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NECK AND NECK IN THE NORTHEAST

In Meghalaya, ranged against each other are Adolf Hitler and Chamberlain. I am not joking. Adolf Hitler is a Nationalist Congress Party candidate and Chamberlain is a Congress candidate. Another Congress candidate is Frankenstein. Hollywood is represented in the person of Tony Curtis, a long-serving Congress member of legislative assembly. Boldness is not lacking in the Congress either, for that is the name of the party’s candidate from 12-Mairang.And while it may be Never on a Sunday for the pious Sabbath-observing Meghalayans, they should have no difficulty in casting their ballot for Friday, who is the Congress candidate from 20-Mawkhar. And the NCP’s nadir will be reached when Zenith of the Congress wins from 57-Rangasakona!

Names apart, the other unusual feature of the contest is that the two principal partners in the ruling coalition — the Congress and the NCP — are the principal rivals to each other in the elections. The regional parties who did so well five years ago are also in the fray. So are many independents. And the Bharatiya Janata Party is at the fringes. The election is less about who will win than about whether Purno Sangma will lose. He was an international leader when he served with great distinction as the honourable speaker. He sought national fame when he split from the Congress to shine among the NCP’s stars.

Upstaged by Sharad Pawar at the national level, Purno Sangma then focussed on being the leader of the Northeast. That pretension collapsed when he was roundly rejected in Assam and the few NCP candidates who won in Manipur decided to merge their destiny with the Congress. Down now to salvaging his image as the tallest leader of Meghalaya, the 1999 Lok Sabha elections showed that he had no standing in the Khasi-Jaintia hills. Thus reduced to a Garo leader, Purno Sangma was then humbled in the April 2002 elections to the West Garo Hills district council. Now, certain to have his joy lanced in Tura by Joylance, the Congress candidate, Sangma is fighting the last battle of his political life. If he loses — and he will be lucky if the NCP were to win even 10 seats — he will be left with no alternative but to bow out of politics. That could signal the return to the Congress fold of much of what little remains of the NCP.

The regional parties are also fighting with their backs to the wall. They disgraced themselves after the electorate reposed confidence in them in the 1998 assembly election. Defecting, re-defecting, separating and merging like a school of amoebae in heat, the regionals set new standards of blackmail and corruption. The revolving door of the cabinet spun around with such velocity that someone told me (I am still to finally verify the figure) that of the 60 MLAs elected in 1998, 59 have served as ministers or equivalent! Attempting to give a new image to the regionals is the Khasi Students’ Union, but its ambition of becoming the All Assam Students’ Union/Asom Gana Parishad of Meghalaya is unlikely to be realized. Most observers give them at best one seat from the Shillong area.

The BJP has unfurled its Hindutva version of Christianity. Its candidates are carrying aloft the sangh parivar’s saffron standard. They are of some nuisance value but not a serious contender. For the major rivals, the independents are more worrying. Some independents, it is known, will be returning to their parent-fold after they win. So their tally too is being surreptitiously totted up. The independent whose performance will be watched most closely is the incumbent chief minister, F.A. Khonglam, who won last time as an independent, then tried to get an NCP ticket for this election and, denied it by Purno Sangma, is now contesting on a small regional party’s symbol. His footnote in history is likely to be written by the Sangma-Khonglam division facilitating the victory of the Congress candidate, David Lyngwi — aYul Brynner look-alike!

The current betting is that Purno Sangma will take about 10 seats, the regionals between five and ten, and independents about the same number with miscellaneous entities like the BJP gathering one or two. This leaves the Congress as, quite comfortably, the largest single party but teetering on the brink of forming a government of its own.

Meghalaya, above all, needs a stable government with the grit to last a full five-year term. Quite obviously, a gallimaufry of parties, of the kind that Meghalaya inflicted upon itself last time round, cannot provide stability or governance, let alone good governance. It is the weakness of the state government that has converted the once-peaceful and always gorgeously lovely state of Meghalaya into a terrorist haven. No Central government, however determined (and the National Democratic Alliance has shown no determination) can forestall terrorism unless backed on the spot by a strong state government. Terrorism needs to be nipped in the bud. Tragically, terrorism in Meghalaya is about to bloom. Before it does so, a strong, stable government would need to be in place to serve as a strong stable Centre’s instrument to nip terrorism in the bud. In present circumstances, however, this will have to be done in two stages. The first stage would be the state assembly elections next week. The second stage would be the Lok Sabha election next year!

Development has also been a victim of five years of virtually uninterrupted instability. Shillong has earned some tourist paise from Arun Shourie’s wholly bogus initiative to bring in outside investment. But nothing substantive has come out of his meretricious strutting at the Pinewood Hotel last April. And nothing came either of his taking an army of northeastern chief ministers to Mumbai where the captains of our industry were delighted to learn that this was not a delegation from southeast Asia but northeast India. Not a khota kaudi of indigenous or foreign private investment has flowed into Meghalaya or anywhere else in the Northeast.

Arun Shourie’s departure to greener pastures would have been greeted with whoops of joy but for his replacement by the good doctor, C.P. Thakur, whose political promises resonate to the drumbeat of political promises in the Bihar from where his politics germinates. Unfazed, the Union government has released a long list of “Things-that-must-be-done”, including a railway line up the hills which it occurred to the Centre to announce only as the campaign was getting underway. A people who have not been fooled by Purno Sangma are unlikely to be taken in by a mere C.P. Thakur. So, the NDA has thrown in I.D. Swami, taking time off from throwing wild charges on television to throwing wild charges in Meghalaya and other points Northeast. It will not work. This is a Congress versus NCP contest. Others are voices off.

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