Congress gambles to upset Sangma

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Veteran Sangma has never lost an election since he made his debut in 1977
Veteran Sangma has never lost an election since he made his debut in 1977. Photo: UB Photos

Once the most prominent face of the Congress, former Lok Sabha Speaker PA Sangma has been fighting a lonely battle for the past 15 years. In 1999, Sangma left the party along with Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar to form the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), as a mark of protest on the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin.

While the Pawar-led NCP made its peace with the Congress, Sangma stood his ground, inviting further acrimony in his relationship with the Congress and the NCP. Later, while he softened his stand, he remained steadfast in his opposition to Sonia. And swore hostility to the Congress in his own backyard.

The Congress president has since reached out to many leaders who had then fallen out with her on the issue of her foreign origin and broken away from the party. Even Mamata Banerjee, who was initially opposed to Sonia, allied herself to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. But, Sonia did not extend the olive branch to Sangma.

After seven years of obscurity, Sangma is now trying to make a comeback into national politics. He will contest from his stronghold — the Tura constituency, represented by his daughter Agatha Sangma — on a National People’s Party (NPP) ticket, the party he formed in 2012, after a fallout with Pawar on the issue of contesting the presidential poll against Pranab Mukherjee.

In the 2013 Assembly polls in Meghalaya, the NPP received a severe drubbing at the hands of the Congress. In his own backyard of the Garo Hills, Sangma’s party managed to win only two of the 24 seats in the region. The Congress, under the leadership of Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, made inroads into the once-impregnable citadel of the Sangma family.

When Sangma stepped down as an MP in 2008 to focus on state politics, his agenda was clear: to secure the political future of his children. Sangma wanted to claim the chief minister’s chair. But things did not go as planned.

Although he came close to leading a coalition government following the 2008 Assembly polls, the alliance with the United Democratic Party (UDP) collapsed in less than a year. His decision to run for the presidential polls followed his announcement to launch the NPP ahead of the 2013 Assembly polls.

For Sangma, his family and his party, the battle for the Tura Lok Sabha seat is one of prestige and political survival. The NPP has allied itself to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). And with the BJP aiming for 272-plus seats, its top leaders feel that Sangma can help them make inroads into the Northeast, particularly Meghalaya, which has of late been having law and order issues.

“I am not contesting the Lok Sabha polls. My father will contest from Tura,” says Agatha Sangma, who resigned from the NCP on 7 March to join the NPP. “He is a veteran leader from the region and his charisma works in the Garo Hills.” The party has asked the BJP to come to an arrangement that will allow it to contest from at least nine seats in six states, Tura being the most prominent.

Sangma has represented the Tura constituency eight times in the Lok Sabha and was Meghalaya’s chief minister in 1988-90. He needs to hold on to his Garo bastion if he has to be politically relevant.

“I had to consider the demands of the people from the grassroots, who had made an appeal to me to return. We have been in an alliance with the NDA since January 2013. They also wanted me to contest the polls, and I decided to take the plunge,” he says. “This General Election will be different from last year’s Assembly election. Then, the electorate wasn’t familiar with our party symbol. We have learnt our lesson and have worked out our plan accordingly. The ground is ready and we have done our calculations. Moreover, I have never lost an election.”

According to sources, the BJP is banking on two leaders to gain a toehold in the Northeast: Sangma and Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphu Rio, who is also contesting the lone Lok Sabha seat in Nagaland. Both the leaders have been assured a Cabinet berth if they win from their respective constituencies and the NDA comes to power. With the law and order situation in Meghalaya spiralling out of control in the backdrop of secessionist movements, Sangma plans to make it an important election issue.

But the ride to Parliament will be bumpy. The Congress, which rules Meghalaya, is eyeing all the 25 seats in the Northeast and will leave no stone unturned to upset Sangma. The party has risked it all and fielded a debutant youngster as its candidate against Sangma. Daryl William Cheran Momin, 27, is a lightweight compared to Sangma, but the Congress is banking on his lineage to wrest Tura from the veteran leader.

Momin joined the Congress in 2012, when he returned to Tura after completing his MBA in Australia. His grandfather, Captain Williamson Sangma, was the first chief minister of Meghalaya and founded the separate hill state movement in 1954. Williamson pleaded for the establishment of a separate state to be carved out of Assam.

In 1960, when Assamese was declared as the state language, the demand gained momentum under his leadership. He issued an ultimatum to the Assam government and resigned from his Cabinet position to lead the demand for a separate state. On 24 December 1969, Parliament passed the Assam Reorganisation (Meghalaya) Bill to create the state of Meghalaya. Finally, on 21 January 1972, Meghalaya was carved out of Assam, a success attributed to Williamson.

Momin’s candidature comes at a time when Meghalaya is witnessing an uprising among the three major ethic groups in the state that are demanding separate states for themselves.

“Rahul Gandhi wants to take this country forward with youth. Momin carries a legacy and he will work hard for the state. PA Sangma has done nothing for Garo Hills. His party was rejected in the last Assembly election when the Garos voted for the Congress. This time again, it will be the Congress that wins Tura,” says CM Mukul Sangma, who is masterminding Momin’s campaign.

The Meghalaya Assembly has already passed a resolution against the idea of a separate Garoland. By fielding Momin, the Congress is trying to strike an emotional chord with the people by highlighting Williamson’s struggle for a separate Meghalaya and the unity of the tribes.

“The Lok Sabha election is a different ball game. Sangma has never lost from Tura and is still a name to reckon with. The Congress has tried to spring a surprise, and Momin carries a legacy, but Meghalaya and its people have more or less forgotten Williamson’s struggle. The youth do not know their own history because it is not part of their textbooks. Now, the ideas of division of Meghalaya have taken charge of the discourse. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Sangma allies with the idea of Garoland, at least for the sake of rhetoric,” explains Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times.

In the 2013 Assembly election, the Congress had won 16 of the 36 Assembly seats in the parliamentary constituency. In the 24 seats that constitute Tura parliamentary constituency, the Congress won 13 seats.

While Sangma always had the distinction of winning the seat by record margins, daughter Agatha could retain the seat only by a margin of 17,945 votes in 2009 when she contested against Congress leader Deborah C Marak, currently the state’s social welfare minister.

“None of his children are as popular as him. When Sangma campaigns in the Garo Hills, he is charismatic. I still believe his magic works,” says 47-year-old Joseph Momin, an NPP supporter.

The Congress has put its best foot forward to stop Sangma in Tura. On 18 March, Rahul Gandhi flew in for a rally at Resubelpara in Garo Hills. While introducing his party’s candidate to the voters, the Gandhi scion claimed that the Congress has an ambitious plan to connect Meghalaya with the rest of the country. “Voting for the Congress would mean people of Garo Hills would support development. For decades, nothing has been done for you. The opposition believes in centralisation of power and communal politics,” Rahul said, an obvious reference to Sangma.

For Rahul, connecting with the crowd at Tura was important. His party is taking on Sangma, who had once vehemently opposed his mother. However, the other scion is fighting his maiden electoral battle, sandwiched between his grandfather’s legacy and the political might of his opponent. “I am not scared, I appreciate and acknowledge PA Sangma’s contribution,” says a smiling Momin. “Perhaps, after my grandfather, he is Meghalaya’s most successful leader, but I have my own vision for progress and development. My core action plan will be to strengthen the human resource development and capacity building among the youth.”

The question is will the Garo Hills buy his mantra and reject a man they have chosen for over three decades?

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