The importance of Purno Sangma: issues beyond party lines (Comment)

June 10th, 2009 - 1:38 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan Singh By Sanjoy Hazarika
On Sunday evening, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi attended the wedding reception of Conrad Sangma, son of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Purno Sangma and a Meghalaya legislator, in New Delhi, it was far more than a social visit.

It was a political message that underlined a very simple reality - that there had been an effective closure of the bitter chapter that began when the elder Sangma had put his political career on the line and opposed Gandhi for accepting the mantle of Congress leadership a decade ago.

Sunday’s gesture followed what must account for a truly extraordinary gesture of grace on Sangma’s part and which is rare in a political leader and rarer in a veteran of so many political battles. Sangma and his daughter Agatha - as elfin like and elegantly restrained as her father is tubby and cheerful - sought an appointment with Gandhi to invite her to the reception. There he apologised to the Congress chief for what he had put her through during those stormy days when he opposed her leadership citing her foreign origins and was sacked from the party he had served for decades along with Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar. Gandhi was gracious and said they should put the past behind them.

There is another aspect that needs to be emphasised. Sangma is saying that it is possible to be in different political parties but work for the common good of the region. This was a view articulated by Maharshtra Governor (and former Nagaland chief minister) S.C. Jamir at a meeting in Shillong about a year ago. Jamir, one of the region’s most canny and experienced politicians, had said that it was time for the region to vote and work politically together, as a block.

Jamir said that each of the states (barring Assam with 14 MPs) was too small and weak to make an impact at the national level. But a block of MPs from the northeast (35 including the Rajya Sabha) could make a huge difference and dent at a time of coalition politics. Five years ago, that could have been denounced as political heresy. But these days, it makes eminent sense and underlines the need to strengthen the northeast MPs forum, which had become moribund.

That is why Sangma’s role is critical to this process of consensus building. This must be his larger role now, cutting across party lines and barriers.

Sangma had flagged concern in the northeast over illegal migration from Bangladesh in a paper for Congress in the 1990s. This was a challenge that the Asom Gana Parishad and various students’ organisations in different states had first highlighted, it was then pursued by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Today, it is an issue that the Congress is prepared to accept, reluctantly burying decades of pro-minority politics, especially in Assam.

The need for political parties to make common ground over issues that concern all of the northeast has never been stronger than today and there is a mix of young and older MPs who can help bring that focus.

For that, they need to rise beyond party lines to start with on four basic issues: the need to tackle illegal migration on a practical basis; focus specifically on environmental scarcity and conservation, especially river and water issues; develop the region’s great strengths in bio-diversity and natural beauty to promote eco-tourism (Sikkim is a good example and P.D. Rai, the MP from that state, is a pioneer); develop natural resources (minerals such as limestone) as well as create industrial and trade hubs for processing fruits and vegetables and export of flowers to its neighbourhood of South and South East Asia, especially Bangladesh, while strengthening and formalising the border markets.

It needs to be remembered that the NCP of Pawar, Anwar and Sangma had bitterly opposed the Congress. When Pawar came to an understanding and arrangement with the Gandhis and the parent party, Sangma stoutly opposed it in the northeast, especially his home state of Meghalaya, where he manoeuvered the defeat of the Congress in state assembly elections last year and enabled his daughter to fill his Lok Sabha seat in a by-election last year, when he re-entered the state assembly after nearly 20 years, saying his days in New Delhi were done.

Sangma’s apology has also paved the way for a return to the Congress (even though he has been quoted by media as saying that he has no plans to rejoin it) and at a national level because the party lacks people of substantial stature from the northeast, barring Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and Union Minister for Mines and Development of the North East Region Bijoy Krishna Handique, and has suffered reverses in Assam and other states.

Agatha, now a minister of state handling drinking water supply, retained her seat with a sliver-like majority in last month’s elections, defeating a Congress candidate.

Meghalaya got a second minister of state in Vincent Pala, a prosperous businessman and Congress candidate from the other Lok Sabha seat in the state, Shillong, on another issue of great significance to the region - water resources.

Pala, a first time MP, is cheerfully modest and says he is reading and learning about his subject. That indicates an open mind and this is especially important given the minefield that water resources represent in the region and elsewhere.

States hotly dispute each others rights yet vie with one another in following the World Bank’s disastrous prescription of many more dams in a water-rich, ecologically sensitive and politically explosive not to speak of highly seismic zone. Of course, this activity is attractive since it is extremely lucrative to private power contractors and also feeds the mendacity of politicians, bureaucrats as well as of big-town consultants, all at a small cost of the projects.

(10.6.2009-Sanjoy Hazarika can be contacted at

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