Northeast in the age of coalition politics: The touchstone of Meghalaya

By Sanjoy Hazarika, IANS,

The new council of ministers, with a predominance of Congress representatives, shows a fascinating compromise that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi as well as their chief aides, not least Rahul Gandhi, have manoeuvred. And nowhere is the delicate, difficult and thankless task of coalition building seen best as in the case of little Meghalaya where both members of parliament have found a place.

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The reason is not far to seek: it is an interesting reflection of the complex and inconsistent reality both of Indian politics as well as of the immense challenges that the Northeast presents to New Delhi.

In one way it’s simple: Purno Sangma’s daughter, Agatha, won from the Tura constituency which was her father’s fiefdom for 30 years. The youngest member of the Lok Sabha at 28, she defeated her nearest rival, Deborah Marak, by a bare 17,945 votes. It was clearly a close call and her opponent, a former minister in the state government, gave her a tough fight.

But the facts are much more complex – first, Agatha defeated a candidate from the very Congress party which is allied to her party, the Nationalist Congress Party of her father and Sharad Pawar, in other parts of the country. Yet in Meghalaya, the two parties are at daggers drawn, with Sangma first cobbling together an anti-Congress coalition and the Congress having its revenge by toppling Sangma’s coalition a few months later.

Secondly, to placate the state Congress, the party leadership had no option but to also give the party’s winner in Shillong, Vincent Pala, who in contrast to Agatha, won by over 100,000 votes, a minister of state post. Pala is a Khasi, the majority tribe in Meghalaya, and Agatha is Garo, and the relationship between the two regions and ethnic groups is, to put it mildly, not particularly charged with bonhomie.

So, as a result, as of now, there are three ministers from the Northeast (if you exclude the prime minister who is elected to the Rajya Sabha from Assam), two first-timers from one of the smallest states of the country, not just of the region – Meghalaya has a population of about two million – and a cabinet minister, Bijoy Krishna Handique from Assam. Handique is one of the longest serving MPs from the state and was a minister of state in the earlier Manmohan Singh ministry. There are a total of 25 MPs from the Northeast region, of which 13 are from the Congress. Noises are being heard in Assam about the lack of representation of the state.

In Delhi’s balancing act, at least two interesting figures from the Northeast were left out: one is Thokchom Meiyna, the gentle professor of mathematics from Manipur who has been winning elections back to back for the Congress and P.D. Rai, the first IIT and IIM graduate to make to the Lok Sabha ever. ‘PD’, as he is known, is an ecologist and management specialist, who would have done well in government, given his experience back home. He was elected from Sikkim on a Peoples Democratic Front (PDF) ticket. Incidentally, the PDF made a clean sweep of all 32 state assembly seats (the state legislature was elected at the same time) and is allied with the Congress. There is quite frankly the need for better representation of the region’s ethnic, social and political diversity.

What is also interesting to note is that the new kid off the block in Assam’s politics, the Assam United Democratic Front of Baddruddin Ajmal, the perfume baron from central Assam, may have won only Ajmal’s own seat but it ensured the defeat of the Congress in no less than three seats, including the crushing failure of former Industries Minister Santosh Mohon Dev who trailed Ajmal in his home constituency of Silchar (the BJP won the seat). And interestingly – and adding to the complexity – it ensured the defeat of the regional Asom Gana Parishad in two constituencies.

(29.05.2009 – Sanjoy Hazarika can be contacted at [email protected])