Competitive Opposition : Good or bad for Meghalaya

By Patricia Mukhim

It’s good to see an adversarial and rambunctious Opposition in the Assembly today as they belong to three disparate parties – the VPP, Congress and TMC. During the elections these parties were at each other’s throats. When Rahul Gandhi came to Shillong he directed his ire at the TMC, temporarily setting aside the fact that his biggest foe nationally is the BJP. Rahul and his aide, Jairam Ramesh called Mukul Sangma a Judas merely because he left the all but asphyxiated Congress Party to join the TMC. Using terms like Judas to define an old party colleague, reeks of political conceit, especially when the Congress knows it has very slim chances of ever getting back to power in Meghalaya in the present circumstances. I doubt that Jairam Ramesh would have the audacity to tar with the same brush, a former Congress colleague – Himanta Biswa Sarma because he would have got an equal measure of tongue lashing from the latter. Mukul Sangma happens to be a soft target. It’s not without reason that people say, “in politics there are no permanent friends or enemies – only permanent interests.” Shrewd politicians don’t burn all their bridges; they never know when they would have to cross the bridge to build coalitions. In any case in politics, political rivals are not enemies. It’s only in present day politics that the BJP considers all its political rivals as bitter foes and, in some cases even labels them anti-nationals. That word is now a part of the current political discourse. Hence the bitterness and acrimony.

In Meghalaya it appears that the present legislature will not have a Leader of Opposition for the simple reason that the three ideologically incongruent parties are unable to rise above their differences and do what’s best for the polity that elected them.  This inability to unite on issues, has in a way, pushed each of the three parties to try and prove their political astuteness and debating acumen in the Assembly. Now after a long time we are hearing strong dissenting voices pointing out the lacunae in governance including spill-overs from the MDA.1 regime. The easy style in which Dr Celestine Lyngdoh navigated his speech and taunted the government for having created a clique called the ‘High Level’ that actually controls the coal mining and transportation in Meghalaya and the other businesses as well, was an exemplary piece of legislative oratory. Unlike most other legislators who continue to don their adversarial armour even inside the Assembly as if they are ready to do battle, Dr Lyngdoh and his other colleague Ronnie Lyngdoh didn’t lose their cool. They don’t have to. Opposition MLAs can get their views across without the tough posturing, muscle-flexing and finger pointing inside the House.

One other issue that the Opposition in Meghalaya seems to miss out on is that it is incumbent upon them to critically analyse the current budget and if necessary find the funds to get experts to do it for them so that they know exactly where the revenue is leaking. The Chief Minister speaks of thousands of crores allocated for different development projects. No independent agency has really monitored if the crores spent resulted in human development; if there was value for money and whether there were tangible and intangible outcomes from the funds borrowed from several external agencies. Let the people at ground zero who have benefitted from the schemes speak for themselves. We don’t need to hear the Chief Minister labour in vain to add plaudits to his own government.

One lacuna of governance is in not having robust data on the human development parameters. This is something I have stated in the past but which bears iteration. There are thousands of little children and adolescents in the villages and even in the peri-urban areas that have dropped out of school during the pandemic. I have spoken to a number of parents in the villages surveyed in East Khasi Hills and West Jaintia Hills. They plead their inability to send their kids to school because they have been left behind due to lack of mobile phones for online classes, amongst other handicaps. The present MDA.2 government does not have the data for school drop-outs in the years 2020—2022. Without data how will the government address this malaise which will later turn into an economic burden. Having a whole lot of children out of school also means that many more illiterate or semi-literate adults with no skills, least of all life skills, will be burdening the economy. Do we wonder then why so many of our young people take to drugs? They see a dismal future and they also see an uncaring system that is least bothered about bringing them at par with their other more privileged peers. In this unequal eco-system where the divide between the haves and have nots is turning into a deep chasm we can expect a revolt sooner than later.

It is not without reason that we have so many pressure groups in Meghalaya. Sure they speak on a few issues but their subsistence as a group is highly questionable. Unsurprisingly the National Highways Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL) had recently stated that completing the Shillong-Dawki highway is fraught as there are too many demands from too many quarters. The pressure groups are unfortunately termed ‘NGOs’ which is hugely misleading. Pressure groups are not registered bodies and therefore not auditable. They operate as freelancers and don’t have to account for the money they get for their little demonstrations of  patriotism and hyper-nationalism every now and again, just to remind us, the gullible citizenry, who are too lazy to fight our own battles,  that they exist to safeguard our interests.

If the Opposition MLAs were to take their legislative responsibilities seriously and as per the book, these pressure groups would have no issue to rake up. It is precisely because we have not had the Opposition that matters that the ecosystem has bred so many pressure groups that rival one another and are fighting for space in a very limited economic universe. Their means of survival are the businesses in Shillong city and the coal mine owners. Why would any good corporate entity even want to come and risk its investment here? Why would anyone wanting to do fair trade and transparent business want to set up shop here? And then we wonder why there is no employment! Everything about economics is interrelated.

Meghalaya today needs a few state of the art fruit (not just food) processing units to convert the huge production of pineapples throughout the year into other juices, jams and canned fruits. The small and medium enterprises birthed by the Government through the Meghalaya Basin Management Authority are only able to deal with small numbers; they cannot scale up their production because their investments are small. Their ability to create jobs is also limited. While the emergence of young entrepreneurs is laudable and those that nurture them deserve applause, there is space for bigger more professionally run industries that can also set benchmarks for good business practices.

Now coming back to the competitive Opposition, on the one hand it is good that now each of the Opposition parties will dig in their heels and come up with sufficient data to corner the Government, but we must also realise that there will be no Leader of the Opposition this time – for the first time ever in Meghalaya’s legislative history. If the Opposition is to be meaningful it would need to have a think tank of its own to expose the gap between the budget statement and the last mile implementation. A senior government official said the other day that there is a problem of implementation of projects and schemes because of lack of participation from the stakeholders – the people themselves. There is a reason for this. Our society has no inherent democratic tradition. Consultations, discussions and conclusions are only for a few who are ‘assumed’ to be knowledgeable. The rest of the people plead ignorance, sit back and say they cannot participate since they don’t understand government functioning. It is this “agency” which empowers people to speak up – which is missing in Meghalaya. Where are  capacity building agencies? Can we have a democracy when 90% or more of the citizens don’t actively participate in governance? A sensitive government will invest in empowering communities to speak for themselves so that they do not have to rely only on their MLAs or the pressure groups. Will the MDA.2 government take up this challenge?

 Of course it is also true that MLAs resent it when their constituents raise uncomfortable questions. They prefer a timid constituency that takes every little crumb that comes their way as a patronage by the MLA. This culture of subservience has to end!

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