Remembering The Godfather in Casino Capitalist Meghalayan Age

By Angela Rangad & Tarun Bhartiya

This year, both Meghalaya and the classic gangster film The Godfather are celebrating their Golden Jubilee. Coincidence or not, rewatching the newly restored 4K version of The Godfather trilogy helped us understand the narratives of democracy, governance and economy of Meghalaya. One has aged well and become a classic, the other is simply getting old and decrepit.
“It is not personal but strictly business”
– Michael Corleone
The good cop, bad cop routine continues. Mr. Conrad Sangma ‘provisionally’ says No to Casinos while refusing to rollback the Meghalaya Regulation of Gaming Act and Rules 2021, just days after his brother Mr. James Sangma on behalf of the MDA (NPP, UDP, BJP, HSPDP, PDF, Ex Congressi) was up defending the Casino plans with appropriate buzz words like revenue, tourism, investment, development.
But think a little beyond the veil of these well pronounced words and go into the inception of these ideas. Every so called developmental plan or government policy under this government appears to be a route to the private/family pockets/interests of individuals in power or what street level gossip euphemistically describes as Hi-Level. Whether it is four laning of roads or CoVID purchases, Greenfield airport or 100 crore Casino investment or contracting out health services or Crowborough hotel, or smartening up Shillong, these plans do not start with the needs of the state or greater common good and its citizens but with Hi-Level conversations about private profiteering.
Considerations see to be – I (my family) have managed to create a land bank, think of a project where I can monetise that land. A businessman hasn’t been able to finish a hotel project, can we think of a policy that will allow it to rise from its ashes? Maybe in lieu of the policy, the businessman can sell part of his ownership to some mysterious LLP, an entity designed to opaquely allow the Hi Level to earn returns/rent without any daily headache of running a company. The old days of suitcases full of cash are gone, now it is balancesheets, accountants, offshore parking and roundtripping of money. If that can be done at the national level by globally renowned capitalists, why should Meghalaya remain behind.
People say the abandoned hotel on the Assam-Meghalaya border at Khanapara on the Meghalaya side is where the Casinos will come up. Apart from the simple question of who is now the owner of that property, we also need to ask whether the investment of 100 crores is not a round tripping of Hi-Level money. Anyway amidst the imagination of offline Vegas style lights, sounds, entertainment of blackjack, slot machines and roulette – licenses for online gambling are part of the package.
Because quite a lot of the opposition to Casino is based on ‘moral/religious’ ideas, the Govt. has it easy. They begin by the usual cliche of tax revenue – the argument that Meghalaya will earn revenue through taxes levied on non Meghalayan people’s vice, Hotels shall provide employment and casinos will bring high value tourists who shall spend money. The usual Trickle Down argument of the poor receiving the rich man’s crumb. And finally the desperation argument – if Meghalaya doesn’t do it others will.
“While our state is blessed with great scenic beauty, other states of the region have taken up various measures to boost tourism, thereby giving stiff competition to our state in the tourism sector. This is because they share similar topography and some of them have additional attractions in the form of historical and archaeological structures,” justified Mr. James Sangma.
Mr. Sangma sounds like the Senator Patrick Geary from The Godfather 2 who facilitates licenses for Michael Corleone and his mafia friends wanting to clean their illegal earnings via legal casinos while mouthing inane words like employment and development for his voters. If the experiences of non regulation of coal mining or the recent CAG report on Booze revenue is anything to go by, one is not sure about the taxes from casinos and gambling licenses. And the gambling industry is notorious for under reporting its sales and profits. The side bets on the table would anyway remain outside the purview of the tax regime.
Yes, there would be growth in income but not of the state but of the crony/family organisations who shall control this regulatory as well as casino business regime. As Hyman Roth, crime boss in The Godfather tells Michael Corleone:
“What I am saying is, we have now what we have
always needed, real
partnership with the
government.”
If the tax revenue argument is flimsy, the tourism argument is a joke. The real story of tourism development in Meghalaya is the story of small entrepreneurs, small landowners, village communities. It is not some five star establishments distributing their largess around. Moreover, any moron can see that having casinos next to Guwahati is merely going to benefit Assam and not Meghalaya. Why won’t the gambler go to Kaziranga for a day trip rather than Mawphanlur!
Unlike The Godfather films where there is still a semblance of distinction between crime, business and the government, the story of economic activity these days is the dream of Hyman Roth coming true. Casino or coal or infrastructure is an enterprise to grab public resources and concentrate it in Hi-Level hands.
But the extreme inequality and desperation of the masses that this crony capitalist regime creates also breeds resistances that do not buy into the slick speeches or useless dreams. As Michael Corleone tells Hyman Roth in Havana , Cuba just before Fidel Castro’s rebel forces send the dictator Batista packing:
Michael Corleone:
I saw a strange thing today. A rebel was being arrested by the military police. And rather than be taken alive he exploded a grenade he had hidden in his jacket.He killed himself and took a captain of the command with him. Now, soldiers are paid to fight; the rebels aren’t.
Hyman Roth:
What does that tell you?
Michael Corleone:
They could win.
(Angela Rangad is an activist and social justice organiser Tarun Bhartiya is a documentarian)

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