It is 7 am in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. A man wearing dark aviator shades and a black leather jacket walks into a room full of journalists. Adjusting his iPod headset, the 47-year-old Chief Minister Mukul Sangma begins his address by talking of his love for rock music and football: “We know our music in Shillong; I’m crazy about all bands, from the Beatles to Bon Jovi. Songs are omnipresent here, you will see them as part of election campaigns.”
The CM could not have been more right. Music and football have been the twin passions of the Scotland of the East, as Shillong is famously known. So much so that dribbles, tackles and own goals have become a part of everyday Meghalaya politics too. In 41 years, since achieving statehood in 1972, the state has seen as many as 23 governments. Except for the first government under the leadership of Captain William Sangma, Meghalaya has never seen a single-party government.
“Development in Meghalaya has suffered because of political instability,” says Mukul. “So, we are requesting voters to give a clear mandate to a single party. In the past few years, the Congress has brought stability.” The CM does have a point; in the past five years, the state has seen four governments and a period of President’s Rule. SC Marak was the last chief minister (1993-1998) who could complete a full term and there are instances when a chief minister lasted only 10 days before his government was toppled.
“Political instability cannot get worse than this,” says Newton Rymbai, a young footballer from Shillong. “In our state, politics is as free flowing as our music and as exciting as our football. As a first-time voter, I know my vote does not count for much, but elections are fun in Meghalaya.”
Stakeholders, however, would be loathe to call it anything but fun. “The Congress needs to be blamed for the political instability in Meghalaya,” says Conrad Sangma, the leader of Opposition in the Assembly, and the eldest son of former Lok Sabha Speaker PA Sangma. “There is serious infighting within the party. Even during this election, Congressmen have left their party to join us because they are dejected with the leadership.” Conrad, a Wharton Business School pass-out, is a member of the National Peoples’ Party (NPP), formed by his father after breaking away from the NCP. Like Mukul, this Sangma too uses music as a medium to woo voters and talks in football metaphors. “Our party is new but we are old players and we have credibility,” he says. “It is like we have changed into a new jersey from the older one.” The allusion to the football field is not lost on anyone, but one wonders if it is politics that has been kicked around in this game-like political field Meghalaya has turned into.
The last Assembly poll result has some pointers. In 2008, the Congress emerged as the single largest party with 25 seats, but not good enough for a two-third majority in the 60-member Assembly. The United Democratic Party (UDP) bagged 11 seats, the NCP got 14, the Hill State Peoples’ Democratic Party (HSPDP) got two, independents grabbed five and the BJP registered one win. Former president of the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) Paul Lyngdoh won from the Khun Kynniewtrep National Awakening Movement (KHNAM). Interestingly, the UDP has always sided with the political combine that has come close to power.
Then came the time to kick the ball around. The Congress formed a government only to last 10 days. The NCP and UDP formed a government of an alliance with the help of two HSPDP legislators, the lone BJP legislator AL Hek and Paul Lyngdoh and two independents. Within a year, the alliance was broken by the Congress; the independents switched sides and Paul, who was part of the Cabinet, resigned. Four legislators were disqualified, President’s Rule was imposed on 19 March 2009 and legislators from the NCP-UDP combine resigned to join the Congress and form a new coalition, with DD Lapang as the new chief minister after President’s Rule was lifted on 8 May 2009.
However, more was to follow. A faction of Congress legislators revolted against Lapang and his deputy Mukul Sangma became the chief minister on April 2010. Mukul has been able to retain his chair for three years, but not before staving off a coup in 2011, when 18 Congress legislators lobbied with the high command to oust him from the CM’s post.
This time promises to be no different. After all, multi-ethnic divide, economic disparity, warped priorities and a difficult diversity have been the basic characteristics of Shillong politics. “As usual, there is a high possibility of a fractured mandate,” says political observer Sanat K Chakraborty. “There are many prominent candidates who are contesting as independents and would go on to win. They can go either way. In Meghalaya politics, it is the individual candidate and his influence on the local electorate that matters, not the party.”