Itanagar (Arunachal Pradesh): Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Kongkhal Sangma has been heading the first government led by his party, the National People’s Party (NPP), in the state since March 2018. The six-party coalition government also includes the sole Bharatiya Janata Party cabinet minister of the state, Shanbor Shullai.
The first-time chief minister, after his father and former Lok Sabha speaker Purno A. Sangma’s death in 2016, has also been heading the party. The NPP, after pocketing seats in Meghalaya, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh in the respective last assembly elections, has catapulted itself into being the first and only national party based out of the Northeast.
On October 19, in Itanagar to take part in his party’s conclave titled ‘Regional Aspirations with a National Outlook’, Sangma called for a platform where people from across different walks of life from northeastern states can come together to discuss and formulate ideas rung around their regional aspirations. The NPP conclave also dealt with the need for regional parties in the Northeast and the challenges that they typically face in the border region. Being a novel move by a political entity in the Northeast, the event attracted considerable attention in the region, particularly from younger people.
On its sidelines, the former Lok Sabha MP from Tura, in a freewheeling interview to The Wire, not only touched upon why his party had thought of tailoring such a platform in the region, but also burning issues faced by his government, including the killing of Cheristerfield Thangkhiew, the founding member of the outlawed armed group HNLC, in an encounter in the state capital Shillong recently, and the relocation of the residents of the city’s Punjabi lane which had hit the national headlines.
Excerpts from the interview.
Your party is the first Northeast-born political entity to think up a platform in recent times for politicians, thinkers, journalists and members of civil society to congregate for a discussion on regional aspirations with a national outlook. There was considerable public participation in the conclave in Itanagar. What triggered it?
The recent conclave by NPP in Itanagar will not be the only one; we are planning a series of such discussions across the northeastern capitals. It is just the beginning. The topics for discussion at such conclaves would be around general ideas concerning the region.
For instance, we always talk about Act East policy in the Northeast. But what is it actually; what can the region achieve through it? We strongly feel that it is time we take up those topics which are meaningful and significant to the region. Some of the topics have been overused in course of time but somehow no real action has taken place around them. So the entire aspect of this vision of our party – regional aspirations with a national outlook – will ring around topics like the impact of climate change on the Northeast, trade, the Act East issues, youth oriented concerns, etc. Several more will be added as and when we interact with more and more people across the region.
Our idea is to open the platform to people with multiple ideas; let someone offer a different viewpoint; if we agree on everything then there is no fun. Therefore, we decided to invite different regional political parties of the Northeast, journalists, thinkers and the public to participate in the Itanagar conclave. We were very clear that it should not be a closed discussion only with like-minded people. Let’s hear all.
In the protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) across the Northeast in 2019, you had led the regional parties from the front which was appreciated by people from across the northeastern states. You had taken the lead in spite of being an ally of the BJP and acted like a strong regional leader.
But what we saw soon was New Delhi dividing the region on the issue, thus weakening the united protest against the Bill/Act. This is not for the first time it has happened though. Often, we have seen that it has never been easy for political parties from the Northeast and politicians even from the national parties to put across their point convincingly with the central government (be it BJP or the Congress). How does one overcome it? Have you ever thought about it?
You are right there. Starting off with what happened during the CAB/CAA, every section of the society and groups, political parties and various communities of the region wanted to talk about it and began objecting to certain points in the Bill/Act. But the pan-Northeast platform never came up. The crux of the problem to my mind is, whenever we find a platform where we can come together, it is always based on an issue. Somehow, though we all belong to the same region, we are not able to provide a common platform that will bring our voice together, constantly.
That is what we at NPP really feel is important. We need to have some kind of a platform for the region and we need to discuss various issues. I am happy that after we started raising objections to certain aspects of the CAB, the repercussions of it was that all the states were called separately by the union home minister; the Centre stopped moving the Bill in Parliament for some time, and did say, let’s take a relook at it. For instance, Manipur was thereafter given the inner line permit. What I mean to say is, we did see results of the steps we took then. I am not saying everything became perfect. You are right; the challenge is that only – how to overcome it.
Number one is, there has to be some sense of unity amongst us; we may have differences among ourselves because obviously we are different communities. But then, there are so many factors that are common to all of us too. So, can we look at those common factors? Can we come together at least on those common factors? And, can we provide that platform; allow people to come together? It is really that we at NPP are trying to push now. What will happen, we don’t know but at least, we are starting somewhere. We are going ahead because we feel that kind of a pulse not just among politicians from the region but people across board, be it media persons, business people, sportspersons, they too have the same feeling. Somehow, they don’t know where to go; that is what we are trying to address. We are also very clear that we need multiple voices; let’s not talk to only those people we agree with. That’s how we will make this better.
Your party is in government in Meghalaya and Manipur; has a considerable presence in Arunachal and has an organisational set-up in Assam too. Does that put NPP in a better position than the other regional entities to provide such a common platform?
What is good about us is also that we are now a national party and the beauty of it is that we are a national party made in the Northeast. I don’t think in the history of our region and the country we had this kind of an opportunity ever; so that’s why we want to take this idea forward. As a political party, of course, we will see the political aspect of it too but it is not the most important one for us, or it is not the only side that we will look at when we want people to come together and start talking about common issues of the region. There may be a lot of people who don’t agree with me; in the Itanagar conclave too, there are people who don’t agree with me but let’s hear all.
In parts of South India, regional parties have thrived perhaps because they are also high revenue generating states. However, the NE states are primarily dependent on the Centre for funding. Do you see the lagging economy of the region as a bottleneck for the rise of the region-based parties vis-à-vis the national parties?
You are right about it; the biggest challenge for northeastern states is the financial dependence on the Centre. The political dynamics of the region includes this component. We understand that we need to adjust, and we will adjust, but there are certain things where we need to draw the line.
The way I see is, those challenges may be there but we don’t need to not explore (on regionalism) because those challenges exist. We have to work towards it and that’s the reason why I think we need to discuss issues like Act East policy which is closely linked to every NE state. There is no specific policy related to a NE state under the Act East policy of the government of India. Still, I need to work with Bangladesh; Manipur needs to work with Myanmar. How do we do that? What are the specific policies that we should adopt at the grassroots? All these aspects need to come in now and I am sure as we move forward with a regional mindset, even from the economic point of view, say, we push for connectivity between our states, I am sure it will reflect better on our economy too. It may take time. It is not going to be easy, specially keeping in mind the structural economic challenges that we face. But I don’t think it should stop us from talking about a regional mindset with a national outlook.
As a border region too, New Delhi may have an additional interest in the politics of these states.
From the national security aspect, the Centre will always have a special interest in the Northeast. That is the reason we are underlining that the conclave at Itanagar is on regional aspirations with a national outlook. How do we balance both, that is what we are looking at. We understand that there are certain national interests, national outlook and aspects that we need to keep in mind. And then there are the regional desires and aspirations that we have; how to bring this together; where is the meeting point; can there be a meeting point? Can there be certain areas where we can say, look, both national and regional aspirations can co-exist and if there is such a meeting point, we can be more productive as states, as people. It is not necessary that these two interests need to clash. That’s what exactly we are trying to cover. May be, in some issues, we will be stuck but some issues will get resolved too.
Lately, we have seen TMC entering the NE as a strong political force, at least in Tripura. There was also talk in the media about former Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma joining the party. Do you see TMC as a new challenge to your party?
Any political party has a right to come into any region. TMC is coming out of a successful political campaign in West Bengal and there is a very strong momentum within the party, a positive mindset; nothing wrong in having those aspirations. But it is not so simple either. I have been exposed to northeastern politics for the last 20 years; for instance, the coming assembly elections in Manipur will be my fifth campaign in that state.
What I am trying to say is that the dynamics of the Northeast is so complicated that forget state to state subtleties, the constituency to constituency dynamics are unique too. How to balance those dynamics requires a lot of patience and understanding of the region, and once you do that, how to knit it together is yet another challenge. It can’t happen overnight. TMC is working towards it; I wish them the best. But as a party NPP is very clear that we are focused only on the Northeast. No matter how many parties come in from elsewhere, people will still look at NPP as a unique, homegrown party and that is our biggest advantage.
Additionally, TMC had come to the region in the past too; won a few seats and then disappeared. I don’t know whether it will have that continuity a political party needs this time around or it is just an election centric move. NPP has been consistent though.
TMC, being a party born in Bengal, may have a ready disadvantage in some parts of the Northeast too?
Well, those aspects and local dynamics are there too.
Yours is a multi-party alliance government in Meghalaya. The government has completely three years in power. What would you count as your achievements thus far?
When we started off, we were very keen to ensure that we improve the delivery mechanism. I was very clear that the money that comes in must be spent and in a manner that reaches the people and at the same time, be quick enough so that we can get more resources from the Centre. Faster the utilisation of funds, more you get. Our expenditure in the last three years compared to the last five years (of Congress rule) has gone up more than 33%. While we were at Rs 9-10 thousand crore three years back, today, we are touching Rs 15 thousand crore. This happens when you are using the money in a judicious manner.
The overall increase in expenditure in the state is, in a nutshell, the number one achievement of my government. And that has happened in areas like MGNREGS. We used to spend about Rs 600 crore in 2017. Today, we are touching Rs 1,400 crore. We have doubled it in a matter of three years. So, on an average, Rs 14,000 per person is being given to a job card holder as wages in my state. This has happened because of the fact that the delivery mechanism is more efficient compared to before. It reflects the kind of work that we are doing at the grassroots level. I just want to mention here that Assam’s MGNREGS expenditure is close to Rs 2,000 crore. Meghalaya, a state one tenth the size of Assam in terms of population, is at Rs 1,400 crore.
Under the PMGSY road construction scheme too, before 2018, about 700-800 km of roads were built in Meghalaya. In the last three years, 1,500 km of roads have been constructed. So, almost double the rate again in three years.
Then, we were at the bottom in immunisation. In the last three years, we have touched the top three. We had an issue with nutrition of children. We conducted a big programme around it. Union minister Smriti Z. Irani visited the state for that programme. Within three years, we have been able to reduce the figure by 80-90%. These are some of few examples of achievements of my government; some basic things that we are focusing on. I shall be sharing more as the months (to the assembly elections in 2023) go by. We have also done fairly well in terms of improving our school infrastructure. In terms of education, Meghalaya has been very weak. It is not easy to change things quickly; there are structural issues. It takes time but we are working towards it.
Then, entrepreneurship is what I have been really pushing forward in the state. In the last three years, we have been able to instil a strong culture of entrepreneurship.
We see the prime minister often talking about Northeast. In terms of communications infrastructure, we do see some amount of development. We also now have a direct flight from Delhi to Shillong.
The Delhi-Shillong flight is funded by the Meghalaya government, not Centre. This is because the Centre’s Udaan scheme covers only 500-600 km distance. That scheme covers till the Kolkata sector and Shillong’s connectivity with some NE states. Definitely, in the last few years, air connectivity has improved in my state. In 2017, there was not a single flight from the Shillong airport. People had to travel all the way to Guwahati. The state had to spend about Rs 70-80 crore to clear the airport of certain flight-related hindrances. Today, the Shillong airport handles six flights daily and about 400 passengers travel from it every day. This only shows that there was a need for it. It takes 24 hours for a person from Shillong to reach Imphal. The flight between the two Northeast state capitals is of only of 35 minutes. Now, there is an option for people.
I must say, lately, there has been a lot of focus on Northeast, particularly in making connectivity better. When the top leadership gives that sense of national importance to the region, then the system follows. The prime minister has always stressed that the Northeastern states must come at par with the rest of India. Challenges are there. I would also like to add here that while New Delhi is willing, we as states should also have the absorption capacity. There should be sincerity from our side too. Things are now moving at the state level also but more efforts need to be put by our states. It will take some time.
Recently, the relocation of the residents of the Punjabi lane of Shillong returned to news and your government was criticised for recommending it.
Several people have not understood the facts. Nobody is here to remove anybody. I don’t think people should look at it from that point of view. Let’s stick to the facts of the situation. The land has been under controversy. The ownership of the land (following a report by a government appointed committee) is very clear now. It is government land. My government is very clear that the employees of the municipal board and different other departments who are staying in that area will be re-located; the department has good accommodation for them in the heart of the city. Just behind the Governor house in Shillong, there are municipal quarters. It is prime location too; they will be shifted there. They are happy to go because those are well maintained accommodations unlike the ones in Punjabi lane.
The issue really is, while these people were staying there, a lot of other individuals and families began to settle in that area. They are not in employment of any state agency. There is no record where did they come from. We are discussing the matter; I have been very clear that we need to convince those people to vacate the government land. We will go through a proper procedure and ultimately we will have to find an amicable solution to it. As the chief minister, my duty is to ensure that there is no law and order issue. That is the reason we had formed a committee to look at the matter. It is also incorrect for somebody to just come and give a blanket comment on the matter. In 2018, when the issue flared up, my instruction to the police was that no citizen of this country, both sides, be hurt; there must not be any firing. These are all our people; our citizens. If there are misunderstandings, we will sort it out. No life was lost but 120 policemen were injured then. Our duty is to protect all and at the same time, peace and harmony be restored.
If we go by news reports, the banned militant outfit HNLC seems to be raising its head once again in Meghalaya. Recently, HNLC founder member Cheristerfield Thangkhiew was killed in a police encounter at his house in Shillong; it triggered public outrage. It also came out then that the government was in peace talks with HNLC. Would we see any moving forward in that direction even after that incident?
What has happened is, HNLC had approached us almost a year back for peace talks. Therefore, our discussion with their leaders was on. They had sent a formal letter to us putting in certain conditions for the talks to happen. We communicated back to them after consulting the government of India. We told them to remove some conditions to initiate the talks and resend the letter. That was where the process was till the Cheristerfield incident took place.
Alongside the move for talks, some members of HNLC began using the time and the situation to extort money; I had not got any such demand for money (a bomb was planted at the gate of the NPP office in Shillong recently) but some political individuals and business people in the state did get text messages and that is where the entire thing got a bit too much and we had to clamp down on it. They were sending those SMSes from Shillong but routed through other locations.
Most of the leaders of HNLC are across the (international) border anyway. There are some over ground workers and freelancer kind of individuals operating within the state. It is not an organised group as such now; they are trying to regroup but not being fully successful. The freelancers are using the public sympathy and emotions for monetary benefits; essentially working as an extortion organisation. We are, however, open to peace talks with the outfit even now but it has to be within the Constitution.
The official inquiry into the Cheristerfield incident is on; the report would come out soon. I can’t give too much detail at this point but there was no intention to neutralise anybody that night when police reached his house; we only wanted to ensure that there was no more bombing in the state. We had to go to take the person in to custody because our information said there would be another bombing incident.
(Disclaimer: The interviewer was a speaker at the NPP conclave in Itanagar.)