Purno Agitok Sangma, that legendary politician from Meghalaya, nay the northeast, who once controlled the proceedings of the Lok Sabha as its Speaker, is no more . It is difficult to associate this vibrant personality, gifted with wit and humour, with death and its stillness.
His name is familiar to every Indian, yet he came from an obscure village called Chapahati in West Garo Hills. Sangma with his never-say-die spirit struggled his way up the political ladder, going on to become the presidential candidate in 2012 although he knew that he was up against a formidable foe--the Congress party.
Sangma’s baptism in politics was through the Indian National Congress. He was anointed vice president of the Youth Congress in Meghalaya in 1973, two years after the state took birth. His political skills were honed by Meghalaya’s first chief minister Capt Williamson Sangma, a veteran in his own right.
He fought the 6th Lok Sabha election in 1977 from Tura constituency, which was virtually his pocket borough. He never lost a single election hence, whether for the Lok Sabha or the state assembly. Sangma was MP for nine terms with brief stints in state politics during 1988-90 and 2008-12. As we all know, he held the reins of several key ministries.
Ironically, Sangma entered state politics with the idealism of one who wanted to change the political history of Meghalaya.
Little did he know that state politics does not lend itself to dynamic changes such as the one he nurtured then, which was to purge Meghalaya of corruption and to do away with the politician-contractor-engineer nexus. Land acquisition had become a huge business for the land mafia. Land compensation far exceeded the actual cost of the road.
Sangma exhorted villagers that if they wanted roads, they should donate land to the government. This made him very unpopular. Sangma’s own party colleagues abandoned him and his government.
So disillusioned was he with state politics that he resigned his MLA seat and went back to central politics in 1991, only to return in 2008 to contest as an NCP candidate.
Sangma won that election and ensured the win of 14 NCP candidates. But he still could not become chief minister. He headed the Planning Board and helped prepare a plan document for Meghalaya after consulting experts from various fields, including famed economist NJ Kurian.
As is the political history of Meghalaya, the government of which Sangma was a part was toppled in 2010 by the Congress. A frustrated Sangma again returned to central politics. The current chief minister, Mukul Sangma, remained PA Sangma’s chief political rival.
His sons who too were in state politics have carried forward this animosity, thereby depriving Meghalaya of the best brains to add to its political capital.
Every icon has feet of clay, we are told. Sangma’s attempts to create a political dynasty did not go down well with the people of Garo Hills. His sons Conrad Sangma, who graduated from the Wharton School of Business, and James Sangma, who passed out of a media school in the UK, and his daughter Agatha, who did her masters in environmental science, were all pushed into politics; in the case of Agatha, it could be said, much against her natural inclination.
Conrad was finance minister between 2008 and 2010 and proved his mettle but lost the 2013 elections. His brother James continues as an MLA in the opposition.
Sangma often recalled his own naivety in agreeing to move the anti-Sonia Gandhi campaign in 2004. When the plot was hatched, there were several senior Congressmen who pushed him to lead the charge. Sangma trusted them and even believed Sonia Gandhi would step down voluntarily because of the internal pressure.
As it turned out, the Congress split and the NCP was born. Some senior members of the Congress virtually let him down. But that is politics. The “tribal” instinct in Sangma could not read the signs of the times.
Sangma’s proclivity to change parties also took a toll. People were no longer ready to jump fences with this veteran politician. The Congress benefited from this and Sangma had no other option but to align with the BJP. He continued to nurse a fond hope that the BJP would award him with a ministry, considering his vast experiences. But that remained only a dream.
RIP Mr Purno Agitok Sangma. You have run the race and won some and lost some.
(The writer is editor of The Shillong Times.)