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Tue, 23 Jul 2019

Northeast Today

Saving the Chair

Saving the Chair
November 01
16:20 2014

By Ratul Baruah

Meghalaya is notorious for its political crisis having seen over 26 chief ministers and two stints of President’s Rule in its 42 years of statehood. Smaller administrative units like district councils too are not free from the menace…

Kingdoms are no more, but politicians in Meghalaya fight more for power than the kings did. Congress, which suffered a historic defeat in the hands of BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, is the worst hit by struggle for power within the party. Northeast – even though the region was the party’s saving grace in the elections – has been a big headache for the All India Congress Committee (AICC) due to prolonged infighting over leadership. Party leaders in Assam and Meghalaya shamelessly fought for “equal distribution of power”. While Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi and his followers appeared to have won the long battle with Himanta Biswa Sarma stepping down to become a “good legislator”, the crisis in Meghalaya is a perennial one.

Chief minister Mukul Sangma has been fighting a long battle within the party to save his hot power seat. The fight has become more intense after his bête noire Purno Sangma, the former Lok Sabha Speaker, won the Tura seat for the ninth time. The senior Sangma, having support of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), this time has more weapons in his closet to cause trouble for the chief minister. The battle within the Congress for the chair of chief minister started months ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, and yet to die down. Twenty-nine elected MLAs of the party spent hundreds of hours, if not thousands, discussing and negotiating on the subject.

The cliché – ‘family affair’: From time to time, there were words about the crisis being a “family matter”. The cliché was recently uttered by AICC leader Luizinho Faleiro. He made both Mukul Sangma and his arch rival, a five-time chief minister, stand on both sides while addressing the media. Lapang’s smiling face – of course Mukul Sangma’s too – would deceive anyone who did not know that he had been at the forefront all along in the several “waves” of dissidence against Mukul Sangma. Faleiro, as had said several times in the past, termed the crisis a matter in a “big family”. Days after such claim, Congress insiders started singing the same oust-Mukul slogan while speaking to the media privately.

Forces to reckon: The dissidence this time has another special element – involvement of SC Marak, the only former chief minister who completed a full five-year term. Marak along with Lapang at one point of time seemed a huge threat to the incumbent’s chair, but the latter won the battle again. SC Marak – he is known to be a plain talker – openly spoke about their endeavour to see Mukul out of the hot chair. But, there seems to be a new ‘chemistry’ between him and Mukul as the veteran was recently seen accompanying the chief minister in a programme at the latter’s constituency in remote South West Garo Hills district.

Another politician at the centre of the whole leadership battle in Meghalaya is the two-time Shillong MP, Vincent H Pala. Pala, being one of the richest persons in the state, is said to have a lot of influence among the Congress MLAs. He had reportedly campaigned before the AICC against the “dictatorial attitude” of Mukul Sangma. The rivalry was such that Pala managed to retain his with a small margin of victory, thanks to negative campaign by some anti-Pala Congressmen.

Lack of alternative: One of the main reasons behind failure of the dissidence campaign has been lack of alternative to Mukul Sangma. Though both DD Lapang and SC Marak had enough clout left in Delhi, they are seen by many as spent force in front of an articulate person like Mukul Sangma. His grasp over things vital to governance becomes visible whenever he comes out with prompt replies to critical questions.

Besides the lack of an alternative for Mukul Sangma in the Congress, the dissidents had another major weak point – there was no serious and specific fault in his governance. Even if there are some fault lines like his “undue” protection to minister Ampareen Lyngdoh even after the CBI naming her in the education scam and the Supreme Court case against his “controversial” ST status, none in the Congress dare raised these issues since they might boomerang.

Coal mining: There was no strong weapon with the dissidents against the chief minister till the ban on coal mining by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) changed the political scene. On a careful observation, there exist two conglomerates working for the interest of the mine owners and traders against the NGT ban. Both the organizations, with strong representations from Jaintia Hills, raised the same issue before the government but on different platforms. They never met together. Mukul Sangma wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking exemption for the state from NGT’s purview. A few days later, a Congress delegation (without Mukul) went to meet the President with the same demand. All these show a vertical split in the Congress. But for a leadership change to take place, a lot of political equations have to be solved behind closed doors. They don’t have any connection to public interest, but only personal interest.

A smaller battle: As if to maintain the volatile characteristic of Meghalaya’s politics, a parallel battle has been going on in the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC). Ardent Basaiawmoit, incumbent chief of the KHADC and a maverick leader is on sticky ground. Although the Congress in this matter is out of picture so far, the party can barge into the battle zone anytime. The boat of All Regional Parties’ Alliance (ARPA), the alliance of three parties ruling the KHADC, is rocking, thanks to differences between Basaiawmoit and the United Democratic Party (UDP). The UDP has no issues with Basaiawmoit’s Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HDPDP), but Basaiawmoit is the main roadblock. Although the UDP recently gave Basaiawmoit a “second chance” to continue, the crisis is yet to be over since it had deep roots.

The root: Everything was not alright in the ARPA even before its formation which took a long time due to differences among its three constituents – HSPDP, UDP and Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement (KHNAM). Proposal of Basaiawmoit’s name from the HSPDP, which won seven seats, saw strong protest from the UDP. There was hardly any bad blood between the two regional parties till a few months ago although they had failed to strike an alliance ahead of the KHADC polls.

Bete noire: The UDP, although had nothing against Basaiawmoit as a party, opposed the move to elect him as KHADC chief executive member (CEM) allegedly due to pressure from its working president Paul Lyngdoh. The UDP working president has been an arch rival of Basaiawmoit for a very long time, some say, from their student days when both were leaders of different activist groups. With Basaiawmoit and Paul standing on opposite poles, it has been quite a difficult task for both the parties to reconcile and prevent the ARPA boat from sinking.

UDP’s ‘option’: While HSPDP leading the coalition executive committee (EC) in KHADC would fight till its last breadth to keep the flock together, the two other parties, especially UDP, might not bother equally. UDP’s position in the EC would remain the same if it severed ties with HSPDP and embraced Congress, which is sitting in the opposition despite winning the maximum number of seats, three more than HSPDP’s seven MDCs.

Bird’s eye view: While Mukul Sangma has still over three years to equate SC Marak’s record of completing a full five-year term, Ardent Basaiawmoit has ahead of him over four years to hold on to the top job in KHADC. The chief minister has a pro-liberal approach which is criticised by nationalistic forces while Basaiawmoit’s popularity rose sharply among a huge section for his anti-“outsider” and pro-indigenous steps taken during the first few months of power. Despite the widely different approach in ideology, the duo has not so far come into the collision course. The most important thing common in them is their “dictatorial” way of functioning. There might be opportune moments for their detractors to pull them down from the hot chairs as they have miles to go before completing their terms.

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