Shillong: For a very long time, Tura, the largest town of the Garo hills in Meghalaya, has been considered the pocket borough of Purno Agitok Sangma.
The former union minister and a Lok Sabha speaker – the first and the only one from the Northeast so far – represented the Tura parliamentary constituency multiple times besides being the second Garo to be the chief minister of the state after his mentor Captain Williamson Sangma. Sangma had the record on not losing a single election from Tura.
Starting with the Congress, Sangma jumped to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and thereafter to the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) before returning to NCP. In 2012, he was expelled from the NCP for refusing to quit the presidential elections. In 2013, the political bigwig of Meghalaya floated his own party – the National People’s Party (NPP).
Thereafter, NPP became a part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the BJP at the Centre since 2014. Following Sangma’s death in 2016, the mantle of NPP passed on to his son – Conrad Kongkal Sangma.
Conrad, Meghalaya’s former finance minister and the present MP from Tura, has not only worked towards expanding the base of his party in the state but has also succeeded in picking assembly seats in Manipur in last year’s assembly polls. It is now a part of the BJP-led coalition government in Manipur.
After defeating Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma’s wife Dikkanchi D. Shira in the 2016 parliamentary elections with 1,92, 212 lakh vote, a margin never secured even by his father in Tura, Conrad is now pitching NPP as the main challenger to the decade-old Congress government in the assembly elections scheduled for February 27.
With the BJP too going all out to take on the Mukul Sangma government and presenting a united front with NPP, a part of its North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), it would have certainly given the party more of a foothold in a state where it has limited reach.
However, Conrad has decided against it.
In an interview with The Wire, Conrad categorically said: “We have decided not to have a pre-poll alliance not just with the BJP, but with other regional parties too. We want to go it alone.”
He though doesn’t deny any possibility of a post-poll alliance with the BJP or any other like-minded regional party.
Excerpts from the interview:
The campaign for the assembly polls is just heating up but NPP has already begun doing small meetings with people, particularly in the Garo hills. How has the response been?
We are concentrating on smaller meeting as it helps voters to get to know their candidates better. They can ask questions, there is better interaction, they get to know what the NPP stands for and what it wants to do. If there are any doubts about us, they get cleared.
I am presently trying to process a lot of things that people have shared in various meetings, but what I clearly see is a desire for change on the ground. A lot of good leaders have left the Congress and joined the NPP. These people have good potential, but they were never utilised to deliver good governance. So they see hope in the NPP and have joined us.
People are looking forward to a change, but I must add that elections are not predictable, not easy at all; we have to go through our challenges.
Besides these smaller interactive meetings, the NPP is also the only regional party using social media for its campaign – a novelty. Is that aimed at young voters?
I feel times have changed, so we need to change the style of campaigning too. We need to be on social media. We need to reach out to as many people in as many ways as possible. A lot of young people use social media. So that way, yes, we are aiming at them too. The youth have the power to choose a better future for Meghalaya. So we are using Twitter to roll out small clips of candidates telling voters what they plan to do for people if elected. We are also using graphics and data to point out the present government’s misgovernance in different sectors and the lack of development besides publicising our campaign meetings.
You will be surprised to hear that all these features have been made possible by a bunch of local girls and boys working from a corner at my residence. We have not spent any big money to enhance our social media presence, but what is helping is that these are very creative people who are passionate about what they are doing.
What are the main poll planks of the NPP?
There has been complete lack of governance in the state. In the last four-and-a-half years, the government has only been putting up foundation stones here and there. Projects don’t get completed. The central schemes are not implemented. Wherever they are, there is delay in release of the funds. There is rampant corruption too.
Yet another major issue is the closure of the coal mines in the state, be it in the Garo or Jaintia hills. The National Green Tribunal came down heavily on those mines (in 2014) but the government didn’t do anything to rehabilitate the people who were solely dependent on it for a livelihood. It should have come up with a solution, should have addressed the concerns of the stakeholders. So the people are quite upset in those areas.
Another important issue is the chief minister himself. He acts like a titular head, controls the entire system. His style of functioning has led to a lot of anger even among his colleagues.
Who is your chief ministerial candidate? Is it you?
We have stayed away from projecting anyone as a chief ministerial candidate. As the president of the party, I am very clear the process of choosing the chief minister should be as democratic as possible. Our organisational structure is very clear that once the elections are over, the MLAs will choose their leader, the one who would be the best person to lead them. I shall leave it to the MLAs. It is also important to listen to them as it is with their help that the chief minister will govern the state.
Why is the NPP not contesting all 60 assembly seats?
We are contesting 53 seats only because we did not found suitable candidates for the rest of the constituencies. There is no point putting up a candidate just like that. That is the only reason.
The NPP is an ally of the NDA, which is a part of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre. The NPP is an ally of the BJP government in Manipur too. So why did it not enter into a pre-poll alliance for the Meghalaya polls? Is it because of that party’s pro-Hindutva stand in a Christian majority state, as is being speculated in the media?
The MLA elections are fought on local issues. Each constituency has its own problems, so it is fought at a micro level. Our voters know what we stand for and what we don’t. The NPP will never try and influence others’ beliefs or eating habits. We have decided not to have a pre-poll alliance not just with the BJP, but even with any regional party. As you know, for the first time there is a regional alliance (between the United Democratic Party and the Hill State People’s Democratic Party). That is because we wanted to go it alone. We may enter into post-poll alliance with a party or two, but we are very clear that we want to fight the elections alone.
But the NPP is likely to leave some seats for BJP even though there is no pre-poll alliance. One such seat is Ampati, the constituency of chief minister Mukul Sangma. But in some of the seats, say in South Tura where your sister Agatha Sangma is contesting, the BJP is an opponent of the NPP. Will it not divide the anti-incumbent votes and favour the ruling party?
Yes, Ampati is one such seat where we have not found a very strong candidate to give a fight to Mukul Sangma. So we have decided to leave it. BJP is likely to field a candidate from it. However, in many seats, BJP will be our opponent but we are confident of the strength of our candidates. Our promise to the voters is that if we win we will try and ensure that development comes across the constituencies, not just in a select few.
Quite a few regional parties are in the fray. Besides the United Democratic Party (UDP) and theHill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP), there is Garo National Council and then there is this new party, the People’s Democratic Front. Besides the BJP, who all among the regional players that would you call like-minded or would not mind entering into a post-poll alliance?
They all are contesting with their own manifestoes, own issues. We are also contesting on certain issues which we think are important. For instance, access to good education and basic healthcare facilities for everyone. The state health mission is in shambles inspite of the chief minister being its chairperson. Let the elections results come. We will then see which of those parties would be our best options.
The Garo Students Union has been demanding codification of the Garo tribal customary laws. The NPP passed it in the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council in March 2017. Will it pass it at the state assembly too if NPP comes to power?
These laws are part of our culture, they define who we are. However, since they are not documented, and verbal, the customary courts many times interpret them in such a way that many people prefer to go to the courts where the Indian Penal Code applies. But these customary laws define many things that we as Garos do. So for the interest of our tribal society, we need to codify them to bring uniformity to the clauses. However, one or two clauses are a bit controversial, so we need to thrash them out. And yes, we will try and push for it in the assembly.
There has been a demand for the separate state of Garoland. Your father P.A. Sangma raised the demand in Parliament too. What are your views on it? Will you support it?
Yes, my father did support the demand; he was also supportive of smaller states and stated as much in parliament. As you know, there is a demand for a Khasi and Jaintia state too. We have to see the practicality of it, will have to involve all the stakeholders. We have to be careful about the timing too. We would like to see the response of the people to it, which is more important to us.
Also, these demands are also about development. There has been lack of development in many parts of the state; many areas have been neglected. So people feel if we get our own state, those issues would be resolved; it will help us preserve our identity better, get our rights. Finally, it boils down to development. As I said before, if we win, we shall try and ensure that development comes to each constituency.
The NPP, under your leadership, is no longer confined to Meghalaya. You took it to Manipur and its is now a part of the government. You announced that NPP will contest the February 27 polls in Nagaland (on January 29 though, the NPP, along with many political parties, resolved to stay away from the assembly elections in that state). It is becoming a pan-Northeast regional party, which is something unusual. What is the basic idea behind it?
This was a dream of my father, even when he was with the NCP. He always wanted a pan-Northeast platform which could take up issues that concern our region in New Delhi. A party that reflects the sentiments of the Northeast. So the idea has been there for a long time but we crystalised it as much as possible to make it not just pan-Northeast but also to be able to take up local issues in different states. So we are part of the Manipur government now, contesting polls in Meghalaya, and have a plan to enter Nagaland. We want to cover all the northeastern states.
I strongly feel that we need a political party which represents the Northeast, else our matters get divided into the prism of different states even though the mainstream India gaze on us is that of the entire Northeast. We may think we belong to different states but we are looked at as one. Our states also need to take up certain issues as one.
I feel a pan-Northeast platform is good for the younger generation also. Take for instance, the recent issue about some students of North East Hill University (NEHU) stranded in Delhi. They had no money to come home. I got a call at two in the morning, told them to come over to my house. I am very passionate about a platform that can bring together the common concerns of young people of the region and they work as one entity.