Meghalaya, one of the youngest states in India, has just got its 20th Chief Minister and 24th government. No other state in the country matches this record of instability, dissidence and plain political chicanery that has seen so many Chief Ministers and governments in a short span of just 38 years since the state was born in 1972. Such is the nature of Machiavellian politics in Meghalaya that it offers no terra firma for politicians.
A strange combination of local factors, along with the predilection of politicians in Delhi to interfere in the affairs of this hill state, has made Meghalaya synonymous with political chicanery and an utter lack of political morality. Only two Chief Ministers have been able to complete their full terms; the average tenure of a Chief Minister is 18 months and the briefest stint in office was a mere 12 days! In fact, since Assembly polls in early March 2008, Meghalaya has now seen four governments and three Chief Ministers, interspersed with 45 days of President’s Rule. No other state in India matches this dishonourable record, or even comes close to it.
The primary reason for the nasty political games played here is money. Loose party affiliations—where personalities, rather than the party or an ideology, matter the most, especially during elections—provides fertile ground for myriad political subterfuges that have been the bane of this state. That the three major tribes of Meghalaya—Garos, Khasis and Jaintias—seldom share a common political perspective and vision complicates matters in no small measure.
Robert G Lyngdoh, who held the Home portfolio in two successive Congress governments between 2003 and 2007, tells Open, “One of the major reasons for this political immorality is that people don’t really vote freely and wisely. Almost the entire population of Meghalaya is dependent on the government for all their needs, and in such a scenario, the vital checks and balances necessary in a democracy get skewed. People enter politics to make money, get jobs and contracts for their kith and kin and perpetuate themselves in power.” Toki Blah, who quit the IAS many years ago to run an NGO that focuses on issues of governance, concurs, “Politics in Meghalaya is a means of self-aggrandisement. It is a business and has nothing to do with governance, framing policies and creating effective delivery systems.”
It is the culture of patronage, where even Centrally-funded schemes are arbitrarily implemented at the whims of MLAs, that makes the vast majority of the poor people in this state—more than 50 per cent live below the poverty line—so dependent on venal politicians. Social activist Michael Syiem, a former president of the powerful Khasi Students’ Union, says that money power is eating into the vitals of Meghalaya’s polity. “Do away with the MLAs’ local area development schemes to cut dependence of the poor on legislators’ largesse. The desperately poor people go to MLAs for all their needs, like paying their children’s tuition fees or buying medicines. The MLA has to oblige, and thus has to make money. He also has to make money to distribute large sums of it to his electorate to win the next election. The best way to make money is to hold an office. This race for office leads to immoral deals, resulting in defections, floor crossings and toppling governments,”says Syiem.
Lyngdoh, who quit politics in disillusionment to head the Meghalaya Rural Development Society that strives to improve the livelihood of the vulnerable, says New Delhi was also to blame for Meghalaya’s political mess. “A large part of the money that comes in as development funds is taken back to Delhi as party funds. There’s a lot of interference from outside in the internal politics of this state,” he explains. An irate Lyngdoh once dubbed visiting central Congress leaders “merchants of greed” since they invariably went back with loads of money.
Independent MLA and former Education Minister Manas Chaudhury agrees: “A lot of development funds that come in are siphoned back to Delhi’s politicians.” Inarguably, the Congress as a party has to shoulder a large part of the blame for the state’s dubious political culture. “The Congress has always wanted to break regional parties and buy their MLAs to form governments. It has never believed in the democratic tradition of allowing other parties to survive,” alleges political scientist MR Rynjah. A quick look at Meghalaya’s political history validates this charge. No coalition of non-Congress parties has lasted beyond two years; the Congress has always ‘won over’ MLAs to topple such governments. “This is exactly what happened after the last polls in March 2008 when the Congress, being the single-largest party, was invited to form the government, but resigned after 15 days, just before a trial of strength. An alliance between the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the regional United Democratic Party (UDP), along with Independent MLAs, formed the government. But that was destabilised after exactly one year and some MLAs were ‘won over’. After a brief spell of President’s Rule, the Congress formed the government in alliance with regional parties,” says Rynjah.
The regional parties, wracked by infighting, have only been willing handmaidens of the Congress, and gleefully shared power and loaves of office with the national party. For instance, after his Meghalaya Progressive Alliance (MPA) government was toppled by the Congress last March, ex-CM Donkupar Roy (leader of the regional UDP that had aligned with the NCP to form the MPA government) happily joined hands with the Congress after two months to form a coalition government. Roy now heads the state planning board and enjoys the status of Chief Minister. Two other MLAs also enjoy a similar status in an unprecedented arrangement.
Chaudhury says that the differing perspectives of the three major tribes of the state, their individual manner of looking at politics and polls on local compulsions, all contribute to Meghalaya’s endemic political instability. “The anti-defection law hasn’t helped since it’s blatantly violated. Other measures like limiting the size of the cabinet (Meghalaya once had 42 ministers in a 60-member Assembly!) are circumscribed and rendered ineffective,” he adds.
Nearly every election in Meghalaya throws up a fractured verdict, thus opening the floodgates for political manoeuvrings. A popular joke on politicians in Meghalaya is that they sleep in fits and starts. Because a CM, or a minister, is never sure if his portfolio will still be with him the next morning. But then, there have been instances of precisely this nightmare coming true. The ground beneath a politician’s feet in Meghalaya is truly slippery. And so is his character.