Sunday, July 14, 2024

Analysing the Meghalaya Lok Sabha results


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By Patricia Mukhim

For the first time perhaps, the results of the MP elections in Meghalaya did not take us by surprise. But before we ourselves could dissect the win and loss, the CM of the neighbouring State of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma has given his convoluted verdict – that the results in Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland which defied the saffron flag were all due to the Christian Missionaries and their intrusion into the politics of these three states. Since he is the leader of the North East Development Agency (NEDA) where development is happening in his home state only, he would have to answer to his bosses on why the BJP or its allies could not win all 25 seats from the North Eastern states. This time all that the BJP and its allies could get are 11 seats from Assam, 2 from Arunachal Pradesh, 2 from Tripura and 1 ally from Sikkim making it a total of 16 out of 25 MPs from the North Eastern states. The rest 9 seats went to regional parties and the Congress.
Coming to the Meghalaya results, the Voice of Peoples’ Party (VPP) as far as political interpretation goes has been following a policy of populism which appeals to peoples’ emotions and their most cherished values of self-esteem which they feel has been lost owing to the poor governance by a political elite which has deprived them of their basic needs. Stark poverty has pushed parents to pull their kids out of school and make them work. Forget about providing them a nourishing diet because the prices of essential commodities have shot through the roof. Even with free rice (Modi rice) people still need to buy meat, vegetables, dal, tea leaves, all of which are unaffordable for an average lower middle income family that inhabit our villages – villages that have no roads or very bad roads where power is not assured and water supply is an unfulfilled promise. The Jal Jeevan Mission actually needs urgent auditing because while pipes are fitted everywhere all the flows through the pipes are hot air!
It is to such a destitute population that the VPP’s appeal resonated the most. What politicians don’t learn or learn too late is that the roots of political dysfunction lie deep in society. Politics in Meghalaya has become a game of the “high level” with people seen as an entity that can be made to vote by offering them some crumbs. What is Rs 2000 or even 5000 in today’s inflationary trends. A gas cylinder itself costs close to Rs 1000. This is the socio-economic context in which large swathes of Meghalaya’s population live in and politics is embedded in this social context. The poorer people are the more alienated they feel and the more do they see voting as an exercise that enables one person to get rich overnight. That person contesting is not even one of them. He lives elsewhere far from the daily ground that pinches them. He is only a visitor to the constituency. This has been the plaint of people in the villages I visit every now and again. During the campaign period everyone said, “Lah u prah phei ba peit ia ii ba jot ba pei” (We prefer the VPP with the winnow symbol because they reach out to us honestly and feel our penury). This stance echoed far and wide. Those that can read the signs should understand that the statistic that Meghalaya is the third poorest state in the country is as real as it can get. But who cares about statistics in Meghalaya? This is what the VPP has tapped on.
Coming to the NPP, it is evident that the Party was over-confident about translating all the MLA constituencies into votes for the MP candidate. That would have happened to an extent but the last straw on the camel’s back was broken when an over-confident Conrad Sangma decided to be an ally of the BJP and ride on the popularity of Narendra Modi. That bravado is a nightmare that will keep him awake in a long time. Conrad Sangma in his second term has become over-confident as much as Prime Minister Modi has. Actually, a successful CM and in this case the President of the NPP, has to make decisions while radiating hesitancy; staying open-minded in the face of new evidence and not fall into the trap that afflicts those with excessive self-confidence because politics is too slippery a game even for the veterans.
In the Garo Hills, the NPP’s alliance with the BJP was what turned the tide in favour of the Congress. What is an example that merits to be emulated is that people were spontaneous in their support of Congress candidate Saleng Sangma. They donated generously to the expenses. Perhaps they were disillusioned by an MP who was distant and not with the people at their hour of need. This is also a lesson to future politicians not to take peoples’ affection and their loyalty for granted. It is unfortunate that the Congress candidate in Shillong could not generate as much following as Saleng Sangma. The campaign was staid and unimaginative. Perhaps if a younger candidate like Manuel Badwar had contested it would have been a different fight.
As far as the UDP is concerned, it remains a party that hunts with the hare and hunts with the hounds. It is a regional party only during elections and then slips back into a comfort zone of aligning with national parties. That’s its raison d’être for as long as one can remember. But the UDP is smugly arrogant and believes the VPP will have a short-lived love affair with the people that elected it to the Lok Sabha because the populism with which it rode to victory will be a tough act to follow. They are not too far off the mark in this! The VPP has not been in the seat of power yet and can only hope to be in the driving seat in 2028. But even then, without any footfall in Garo Hills it will be difficult for any party to even dream of piloting the state. The VPP has already alienated the Garos by its demand for a revision of the Reservation Policy. How the Party deals with his enigma is for them to figure out. Its not the business of political spectators to even contemplate on that.
A congenital disorder afflicting political leaders is arrogance. Meghalaya is a tiny state. Its politicians need to converge on some of the thorny issues that afflict this state. Political ideologies are meaningless if they turn people into arch enemies. A political ideology is something that is crafted after consulting with the hoi-polloi. It is not drafted by intellectuals/academics with no idea of the ground realities. But from years of observing state politics one discerns a strange political arrogance that prevents politicians from cutting across party lines to debate as a group and (not as rivals wanting to score brownie points) on issues that defy solution in Meghalaya. Psychologists aver that arrogance is a sign of insecurity and low self-esteem, and it can damage relationships and reputation. Political parties should learn to listen to one another instead of talking over each other. Every political party has something to contribute towards the thinking process so that all the thinking is not left to the bureaucracy. And in Meghalaya we have a bureaucracy that has outsourced that thinking to a plethora of consultants. An audit of how much is paid to those consultants and what are the outputs and outcomes would reveal that there has been no discernible impact on the ground.
Some politicians have said that the VPP won on emotive issues and a populist agenda – which it may or may not be able to fulfil. For large sections of voters, the voting this time was an expression of frustration against the ruling party and it’s apathy towards their agony. The VPP stepped into this vacuum of a huge trust deficit and convinced people that it represents their concerns which has hitherto been ignored by a government run by a class of affluent elites. Social media has added spice and fired people’s imaginations as to what ‘people’ power which is what the VPP has turned itself into, can actually do if given the mandate.
There is enough literature to tell us that populism is not sustainable in the long run because converting political promises into ground-breaking action is a tall order in a state with limited resources and huge developmental gaps. Most parties that ride on the wave of populism soon become mainstream and then follow the conventional route. Of course, this conclusion rests on the understanding of populism being purely a short-term challenger actor and an episodic phenomenon. However, the VPP will contest this and say it will remain on the straight and narrow. Well for the sake of the millions that have voted for this Party of the “People” we hope that their hopes are not dashed to the ground. Long live Democracy!


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