Tuesday, July 23, 2024

And the winner is…the voter…who should not be taken for granted


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By Andrew W Lyngdoh

The gruelling 2024 Lok Sabha polls has taught politicians and political parties umpteen lessons. But the biggest takeaway from the hustings was that the voter should never be taken for granted. The BJP’s ‘Abki Baar, 400 Paar’ ended in a whimper much to the chagrin of its top leadership who thought that their divisive speeches, communalism, parochialism and hyper nationalism would get the votes they desired. But the voter had other things in mind. Although the voters did not overwhelmingly vote for the BJP, yet it could form a coalition government with the help of its allies under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). For now, India has a coalition government, a thing which was missing, in the real sense, for the last 10 years of Narendra Modi though the last two governments were dubbed as NDA governments.
Coming to Meghalaya, the drubbing of the ruling National People’s Party (NPP) was on expected lines though the victory margin of the MP-elect in Shillong and Tura took many by surprise. Who would have thought that the voters of Tura Parliamentary Constituency would dethrone Purno Agitok Sangma’s progeny by a massive margin? Who would have dreamt that a soft-spoken Assistant Professor at the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) would relegate the NPP candidate to the third position? In more than a year, the NPP’s vote share in Meghalaya dropped drastically.
Winning in 26 out of 60 Assembly constituencies in the 2023 polls, the NPP’s vote share was a staggering 31.49% (5,84,337 votes). Fast forward to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, and the NPP garnered 4,15,166 votes – 2,28,678 votes from across 24 Assembly segments in the Garo Hills region, and a mere 1,86,488 votes from 36 Assembly segments in the Khasi Jaiñtia Hills region. Agreed that a general State Assembly poll is different from a general Lok Sabha election. Voters vote differently in different elections, but this year, the NPP’s drubbing was much more than just voting differently.
Let us come to the Khasi Jaiñtia Hills region. The Voice of the People Party (VPP) has undoubtedly cemented its place in Meghalaya politics. There is no looking back for the Ardent Miller Basaïawmoit-led party. By winning in 32 out of 36 Assembly segments, the people had given a decisive mandate to the party candidate, Dr Ricky Andrew J Syngkon, who could garner a staggering 55.02% of the votes polled. This is stupendous by any measure. The exit poll of ‘India Today-My Axis India’ got it right on the Shillong Parliamentary Constituency and the vote share of the winning candidate. But the same exit poll got it completely wrong for the Tura Parliamentary Constituency. Hence, the writing on the wall was clear since day one that the people wanted change. The anti-incumbency wave against the then sitting MP of the Congress, Vincent H Pala, the uninspiring candidature of Dr M Ampareen Lyngdoh from the NPP, and the negativity, which surrounded the NPP-led Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA-II), pushed the voters to the VPP.
Right from the start, the NPP candidate and the ‘star campaigners’ made unmissable errors. By unnecessarily attacking the VPP instead of projecting the achievements of the MDA government since 2018, the candidate and the campaigners fell into a massive trap. Knowingly or unwittingly, they played directly into the hands of their political opponents. The NPP State President, Prestone Tynsong, was never taken seriously by any serious voter. The Deputy Chief Minister representing Pynursla constituency has been a subject of ridicule from many quarters principally due to his own illogical utterances in every campaign. He needs to do some serious introspection before he brings himself and the entire NPP down to the pits. Defending Tynsong is defending the indefensible. But it was not just Tynsong. Nearly every known campaigner was bashing the VPP on trivial issues instead of focusing on the NPP’s agenda. Of course, the NPP had to defend and clarify on allegations leveled by its opponents. But the manner in which it was done, made even fence sitters jump to the VPP. Negative political campaigning can win you some elections, but not every election.
It was also shocking that the NPP agreed to align with the BJP and for the latter to decide not to field candidates from both the constituencies. It was a grave mistake. Electoral politics is like a game of chess, one wrong move, you are checkmated, and you would have to wait for another five years. Had the BJP set up its own candidates, perhaps the drubbing would not have been severe. In fact, the BJP karyakartas were upbeat as they were inspired by their mascot, Narendra Modi, and the party’s slogan of ‘Abki Baar, 400 Paar.’ But all the excitement went down the drain. From the Shillong Parliamentary Constituency, the BJP had garnered around 76,000 votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. In 2024, the transfer of BJP votes to the NPP was not visible. The NPP could win in only one of the two Assembly segments held by the BJP. Clearly, the alliance did not work. The same was with the Tura Parliamentary Constituency where the alliance did more harm than good to the NPP. But we cannot expect the NPP to sever ties with the BJP especially when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is back at the helm of affairs in New Delhi. It would be politically unwise to cut ties with the BJP and after knowing fully well how vindictive the BJP leadership could be against its opponents.
What should worry the NPP in the Khasi Jaiñtia Hills is that it lost in 9 out of 10 Assembly segments represented by its MLAs. The lead taken by the VPP was massive as well. The Party’s MLA and MP candidate could also win by a small margin from her own backyard. Clearly, the party organisation was at the receiving end. It had no answers to counter the VPP in spite of the many flaws of the VPP in its campaign trail. Instead of a pro-active campaign, the NPP was busy reacting to the narrative set by the VPP. The VPP could capture the imagination of the voters, especially women and youth, as it won the perception battle. Soon after the general Assembly polls in 2023, the VPP did not rest. It went hammer and tongs against the NPP-led government in every village and town. The NPP, on the other hand, was laid-back. It did not imagine that the scale of VPP’s interactions with the voters even after the elections had concluded, would create a massive negative perception leading to its ultimate decimation at the hustings.
Politics is all about perception. Reality seldom matters. The one who wins the perception battle, emerges victorious. The NPP had lost the perception battle in the Khasi Jaiñtia Hills much before the 2023 Assembly polls thanks to its motor-mouths, inability to counter narratives (example: the allegation that this government is by the ‘high-level’, of the ‘high-level’ and for the ‘high-level’), perception that the government is run by a few bureaucrats while those who were elected by the people hardly have any say, ineffectiveness of social media campaigns (on the road to 2018, the NPP was very effective on social media), absence of a proper information dissemination system to tell voters what the NPP government has done, is doing and will be doing for them. In short, whatever achievements to its credit have been overshadowed by negativity. How the NPP counters these challenges will remain to be seen.
For the Congress, it was a humiliating loss. The contesting candidate, Vincent H Pala, who was blamed for the Congress exodus in 2021, had to eat humble pie after winning in the last three consecutive elections. With no organisation at the grassroots, and with only few legislators, it was a daunting task for Pala unlike in 2019 where it was a cakewalk. Before his humbling defeat, the former MP could not win in the 2023 Assembly polls from his home constituency of Sutnga-Saipung in East Jaiñtia Hills. Before and after the polls on April 19, 2024, there were Chinese whispers that Pala would attract the ‘silent voters’, and that he could be on his way to Parliament for the fourth consecutive term. But that was not to be. Perhaps, even the silent voters became louder for the VPP. We have to wait and watch whether a rejuvenated Congress would replace him as the Meghalaya PCC chief. The Congress undoubtedly needs a politician to run its affairs. The last thing it requires while on the path to recovery is a businessman leading the party. But over the years, the line separating politicians and businessmen in Meghalaya, have been blurred.
Coming to the Regional Democratic Alliance (RDA) – an electoral umbrella of the United Democratic Party (UDP) and the Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP) – There was no ambiguity that it would be decimated at the polls. Its candidate, a greenhorn in electoral politics, was unable to garner even the support of the two HSPDP legislators whose effigies were set on fire by a pressure group, which was then led by the RDA candidate himself, after the 2023 Assembly polls, at Motphran. Moreover, many of the regional voters had decided that the VPP should be the one replacing the UDP/HSPDP as the principal regional party in the Khasi Jaiñtia Hills. Observers say that this would be manifested in the Autonomous District Council polls if the current VPP wave holds till then, and that the UDP/HSPDP could be wiped out. However, politics is dynamic.
A word for Meghalaya Chief Minister and NPP Chief, Conrad K Sangma. Ever since he started his career in electoral politics, he is seen as well-meaning, amiable, accommodative, non-confrontational, and a consensus-building figure. But every political leader has to face challenges, and he will be assessed by how he handles those challenges. Of course, the drubbing of the NPP at the hustings is a massive setback for Conrad and team. There are no two ways about it. He is also to be blamed for the lacklustre performance being the party Chief. But to say that the Lok Sabha outcome was a mandate against Conrad Sangma is politically puerile. For now Conrad needs to reinvent his mojo. Time is there for course correction. What he does henceforth and how he does it, will make the difference. He also needs to tighten his grip on governance, bureaucracy, and the party (in that order) before it turns out to be ‘too little, too late’.
All have learnt their lessons from this mega Lok Sabha polls. In Meghalaya, it was the most hotly-contested parliamentary elections ever, and it would be etched in people’s memory for a long time. But as the dust has settled and the EVMs are back to their backyards, it is time to govern, legislate, and fulfil promises. People will evaluate. At the end of five years, they will decide. From this election, we hope that the voters have comprehended the power of ‘one vote’. It made a difference in 2024. It will make a difference in many other elections as well. As long as voters do not take the ‘one vote’ for granted, no political power would ever dream of taking the voter for a ride.
(The writer is a Shillong-based journalist)

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