Regional parties’ unification: Chasing a mirage
By Albert Thyrniang
The regional parties have started humming the unification tune. But in all likelihood it will never materialise. The recent call by a couple of leaders to unify all regional parties in Khasi-Jaintia Hills looks like a cry for survival. With the danger of being extinct looming large, the urgent need to unify is keenly felt. In the past the same appeal was ignored and instead further fragmentation was engineered at different points in time.
The unity cry was also heard in the 1990s. Parties like the All Party Hill Leaders Conference (APHLC), the Hill People’s Union (HPU), the All Party Hill Leaders Conference (APHLC-AM), Meghalaya Progressive People’s Party (MPPP) answered to the plea. And so the United Democratic Party (UDP) was formed in 1997 under late EK Mawlong, BB Lyngdoh and others. The Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP) resisted the attempt and insisted it must maintain its identity and history of contributing to the statehood struggle. Instead of joining forces with the UDP, the then powerful former KSU leader, Paul Lyngdoh formed The Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement (KHNAM) just before the 2003 Assembly elections thinking the student body’s political wing would be a force to reckon with. Realising his mistake, Lyngdoh unsuccessfully merged his party with the UDP in 2011 with KHNAM still alive today. Other mushroom parties like the People’s Democratic Front (PDF) was founded in 2017 with its founding ‘fathers’ giving no consideration absolutely to align with any existing regional party. This resulted in another mushrooming of regional parties.
The leaders that have publicly vouched for the UDP’s plea for unification of all regional parties in the state are from the HSPDP and PDF. Renikton Lyngdoh Tongkhar has termed it the need of the hour. Is his party now willing to lose its individuality for the sake of the ‘common good’? Or is the party stuck in the past? Does the party still want to be credited for the statehood achievement? Or with the founder Hopingstone Lyngdoh no more, is the party now ready to sacrifice its ‘glorious past’ and move on?
Similarly, the PDF president Banteidor Lyngdoh alias Paidang thinks it’s high time that the regional parties amalgamate in the best interests of the people of the State. According to him, what stands in the way of unification is the ego of leaders for everyone thinks he is a leader. However, for the larger good, individualism should be sacrificed, he urged. Lyngdoh has probably forgotten that only four years ago PDF came into existence because the founders thought they could take over the leadership in the state. Why is the unification song being sung after being dividers themselves? Is the party ready to abandon its ‘vote bank’ for the sake of unity?
In the 2018 elections the UDP had a vote share of 11.6% and won 6 seats. The party only fared better than the Independents (IND) who amassed 10.8% vote share with three seats. In its inaugural contest the PDF could muster 8.2% of the votes winning in 4 constituencies. The half century old HSPDP attracted only 5.3% fetching them just 2 seats. The Garo National Council (GNC), which will most likely not be part of any unification talk, recorded a meagre 1.4% share and returned empty handed in term of seats. The KHNAM performed identically with NOTA in pocketing 0.9% vote share, the difference being KHNAM won one seat 1 while NOTA zero. Taken together the vote share of regional parties amounts to 28.3 less than the Congress’ 28.5% and more than the NPP’s 20.6%.
In terms of seats the regional parties (13) came nowhere close to the Congress’ 21 and the NPP’s 20. The unification call has a point. Regional parties see the writings on the wall. The most alarmed is the ‘big’ brother, UDP. It has been humiliatingly reduced to 6 seats from 20 in 1998, the first election after it came into existence. Therefore, it invites others to look back to the late 1990s and early 2000s when it formed governments with support of the national party, the Congress.
The decline of regionalism has been steady since 2003. In that election the UDP was reduced to 9 MLAs down by a massive 11, the HSPDP was victorious in 2 constituencies, down by 1, the KHNAM (maiden contest) won 2 seats. Four regional parties in that election have become defunct. The one active today have never recovered from the defining drop. Post-election that year a Weekly observed, “The beginnings of electoral politics in the 1970s in Meghalaya saw a clear demarcation between national parties and regional ones…The split in vote that has ensued has inadvertently aided national parties.”
Unification may save further deterioration. But are there obstacles in the dream? It is noted that among all the regional parties, there is no ‘Meghalaya party’. Except the GNC (Garo Hills based) all others are in Khasi-Jaintia Hills. The UDP is the only one to claim pan Meghalaya status. However, for all practical purpose it is a Khasi-Jaintia Hills centric party. Anyway, at least it stands for a united Meghalaya. The HSPDP and GNC mutually want a Khasi-Jaintia and Garo state, respectively. KHNAM is defined by its very nomenclature. The PDF has not specified its core tenets.
So for unification to stand a chance either thing has to happen. The HSPDP, GNC and KHNAM will have to give up their fundamental ideology of standing exclusively for the Khasi-Jaintia and Garo peoples. Or the UDP has to surrender its ‘all Meghalaya’ creed. The HSPDP, GNC and KHNAM have to become inclusive and advocate for a united Meghalaya or the UDP will have to become more regional and fit into the world view of the other smaller parties. Such an eventuality is difficult to foresee. To expect HSPDP, GNC and KHNAM to charge their hearts is unimaginable. No one will also bet to anticipate that the UDP will narrow down its ‘united’ outlook. Hence, we are back to square one.
On the personality clash one can’t comprehend the likes of Adelbert Nongrum (KHNAM) and Paul Lyngdoh (UDP) working together. The call for unification has also come against the backdrop of Ardent Basaiawmoit’s announcing the formation of his own political party to be christened ‘The Voice of the People’s Party’ (VoPP). Incompatibility with other leaders means that the once FKJGP firebrand leader has to found his own party. It is better to be a boss in a minor entity than a non-prominent leader of a bigger body. Though VoPP, which has composed the ‘Para Khasi’ (Among Khasis) and ‘clean government’ tune is yet to prove itself, but the present regional leaders consider VoPP a threat in the congested electoral battle field.
What makes the regional parties specifically different from the national parties? What elements present in the regional parties are absent in the Congress or the NPP or the BJP? What, in recent years, have they done that the above three national parties have failed to do? The contribution to the statehood cause is acknowledged. But that is a past accomplishment. Now what matters is governance and policies. What do they incisively promise that others reject? Very concretely how are they the saviours of the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo communities? If tomorrow these regional parties disappear will the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo societies be endangered? Will not the indigenous people continue to survive? Will culture, customs, tradition, land, trade and forests be safeguarded despite the regional forces ceasing to exist? The regional parties could not even prevent their partner, the NPP from voting for CAA, an anti-tribal law. Worse they voted for the NPP’s Rajya Sabha candidate. How are regional parties then protectors of the Khasi and Jaintia tribes? We need articulate and clear answers to the above queries. The rhetorical proclamations during elections of being guardians of the ‘Jaitbynriew’ are of little value. Every one, irrespective party affiliation, national or regional, loves the ‘Jaitbynriew’ equally. The love is not unique to the regional parties. It is not reserved for anyone. Everyone is a ‘nationalist’.
When there was an exodus from the Congress in 2018 no notable leader joined the parties that are campaigning for unification now. Most of the deserters embraced the NPP which has now become a national party. Today also the favourite destination is the PA Sangma established party. Is it because politicians see no merit in the regional parties? Are the local parties too tiny to accommodate bigger leaders? Is it a downgrade for the more educated and articulate leaders to associate with the ‘Hynniewtrep’ or ‘Achik’ parties? Their future is truly bleak. Fully aware that they are being overwhelmed by the two national parties, yet the regional parties are too full of themselves to act.
We will hear more unification stories. Regional parties may be akin to pressure group leaders who preach unity but go their own way the moment media spotlight is no longer on them. Inherent contradictions among the regional parties mean that unification will be a far cry. [email protected]