Running One Race to Win Another


PA Sangma’s desire to run for President is a calculated move to sway voters in the Meghalaya Assembly elections, says Ratnadip Choudhury

Sangma in Assembly with sons James and Conrad
Family house Sangma in Assembly with sons James and Conrad
Photo: UB Photos

WHEN PURNO Agitok Sangma resigned from his Tura Lok Sabha seat to come back to Meghalaya politics in 2008, his agenda was clear — to guide the NCP in Meghalaya, and secure the political future of his children.

Sangma would have even taken up the chief minister’s post, but his party could not win enough seats to edge out the Congress. Though the NCP did form a coalition government with a bunch of regional parties, it ultimately crumbled, and the Congress came back to power. Ever since, Sangma has remained an MLA from Tura, his comeback to state politics not going as planned. Seen against this, his desire to run for president assumes an interesting colour.

“Many were taken by surprise when PA Sangma joined the race to Rashtrapati Bhavan,” says senior journalist and Meghalaya MLA Manas Chaudhuri. “One would expect him to stay in Meghalaya and guide his children and party to the 2013 Assembly poll in the state. The Sangma family is expected to face a tough test even in their stronghold of Garo Hills. The work done by Chief Minister Mukul Sangma in Garo Hills would pose a challenge to the popularity of PA Sangma. He cannot open too many fronts.” Between 1998 and 2003, Meghalaya has seen six governments and four chief ministers. The Mukul Sangma regime has been able to bring in a sense of stability.

Despite having friends across political parties, PA Sangma’s clout is only confined to the districts of Garo Hills. Even within Meghalaya, he has always relied on the support of smaller parties and independents from the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. These groups can just as easily side with the Congress.

Adding to the former NCP leader’s worries are CM Mukul Sangma’s growing popularity as the new face of Garo politics, unreliable regional partners and the inability of his children to fit into his shoes. Neither sons, Conrad and James, nor daughter, Agatha, have distinguised themselves politically; Purno knows they cannot piggyback on his popularity for much longer. Even if he were to join the NCP again after the dust settles on the presidential row — and this, many suspect, is likely to happen — the party, which has 13 MLAs in Meghalaya, would need at least 25 seats of its own in 2013 to become a major player in the 60-member Assembly.

Sangma is no run-of-the-mill politician, and he knows how to deal a hand. “PA Sangma could not generate trust among regional party leaders in Meghalaya as he has stayed away from state politics for quite some time,” adds Manas Chaudhuri.

It is also being said that Sangma had thrown his hat in the ring for the presidential candidate with the 2013 Assembly polls and 2014 Lok Sabha elections in mind. By portraying himself as the candidate of the tribals and Christians, he has taken a calculated risk that should serve him well in the long run.

Before the presidential race put the spotlight back on him, Sangma was on his way to oblivion in Meghalaya. Pictures of him on 24-hour news channels, endorsement from the BJP and AIADMK and support from regional political forces like the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab and Naveen Patnaik in Odisha have given his candidature a national appeal. He knows his voters in the Garo heartland are watching closely. The call to make a tribal Christian president of the nation will be appreciated in Meghalaya, where a majority of the tribals are Christians.

Before jumping into the race for Raisina Hill, Sangma had sunk into oblivion in Meghalaya

By jumping into the presidential poll, Sangma has given himself and his followers a head start, a good seven months ahead of the 2013 Assembly polls. “He has not done enough for Tura; Mukul is doing a better job. But Purno Sangma is a big leader, he is contesting for tribals and Christians and will get support from other tribes as well,” says Derek Marak, a local youth in Tura.

The NCP central leadership would also be aware of this and would not want to let its Northeast base go waste. “The NCP cannot function in the Northeast without Boss (that’s how Sangma is referred to by his followers),” says an NCP MLA on condition of anonymity. “We are told that the NCP’s doors are always open for him.” The Meghalaya NCP believes that a lot of tribal and Christian MPs and MLAs across parties would cast their ‘conscience’ vote in favour of Sangma.

OF LATE, Tura has almost become an equally important city like Shillong. Any new government initiative launched in Shillong gets launched in Tura too. CM Mukul Sangma minces no words when he says Sangma is trying for the post of president because he has failed in Tura. “It is a reflection of his frustration because he has failed in state politics,” says Mukul. “Look at his own constituency. The entire Garo Hills region is in a mess. Go to his and his wife’s village and find out what his contribution has been.”

When Purno Sangma was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1977, the anti-Emergency wave was very strong and only few Congress leaders had won. “He has been a leader who not only knows how to find his way in Delhi, but also make a case for the Northeast,” says senior journalist Sanat K Chakraborty. “But given the positions he has held, perhaps he could have done more for Meghalaya. His commitment to his own constituency has been found lacking at times.”

Sangma’s move is also being seen as an attempt to form a political platform for regional tribal politics with an eye on the 2014 General Election. There are chances that regional players like Naveen Patnaik and Mamata Banerjee might even join him. He has made the Northeast, tribal and Christian cards the mainstay of his political discourse. If he forms a new party, this could work in the NDA’s favour; the BJP would love to back him to show its secular colours.

Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka. 
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