STATE OF PERPETUAL FLUX 

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By BY BIDHAYAK DAS
  • Published 26.03.02
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The seventh successive change in government within a span of five years has proved beyond doubt that in Meghalaya politics is as changeable as Shillong's weather. The latest developments in the state also prove another point - that the remote control of Meghalaya's politics lies in the hands of the "little big man", Purna A. Sangma. Whether this is due to the politics of convenience to serve a particular party's interests or one individual's lofty ambitions, there is no denying the fact that Meghalaya is well on its way to becoming something akin to Laloo Prasad Yadav's Bihar. In other states, elections to the Rajya Sabha do not make much of a difference in state politics. But not so in Meghalaya. Last time Sangma was in Shillong, he pulled down the E.K. Mawlong led Meghalaya Peoples' Forum government over the contentious Meghalaya House deal. This time he has made the Congress pay for not supporting the Nationalist Congress Party candidate, Robert Kharshiing, as the "consensus choice" for the Rajya Sabha elections scheduled for March 27. Sangma has thus scored two successes. By giving the four-month old People's Forum of Meghalaya government headed by F.A. Khonglam a new look, Sangma has all but realized his dream of an all-party government. The PFM now enjoys the support of 56 members in the Meghalaya state legislature, which has a total strength of 60. It is supported by all parties except the Bharatiya Janata Party and a lone Garo National Council legislator. But what was the need to affect a change in the PFM government, which already had a jumbo-sized ministry and was functioning well enough? The induction of nine legislators from the opposition United Democratic Party into the ministry, and the dropping of six seasoned Congress legislators and an independent have puzzled everyone. The reason though is simple: Khonglam did as Sangma wanted him to. Two ideas animated Sangma and Kharshiing, president of the Meghalaya unit of the NCP as well as the party's candidate in the Rajya Sabha elections. One was to weaken the support base of the Congress candidate in order to win the Rajya Sabha elections at any cost. Two, to experiment with an all-party government formula. But of immediate concern was the Rajya Sabha elections. The NCP has four seats in the Rajya Sabha, one short of the number it required to get recognition as a national party in the upper house of Parliament. Sangma and Kharshiing admitted as much when they said that getting into the Rajya Sabha from Meghalaya was "extremely important". The NCP was aware that it was up against stiff competition from the sitting Congress member of parliament, Onward L. Nongtdu. And so the NCP thinktank, comprising Kharshiing, Sangma and Khonglam, played a power game that overturned almost all political equations in the state. Their proposal to the various parties in the state was simple - "support our candidate and we will give you power in return". The first to fall for this ploy was the Meghalaya United Democratic Party - a coalition partner in the government, which had also decided to contest the elections to the upper house in the Central legislature. The UDP found the temptation offered by the NCP so irresistable that it was even willing to forget its grievances against Sangma for unceremoniously pulling down the Mawlong government and it jumped at the offer. The UDP withdrew its candidate from the Rajya Sabha contest and agreed to support the NCP's Kharshiing, provided of course that its legislators were inducted into the state cabinet. Khonglam was only too happy to oblige since it would mean that the UDP, which was earlier debating whether to support the Congress candidate, would now favour the NCP. The NCP thinktank acted swiftly and before the Congress could react, Khonglam had decided to drop seven of its legislators from the PFM council of ministers to make way for the UDP. Interestingly, even the former chief minister, Mawlong, who only few weeks ago had spewed venom at Sangma and the NCP, had a long closed-door meeting with the little master of Meghalaya politics, proving the adage that in politics there are no permanent friends or enemies. The NCP had scored and the UDP was back in power, without which it seemed lost. But for the Congress, a leading partner in the PFM coalition, this was a completely unexpected blow. While the NCP managed to win the support of the UDP, the MUDP, the Hill State Peoples' Democratic Party, the Peoples' Democratic Movement - all partners in the ruling coalition - the Congress had no choice but to sit and watch. As of now, the NCP candidate looks likely to have the support of 40 legislators. This margin may well climb in the coming days if the three BJP legislators too decide to vote for him. For its part, the Congress has always been divided over the issue of a consensus candidate. This has landed it in a strange situation where some of its legislators have been kept on in the council of ministers while some others, and very senior ones at that, have been pushed out, in what Khonglam has termed as an exercise in "adjustment and accommodation". The Congress is thus caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. On the one hand, it cannot go against the party high command's directive to contest the Rayja Sabha elections, and on the other, it cannot remain in a government where it finds its wings clipped. The party's Meghalaya unit president, Salseng C. Marak, visited New Delhi recently in order to sound out Sonia Gandhi on whether the Congress should continue to be part of the PFM-led state government or break away. The indications are that the Congress will ultimately walk out to avoid a deepening of differences amongst its legislators which are already threatening to split the party. The arrival of the Congress's central observer, K.K. Handique, from New Delhi has also given rise to doubts about the unity within the Congress. A section of political observers believes that the presence of a central observer at this juncture indicates all is not well with the Congress and that there still exist serious differences over the consensus candidate issue. Rumblings within the Congress have come to the fore, especially after some of its legislators said they were happy with Khonglam's arrangement and had no problems supporting a consensus candidate, even if one from the NCP. This can only mean that while some Congressmen are rallying around the party's candidate, Nongtdu, others are not too happy with his nomination. F or now, the Congress has decided to continue in the PFM coalition, although the ministers who were sacked have written to Sonia Gandhi expressing their unwillingness to continue. She is yet to respond to their missive, but the political drama centered around the Rajya Sabha elections indicates the beginning of an unhealthy trend in Meghalaya politics. Of course, it matters little to the NCP or Sangma, for whom a seat to the Rajya Sabha has to be won at all costs.