Meghalaya polls: not just political but religious battle, too

Meghalaya polls: not just political but religious battle, too

Meghalaya, the 'abode of clouds', is a Christian-dominated state. It goes to polls on February 27. Promiseland, Holyland, Jerusalem, Italy, Argentina, Arabian Sea, Premiere, Sweater, Request, Loveliness, Happiness, Faithfull, etc are a few of the 'fancy' names included in the register of 18,30,104 voters. And some of the 372 contestants vying for their votes bear names such as Adolf Hitler, Nehru, Kennedy, Counsellor, Highlander, Predecessor, Process, Leaderson, Winnerson. If that weren't enough of a novelty, political parties have released manifestoes full of irresponsible and unrealistic promises. Election campaigning is on in full swing since February 1.

Besides the unusual names, this election has many stories to tell. This small state has many political parties, national and regional, but none of the regional parties have any ideology to speak of. Power-hungry leaders have always been willing to be partners in any coalition government, whether with the Congress or any other national party.

Voters, mainly tribals, meanwhile, vote mostly for the candidate who makes the sweetest promises, rather than on the basis of his or her party affiliation and ideology. Nor do such issues as the candidate's educational qualifications or his reputation matter. In the 2013 assembly polls, there was much campaigning over the issue of corruption and voters were exhorted not to vote for 'corrupt' candidates. In the end, such candidates won the election overwhelmingly.

Voters are also 'clever'. In order to extract cash for their vote from as many candidates as they can, they do not openly reveal voting preferences. As a result, candidates with the ability to spend the most money win. Given all this, elections in Meghalaya are never a simple affair.

But this time, polls promise to be even more complicated than usual, thanks to the entry of the BJP in a big way and, consequently, the Congress resorting what looks like a communal campaign to thwart it. The inability of the Congress government to deliver good governance over the last eight years has opened the space for the BJP to add to its kitty one more north-eastern state in its race to a Congress-mukt Bharat. Since BJP is ruling at the Centre, many Congress MLAs have left the party and joined BJP. Sensing the saffron party's rise, regional parties are now more inclined to form the next government with this party, rather than with the Congress, which has failed on all fronts since 2009.

The BJP does not have a single legislator in the current assembly, but the Congress seems to be panicking nonetheless. Rather than trying to keep the party in order, Congress candidates and their leaders are running a campaign of portraying the BJP as anti-Christian. It's a tactic that has worked in previous elections.

To counter this, the BJP has made K J Alphons, its Christian leader from Kerala and Union minister of state for tourism, the party's Meghalaya poll in-charge. To appease Christians, Alphons has announced over Rs 70 crore in development funds to the Catholic and Presbyterian churches and other religious sites in Meghalaya.

Aware of the BJP 'wave' in the state, the ruling Congress politicians are going all out against the saffron party. To keep the regional parties away from the BJP, Congress leaders have launched a campaign calling parties known to be ready to ditch it for the BJP "Judas", painting them as betrayers of Congress and Christians.    

Congress' national spokesman Tom Vadakkan, also from Kerala, has said parties that are supporting BJP "have sold their souls, and now their bodies are on sale, too," and has urged voters not to "sell your soul to the devil". Caught between the two national parties, church leaders have called on the voters, without mentioning any parties or candidates, to vote for whoever they think are the "right candidates". Politics in Meghalaya has always had an element of communalisation, but with the entry of the BJP as a major force, Christianity has become the main election issue this time.  

Marred by violence

Moreover, for the first time, Meghalaya will witness a candidate contest election from jail. It will also see formerly banned insurgent leaders and religious leaders and even an alleged rapist contest. Violence has already become a talking point. A People's Democratic Front (PDF) man was stabbed with a sharp weapon by Congress workers, an allegation that Congress leaders have accepted.

Earlier, unknown miscreants had put up banners saying "anyone who votes for Jonathone N Sangma will be brought to justice by the gun and the bullet." Last week, Jonathone Sangma, the NCP candidate from Williamnagar constituency, and his men were killed in a bomb attack. Sangma had lost to Congress' Deborah Marak in the 2013 elections.

While the BJP's position at the Centre makes it a force to reckon with in the state, Congress' campaign against it is proving to be a double-edged sword for it. The BJP's 'anti-Christian' tag is an obstacle to the party, but it seems that the more the Congress paints it as such, the more popular it may become in some pockets. Besides money and muscle power, the influence of Church leaders will also count in this election. Christians' security dominates the mind of the Christian voters.

People have seen injury and death in the run up to this election, and violence may continue until polls. As such, this time, it's not a free and fair election in Meghalaya.

What the state is now witnessing is not just a political battle but a religious one as well. Will the alleged Judas come to rule in the homeland of Promiseland, Holyland and Jerusalem? Polling for the 60 assembly seats is on February 27. We will know the result on March 3.

(The writer is Assistant Prof, Department of Political Science, Seng Khasi College, Shillong)

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