First off the block, will he finish last?


PA Sangma plays the tribal card in his bid for Rashtrapati Bhavan. But the math is likely to mar his ambitions, says Revati Laul

Hope floats: The BJD and AIADMK are backing PA Sangma’s ambitions
Hope floats: The BJD and AIADMK are backing PA Sangma’s ambitions, Photo: Vijay Pandey

IN A country where the Women’s Reservation Bill hasn’t been passed in Parliament for nearly 10 years and crimes against women are constantly on the rise, we have just had a woman President. And now, from Odisha, where tribal agitations have been brutally crushed by the police, the Biju Janata Dal government has come up with its own tribal appeasement plan — by nominating former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Sangma, a tribal Roman Catholic, as their candidate for President.

Sangma was the Speaker from 1996 to 1998 and was the chief minister of Meghalaya from 1988 to 1990 as part of the Congress party. However, in 1999, another face of this tribal leader emerged. When he joined Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar, demanding that Sonia Gandhi should not be allowed to become prime minister because she was a foreigner. All three were sacked from the party and they formed the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

Since then, however, Pawar has managed to get a foot back in the UPA door and make peace with Sonia. This blew a cold drift between Pawar and Sangma, who walked out of the NCP and made friends with the Trinamool Congress. A year later, he was back in the NCP.

The sum total of Sangma’s political trajectory after he joined the NCP is at best complicated; at worst, political wilderness. Even as his daughter Agatha Sangma became the youngest MP in 2009 and was subsequently nominated as the minister of state for rural development, her father was still making anti-Congress statements. “The NCP should dump the Congress,” he had said.

Sangma’s own party, the NCP, disagrees. Pawar has said that the party will back the UPA nominee for President. Meanwhile, Sangma’s bid has also become a campaign for AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa. Her motives, say sources, is to carve out a political space that is equidistant from both the UPA and the NDA. There is also a sizeable Christian population in Tamil Nadu.

But support from just two parties does not a hopeful make. So far, the Left parties have not made their stand clear. Neither has the BJP, which prefers to wait for the UPA to put out a name. As UPA allies splutter and bicker over scams and abominably high petrol prices, the silence on who their candidate will be is telling. Of desperate and harried backroom conversations with key allies such as Mamata Banerjee and M Karunanidhi and also potential supporters like Mulayam Singh Yadav. No consensus has emerged yet.

Meanwhile, at the UPA’s third anniversary dinner, some things became clearer. Pawar was there; Sangma, the tribal-Christian President hopeful, was not. His request to meet Sonia Gandhi was ignored. The UPA collectively has about 40 percent of the electoral college’s vote share, depending on how Mamata, who did not attend the celebratory dinner, feels. Her party accounts for 45,000 votes. The biggest numbers from non-UPA, non-NDA parties come from the Samajwadi Party, which has more than 66,000 votes. Many say Mulayam’s seating arrangement at the UPA dinner, right next to Sonia, could be read as a positive sign.

Still, for Sangma or any other candidate to beat these numbers, s/he would need the collective support of all the Left parties and the NDA, which accounts for 25 percent of the votes.

Either way, in his hometown, Tura, Sangma’s bid for President is being watched closely, and by some who have seen him over time, cynically. A former colleague Mukul Das, who is a Congress party member, says he’d be happy if Sangma won, for the light it may shine on Meghalaya, even though his support will be for the UPA candidate. Dr Milton Sangma, the former Pro Vice-Chancellor of the North East Hill University, was much more candid. “Purno is always after power,” he says. “His stature is diminishing in Meghalaya because he makes promises but doesn’t deliver. He is trying to make up for what he could not get here.”

Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.


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