Meghalaya: National Politics in a Small, Tribal, North-East State by Philippe Cullet
SOAS South Asia Institute Scholars on the Indian Elections 2019
Meghalaya is one of the small states of the North-East. It is also one of a handful of tribal-majority states. In this sense, it reflects particularly well the multiplicity of peoples, languages, religions and customs that make up the diverse country that is India. This is particularly important in the context of national elections marked at the national level by a narrative emphasizing the unitary nature of the country. The seven states of the North-East do not fit easily into this narrative and Meghalaya is particularly distinct, as reflected in virtually the whole state being listed under Schedule 6 of the Constitution (Administration of Tribal Areas) adopted to provide specific governance structures in tribal areas of four of the North-East states.
The elections that were held on 11 April in Meghalaya were marked, like in other North-East states, by strong opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (now lapsed) proposed by the BJP that would introduce a new avenue for claiming nationality based on religion. In Meghalaya, this led to the unusual situation of the state government strongly opposing the Bill despite the fact that the BJP is part of the coalition government. The outcome was that parties in coalition at the state level fielded separate candidates for both seats. On their part, the regional parties agreed this time to field common candidates who oppose the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that the BJP has promised to pass if it is brought back to power at the Centre. Overall, the BJP remains a marginal player in Meghalaya (it got only two MLAs in the 2018 state assembly elections) but its stature at the national level ensured that debates at the state level focused in part on the party’s priorities. However, unless this election throws up a major surprise, the candidates most likely to win are those of the Congress and regional parties.
Regardless of who wins, this election will have been marked by a schism between people’s perceptions of important issues for the state and what candidates debated. On the one hand, candidates argued among each other on issues like the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and the coal mining ban. On the other hand, voters complained that what they saw as real issues were not debated, such as education, quality healthcare, increasing prices of LPG and petroleum products and growing unemployment. This is confirmed by a survey organized by the Association for Democratic Reforms, which noted that top priorities for voters included agricultural subsidies for seeds and fertilizers, availability of water for agriculture and higher price realisation for farm products in rural areas and school education, better roads and subsidized food/rations in urban areas.
In small states, national elections provide an opportunity to reflect on local priorities in the context of country-wide priorities and to make a contribution to national debates. On the one hand, this pushes many voters to vote for national level parties in the hope of leveraging the limited influence of their state. On the other hand, in a state like Meghalaya with very distinct characteristics, regional parties are in principle better placed to address local concerns. In practice, however elections are often driven by allegiance to a particular candidate or party, which explains in part why the voters’ main concerns do not necessarily get reflected well in election debates.
About the author: Philippe Cullet is Professor of international and environmental law at SOAS. His main areas of interest include environmental law, natural resources, human rights and the socio-economic aspects of intellectual property. Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org