Purno Agitok Sangma, who passed away on Friday at the relatively young age of 68, was a political legend whose name every resident of Meghalaya knows for the way he struggled his way up from Chapathi village in the West Garo Hills all the way to becoming the presidential candidate of the opposition in June 2012. Sangma knew that the Congress Party which once groomed and nurtured him was a formidable foe and that his candidature was doomed; but he knew the symbolism of the contest and didn’t flinch from it.
Sangma cut his teeth in the Congress party where he became the vice-president of the state Youth Congress in 1973, two years after the state of Meghalaya was born. Known as the protégé of Meghalaya’s first chief minister Capt. Williamson Sangma, he went on to become general secretary of the Congress in 1975 and fought the 6th Lok Sabha election from Tura constituency. So successful was he that it became his pocket borough. He was first elected MP in 1977 and he never lost an election since. He was MP for nine terms with a brief stint in state politics between 1988-1990 and 2008-2012. In between, he had served as a minister under Rajiv Gandhi.
When PA Sangma entered state politics, he did not understand the pitfalls that awaited him. He tried to cleanse the system of the politician-contractor-engineer nexus which resulted in payment of huge compensation for land acquisition for road building purposes. He famously declared that he was appalled that the compensation paid for the land far exceeded the cost of the road.
In fact at one time he said that villages that wanted roads should be ready to donate land to the government. As chief minister, Sangma held weekly meetings where he took stock of every department. He knew what each department did or did not do. This did not go down too well with his ministerial colleagues or indeed with the babus in the secretariat.
Grand plot against him
A grand plot was hatched to overthrow him and some of his own colleagues in the Congress were party to this diabolical power game. Sangma’s government lost its majority and a regional party led-government was formed in 1990. So disillusioned was he with state politics that he resigned his MLA seat and went back to Central politics, where he distinguished himself as the much respected Speaker of the Lok Sabha from 1996-1998. In 1999, Sangma was among those who left the Congress on the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins and was part of Sharad Pawar’s new outfit, the Nationalist Congress Party.
He returned to the state in 2008 to contest as an NCP candidate. Sangma not only won but also ensured that 14 other candidates won from his party, but regional forces did not agree on making him the CM. This was another blow. Nevertheless, he worked tirelessly to prepare a plan document for Meghalaya after consulting experts from various fields including the famed economist and former Planning Commission member Dr NJ Kurian.
The government he was part of was toppled yet again in 2010, this time by the Congress. The present chief minister of Meghalaya, Mukul Sangma was always his bête noire. Their rivalry was visible even within the house and the media had a field day with captions like “Sangma versus Sangma.”
For all his idealism, PA Sangma also had his weaknesses. He pushed his children into politics, thus creating a dynasty. His childdren Conrad, who graduated from the Wharton School of Business in the United States, James and daughter Agatha were all brought into politics; in the case of the Agatha, it could be said, much against her natural inclination. Conrad Sangma was the state’s finance minister between 2008-2010 and proved his mettle but lost the 2013 elections. His brother James Sangma continues as MLA in the opposition.
The only members of the family to have stayed out of politics are PA Sangma’s wife, Sarodini and his eldest daughter Christie, an architect living in Australia with her husband, a doctor.
Much has been written about PA Sangma’s tenure as the Lok Sabha speaker. In a very amiable yet stern way, he was able to control the boisterous Lok Sabha MPs. Many of his erstwhile Congress friends and colleagues are convinced that had Sangma not abandoned the party he would have risen very high in the government and might have even become the consensus candidate and the first tribal to be considered for the post of president.
It was his political naïveté that pushed him into agreeing to join the anti-Sonia campaign in 2004 – a campaign that saw him break with Pawar. At the time when the plot was hatched, there were several senior Congressmen who egged him on to lead the charge. He trusted them and even believed that Sonia Gandhi would yield to pressure from within the party and step down voluntarily. But the NCP split and the UPA government saw Pawar as a senior minister even as Sangma remained outside, despite returning to the NCP in 2005. Some of the senior members of the Congress who are still with the party virtually let him down. But that is politics. Sangma could not read the signs of the times.
Much later he even aligned with the BJP, taking their support as he stood against Pranab Mukherjee for the post of president. He had to leave the NCP again, and lost, but continued to nurse the fond hope that the BJP would award him with a ministry considering his vast experience. That hope remained a dream that was never realised.