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Meghalaya Coup and Falling Bastions of Congress in North East

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In yet another setback to the Congress, this time in Meghalaya, 12 of its MLAs joined Trinamool Congress. The development is a major boost for West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee, who has been trying to expand her party's footprint beyond her native state.

By Pollob Kishor Phukan

It is now beyond doubt that one leader who looks eager to take on the juggernaut of the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2024 would be the Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee for she is on a hunt of the Congressmen wherever found. In the most dramatic political coup, 12 of the 17 Congress MLAs in Meghalaya have joined the TMC which gives an unimaginable expanse to the West Bengal-based party in the North East, its natural backyard. This means that the party has shifted in almost lock, stock and barrel when the defecting MLAs wrote a letter to the Assembly Speaker informing him of their change of status. This means that now the TMC will be the principal opposition party in the state which, a night ago, had no presence at all in the state. 

What is astonishing is that Mukul Sangma, who was Congress’ Chief Minister of the state from 2010 to 2018, has also joined Mamata’s party. The plight of the Congress party continues in the North East. The exodus of the Congressmen will be called a merger and wouldn’t come under the Anti-Defection Law as more than two-third of the MLAs of the party in the Assembly have decided to do so. 

The Meghalaya Trinamool Congress was launched back in 2012 to contest 35 of the state's 60 seats. Now Mukul Sangma has said that Prashant Kishore was in constant touch with them and had advised them to take this action. Kishore had done the same act a few months back when he had got former Goa Chief Minister and Congress leader LuizinhoFaleiro into the TMC to find possibilities for the TMC in Goa. The inability of the Congress is that it doesn’t seem to have a roadmap as to how to undo the damage in Meghalaya or make a turnaround in the North East where it has lost one state after the other. 

Mamata Banerjee is expanding her base in all directions. The Meghalaya episode happened just after a day when the TMC had welcomed senior Congress leaders Kirti Azad and Ashok Tanwar. Also, Pawan Varma, who was ousted from Janata Dal (United), joined the party in Delhi in the presence of Mamata Banerjee. What is astonishing this time is that there was no meeting between Sonia Gandhi and her, and the Congress refrained from supporting the protest of the TMC when Mamata herself led at the Union Ministry of Home Affairs against the alleged police action against TMC workers in Tripura. When a reporter asked Mamata why she was not meeting Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Mamata retorted, “it isn’t ‘constitutionally mandated’ to meet Sonia Gandhi every time I visit Delhi.” 

TMC is already making inroads in Assam, Goa, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Haryana primarily at the cost of the Congress. The earlier Congress entrants in the party included late President Pranab Mukherjee's son Abhijit Mukherjee and Sushmita Dev, the former Congress parliamentarian from Assam and daughter of Santosh Mohan Dev. 

Failure of the high command 

Just after a day of the coup, Mukul Sangma said in a press conference in Shillong that the Congress leadership in Delhi could not respond well to the call of duty as being the principal opposition party in the state. “I’m sorry to say that in spite of all our efforts and endeavours, a solution seems to be elusive. We tried our best to prevail upon the leadership and kept on making trips after trips to Delhi, which should have been the other way round. But even after that we failed to prevail upon the leadership,” said Sangma. For the political analysts, the words look like the repetition of what has happened with ex-Congress stalwart and present Assam Chief Minister Hemant BiswaSarma, who too, was disgruntled by the high command and had quit the grand old party to join the BJP. The Congress leadership had several meetings with Sangma but could not find a solution to end the rebellion. 

Sangma, in fact, also seemed in attacking mode towards his previous party when he said, “We cannot fight the BJP with kid gloves and lip service.” For Prashant Kishore, Sangma apprised that he and Kishore have common objectives for the people of the state and the nation. 

The loss of North East 

Meghalaya is the latest addition to the non-stop decimation of the grand old party. The Meghalaya politics revolves around the three key tribes of the state– Garo, Khasi and Jaintia. The last two had seldom supported the Congress and it was the Garo community which kept the Congress in power, no matter what. Now, the outgoing leader Mukul Sangma is a Garo and he enjoys the support of the Sangma community considerably which means that Congress’ support base may virtually come to an end in the state. This is because the other stalwart of the Garo – late PN Sangma– who broke from the Congress and then from the NCP, has now his children running their own party which is in alliance with the BJP in the state and has formed the government. Similarly, Assam is too fresh a story to be narrated here where the Congress has lost two consecutive elections with about the same arithmetic in terms of seats and vote share. 

The BJP and the RSS have a renewed focus on the North East which was neglected for long by the Congress. The grand old party’s key loss is Himanta Biswa Sarma, the present Chief Minister of Assam, who not just took Assam away but the entire North East from the Congress. One should look at the political acumen of the saffron party and its willingness to accommodate diverse forces; several states and pockets have Christian and tribal majority along with having complications with the CAA or NRC where the party continues to flourish. 

Look at Manipur, the Congress here had far more seats than the BJP and needed just three more to form the government but owing to the lethargy of the Congress and the swiftness of the saffron party, a post-poll alliance with Naga People’s Front, Naga People’s Party and Lok Janshakti Party for the NDA was formed and they are running a government quite peacefully since then. In the Assembly of 60, Congress had 28 seats and the BJP had 21 in 2017 polls. 

Arunachal Pradesh was the bastion of the Congress. Back in 2016, Pema Khandu, the Chief Minister of the party, moved with 44 of the 45 Congress MLAs to the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA) which is an ally in the NDA bringing a virtual end to Congress’ monopoly in the Assembly of 60 seats. This episode was another example of the inability of the central leadership to quell dissatisfaction among the local leaders. In December same year, Khandu migrated to the BJP with more than two third of PPA MLAs, gifting the state of Arunachal from the Congress to the BJP. 

The story of Tripura is more telling than others. Congress was the only other party apart from the Left that was meaningful in the state. In the last Assembly election of 2018, its entire vote bank shifted to the BJP, thanks to the infighting in the Congress, which got about 44 per cent vote share and Congress, which earlier had the same vote share which the BJP got this time, was reduced to less than two per cent. Today, the BJP has a comfortable majority. 

Today, the North East stands virtually disconnected with the Congress and the party must decide without wasting any time whether it intends to see itself a relevant player in the region. This is because the space it’s leaving is being and will be filled by more competent players and TMC is just one of them.

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