Promises of a scheme similar to that of Lakshmir Bhandar for women of Meghalaya and a resolution to the long-standing border dispute with Assam; and a fierce rebuttal of the "outsider" tag on the Trinamul Congress, Mamata Banerjee on Tuesday did everything possible to woo voters of Meghalaya.
With the Bengal chief minister throwing her weight behind the Trinamul Congress experiment to grow inorganically in Meghalaya and grab the seat of power, the battle for the abode of clouds — scheduled in February — is bound to intensify. National parties like the BJP and the Congress and a host of local parties like the ruling NPP and its alliance partner UDP are also strong contenders here.
“The elections are bound to be very interesting this time…. The post-election period of government formation would be even more interesting as it will witness a lot of permutations and combinations that would primarily depend on the money power of the players," said asenior journalist with a Khasi newspaper.
During a news conference in the Meghalaya capital, which has witnessed political allegiance rewritten with rampant use of money power several times in the past, the Trinamul chairperson reiterated her disapproval of the use of money power for political gains.
"Please don't fall for money... They will give money first, but then they will send the CBI and the ED," said Mamata, obliquely referring to how the BJP had formed governments in states like Goa, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka even after losing the elections.
Mamata at a pre-Christmas celebration in Shillong on Tuesday. PTI photo
The advice to political leaders to resist the temptation of allurements may sound nice on paper, but changing the rules of the game in a state characterised by instability and coalition — where regional parties are caught in sub-regional, ethnic and linguistic divisions — will be easier said than done.
That too for a party that has grown inorganically to become the main Opposition force in the state after 12 Congress legislators, including former chief minister Mukul Sangma, joined Trinamul last November.
Several local people this correspondent spoke to in Shillong said the ruling NPP, which has the support of two BJP MLAs, is facing anti-incumbency for a variety of reasons and Trinamul may win several seats in the Garo hills, where Sangma has a significant following.
The fact that Trinamul has managed to create some impact in the state was clear on Tuesday as thousands thronged to the State Central Library, where the party organised a convention of workers.
The turnout and the applause for Mamata, party insiders said, was an indication of Trinamul's growing importance in the state politics. The Bengal chief minister also joined a pre-Christmas event, where she interacted with local people, gave away Christmas gifts to children and even patiently sat through a programme where local bands performed.
She also challenged the ruling coalition's narrative that Trinamul was a party from outside by recounting the state's association with Bengal and its legends like Rabindranath Tagore and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.
"I have been a railway minister, coal minister and youth affairs minister at the Centre... Then you didn't say that I am from Bengal. Then why are you asking all these questions before the election?" she asked.
"You have voted for so many parties so many times... This time, please cast your vote for the TMC," said Mamata, who said Trinamul didn't face any challenge in Meghalaya.
Now, if Trinamul fails to perform as expected — some party strategists said they were hopeful of getting more than 20 per cent votes even if they fail to form the government, it will surely be a blow to Mamata though the Mission Meghalaya has been primarily an idea of Abhishek Banerjee, her nephew and the party's national general secretary.
Trinamul has been toying with the idea of venturing out of Bengal for several years — it tried its luck in Manipur, Mizoram, Assam, Tripura and Goa — but Mamata had always given these responsibilities to party colleagues like former party organisation chief Mukul Roy and then to Abhishek.
As Mamata never staked her political capital, the failure of these experiments never cost her. The two-day trip to Shillong, however, assumes significance as this is the first time that the Bengal chief minister has lent her name to a mission outside Bengal.
At the convention of Trinamul foot soldiers, Mamata announced that if Trinamul was voted to power in the polls scheduled for February, it would launch a Rs 1,000 a month direct benefit transfer scheme — like Lakshmir Bhandar in Bengal — for all women in Meghalaya, which has over 86 per cent tribal population.
The promise of a better deal for the people of the state — like industrial investments, more resources for education and health sectors and incentives to develop home stays in the tourism-dependent Meghalaya — followed as Mamata rolled out her plan to replicate the “Bengal model.”
Restoring peace in Meghalaya and resolving its border dispute with neighbouring Assam — which apparently cost six lives on November 22 morning on Assam-Meghalaya border — was also another promise from Mamata. She met the family members of the victims and offered a compensation of Rs 5 lakh to each of the families.
As the discord is a potent political issue in Meghalaya, both Mamata and Abhishek launched an attack on chief minister Conrad Sangma, accusing him of not taking up the cause of the state and its people.
In an attempt to stoke local sentiments, both of them said the state was ruled from Guwahati (capital of BJP-ruled Assam) and Delhi."Meghalaya will be ruled from Meghalaya if Trinamul comes to power," Mamata said at the news conference, where she was accompanied by Sangma and Charles Pyngrope, former speaker of the Assembly.
Trinamul's attempt to highlight the border dispute, some observers feel, may give the party some dividends, but there are also questions on whether the sentiment will last till the time of the voting. "Don't forget that public memory is too short," said the Khasi-language journalist.