Chandrani Sinha | Apr 9, 2019 | 5 min read
It was way back in 1977 when a short Garo tribal man in his 30s entered Parliament for the first time as a young Congress MP from Tura Lok Sabha constituency in Meghalaya. On his parliamentary debut itself, he caught everyone’s attention with his firebrand speeches, nuanced debates, and simple smile, all of which helped him to make friends across party lines.
He made it to the Lok Sabha eight more times and died as an MP, leaving behind a political legacy that is second to none.
This man, Northeast’s most respected and the tallest leader in national politics, was Purno Agitok Sangma, whose name still reverberates in the Garo hills as the region gets ready to vote. The choice voters have to make this time is difficult — is it time to let go of their beloved leader’s legacy and opt for change?
In the first phase of polling, all eyes will be on the Tura parliamentary constituency, which will see a straight fight between P A Sangma’s family and his onetime blue-eyed boy and former CM from Congress Mukul Sangma (53).
P A Sangma’s daughter and former Union minister Agatha (38) is the candidate for National Peoples’ Party (NPP), which is now led by her brother and Meghalaya CM Conrad Sangma. Agatha had been a former MP from Tura as well.
“We are aware of our legacy; it’s a huge responsibility. Now, the focus is on development. In the last one year, the NPP-led government has done tremendous work, and that gives us a boost. People will vote for us due to our good work,” she said.
From 1977 till date, the Tura seat has remained with P A Sangma’s family, barring the 1989-1991 period, when he didn’t contest. After his death, Conrad became the MP from Tura in a bypoll; he later vacated the seat after becoming CM.
“Going by the statistics and P A Sangma’s popularity, one would say it’s a one-sided battle in Agatha’s favour. But I think, this time, we have a contest in our hands, as Mukul Sangma is a strong candidate; it’s a good move by the Congress to field him. As CM, he’d almost made Tura the second capital, after Shillong. There is, however, criticism that he did more for his home town Ampati and not the entire Garo hills. Nonetheless, this election will be a close fight,” noted Ratnadip Choudhury, a journalist with NDTV from the Northeast.
From ground zero
A non-tribal paan vendor from Bihar has been living in Tura for over 25 years and even got his voter ID transferred to Meghalaya. For him, the agenda is development, not family legacy.
“P A Sangma is the tallest leader in this region. He was the leader of the tribals and non-tribals; he was the leader of Meghalaya, the entire Northeast, and the nation. So, whenever NPP will ask for votes in his name, people of Tura and Garo hills are likely to oblige owing to the emotional connect they have with the leader. But frankly, we cannot overlook the development Tura and parts of Garo hills saw under Mukul Sangma’s tenure as CM. We saw business boom; so it will be a difficult choice, particularly for me, because I am not very happy with the present state government,” he said.
For Garo hills’ youth, joblessness and migration for work go hand in hand. “I went out of Garo hills to study, and now, I don’t have job opportunities back home. P A Sangma is a big name, but he is not a leader of our generation. We are looking up to Conrad sir. Mukul Sangma as CM was very popular among youngsters, but he failed to create jobs. Hence, we hope Conrad sir will succeed in that. For me, this election is between Conrad Sangma and Mukul Sangma,” said Fedrick Marak, who works at the front office of a three-star hotel in Guwahati.
While Meghalaya has a 60-member assembly, the Garo hills, a Congress stronghold, has 24 seats. P A Sangma, however, does extend beyond party affiliation.
“It’s all in Purno da’s name. For years, we have voted in Lok Sabha elections in his name. We voted for his children because we believed it was akin to voting for him. Even if his youngest daughter Christie contests, we will vote for her, such is his legacy,” explained Sanjoy Ghosh, who runs a small-time business in Tura’s main market.
Sangma vs Sangma
Mukul Sangma’s rise in Meghalaya politics, too, was meteoric. Despite not being from a political family, he caught P A Sangma’s attention; the latter helped him in his early days in the Congress. Year 1993 onwards, he never lost in the state legislative assembly — he was Meghalaya CM between 2010 and 2018. Mounting criticism against him for “creating a political dynasty” — his wife, younger brother, and daughter are MLAs as well — among other issues finally brought a taste of defeat, and Conrad succeeded him last year.
Mukul Sangma told reporters at Tura, “The trust of the people is with me. They know I deliver. They have seen my chief ministership, they have seen me inside Assembly. And they have also seen NPP’s poor governance. We are confident of a victory.”
In this clash of titans, Conrad, who led the campaign for sister Agatha, took his chopper to remote corners of Garo hills to urge voters to vote for them.
In the run-up to the polls, Conrad has emerged as the new face of regional politics in Northeast at the height of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Bill protests in the region. His popularity has skyrocketed so much that his party is also contesting polls in other parts of Northeast.
Tura goes to vote on April 11, and it will be known soon enough whether or not Conrad is seen as a leader who can step into his father’s shoes.
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