In a land where the day begins at 4 am, 8 am is almost mid-day. And the A'chikrangni Raja — King of the Garos, as Purno Agitok Sangma (61) is referred to in eulogies in Meghalaya — has to cover 200 km and several rallies across the hills.
A fairly large crowd, gathered outside Sangma’s palatial house in the upscale Walbakggre locality in Tura, the nerve centre of the Garo Hills of Meghalaya, breaks into spontaneous applause as he zooms out in a Toyota Corolla, a little past 8 am.
It hasn’t rained in days and the weather is hot. After about 15 minutes, the small motorcade comes to a halt near the town bazaar. Sangma, in a grey-striped white shirt and dark trousers, removes the khutup — traditional Garo headgear — as he alights. Along with him are his wife Soradini, Rajya Sabha member Thomas Sangma and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) candidate he is campaigning for — his daughter Agatha (28), the sitting Tura MP.
But for two “shadows” in civvies, there are no gun-toting security men — a sharp departure from the entourages of other leaders elsewhere in the militancy-mauled Northeast.
“You don’t need security where almost everyone likes you,” Sangma said. He has, after all, represented Tura nine times since 1977 before passing the baton on to Agatha last year.
The stroll down the slope to the rally venue takes ages; there are just too many subjects waiting to touch their king and shake his hands. Sangma calls many of them by their first names. He jokes with them. “You are looking like the Prime Minister — ill at ease,” he tells an elderly man. The grins get wider, the laughter louder.
On the dais, Sangma peppers his tirade against the Congress with jokes. He has a funny way of putting things across, and the audience — a mix of youth and the elderly, but mostly women, numbering about 1,200, nod in acknowledgement.
Sangma doesn’t seek votes for Agatha, but says she will take the Garos and their issues to the world beyond. And Agatha insists she has matured from being a “papa’s girl” — as Congress rival Deborah C Marak puts it — to an “independent” woman capable of taking her own decisions. “I barely had a year to work for you, and if you think I have it in me, please help me serve you for a longer time,” she says.
The crowd at Dalu, the next stop 48 km southwest of Tura, is larger. Sangma plays to the gallery, and aims his wit-laced barbs at his rivals. He switches effortlessly between the Garo language and Bengali. Dalu, a small town bordering Bangl-adesh, has a large population of Bengali-speaking Muslims.
It’s lunch time as Sangma is done with Dalu. Laid out on paper plates are his favourite — steamed rice, pork and chicken. With fast fingers, he “refuels” for the day.
Over the next six hours, he addresses two more meetings and visits a couple of villages. It’s more of the same — some personal interactions, a few jokes and a “vote for Agatha” appeal. “This is Purno’s territory, and Agatha's victory is not in doubt,” said Tura-based trader Jaksrem Momin (42). Of four candidates contesting from Tura, three are women.