hopping parties during the five-year term of the outgoing Assembly. Even in the run-up to the elections scheduled for February 27, a National People’s Party (NPP) candidate flipped sides to become the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate, and a Congress candidate switched to the Trinamool Congress (TMC). In 2018, the Congress had won 21 seats, the NPP 20, the BJP 2, and regional parties and independents the rest. Meghalaya is the only State among the three in the northeast going to the polls now where the Congress has a fighting chance. The party, once the main political force in Meghalaya, has no MLA though it was the single-largest party in 2018. The BJP is contesting all 60 seats in the hope of reaching a double-digit figure. The TMC, which became the State’s Opposition party overnight after 12 Congress MLAs switched over in November 2021, is fielding 55 candidates. The most influential regional entity, the United Democratic Party, is contesting 46 seats. The State’s politics is driven by the dynamics of three matrilineal tribes — the Khasi and Jaintia tribes that are ethnically closer, and the Garo tribe which held the Chief Minister’s chair for 34 years since the formation of the State over 50 years ago.
The Garos have often sought a separate State, although the demand has been somewhat muted this time. The Khasi-Jaintia Hills encompass 36 of the State’s 60 seats, and the Garo Hills 24 seats. The ruling NPP and prime challenger, the TMC, are facing off in the Garo Hills, where the contest is the most intense. The issue of Bangladeshi immigrants, a staple of Assam elections, entered Meghalaya this time with the NPP and the BJP trying to portray the TMC as a Bengali party sympathetic to people from India’s neighbour. The TMC and its allies have been accusing the NPP of misrule, and large-scale graft in power, health, education, PDS and other sectors besides striking a “lopsided” deal with Assam to resolve border disputes. The allies have washed their hands of the record of the government that they have been part of, trying to shift the full blame onto the NPP. Allies say the NPP called the shots and never consulted them on any issue. Allies in the outgoing government are contesting against it, with each one trying to maximise their strength in the Assembly and keeping post-poll options open.
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