PA Sangma – A life well lived

By Albert Thyrniang

A rude shock came at 11.10 am in the form of a Whatsapp message, ‘Purno Agitok Sangma no more’.  Facebook posts and the internet confirmed the sudden demise. The man born in a remote village of Chapathi, West Garo Hills, a Chief Minister of the state, a Union Minister, a Lok Sabha Speaker, a record nine time MP from Tura Constituency, a presidential contestant, a party founder had breathed his last quietly in his bed. A pall of gloom descended upon his home town, Tura as the sad reality reached peoples’ hearts. The 68 year old proud son of the soil has left them on March 04, 2016. It was apt he passed away in the national capital where he accomplished greatness.

Condolence messages poured in thick and fast. President Mukherjee said, “Sangma was a veteran Parliamentarian and able administrator who served the nation in different spheres. In the passing away of Shri Sangma, the nation has lost an eminent public figure and multi-faceted personality.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “Shri PA Sangma was a self-made leader whose contribution towards the development of the Northeast is monumental. Shri PA Sangma’s tenure as Lok Sabha Speaker is unforgettable. His down to earth personality and affable nature endeared him to many.”

Former Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh said that the nation has lost one of the tallest leaders from north-east. Similarly Sonia Gandhi, putting aside bitterness, while appreciating his contributions to the country rightly noted that he was a tall leader. Rahul Gandhi mourned saying his demise is a loss to the nation.

Meghalaya Chief Minister, Dr Mukul Sangma, while paying tribute to his mentor turned rival in the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly broke down. Recalling the veteran leader’s regular visits to parents who were his teachers, the Chief Minister thanked the deceased for making the Garo tribe known to the nation and the world. Saluting the former Chief Minister and Lok Sabha Speaker as an ‘incomparable’ he said that “No leader from this part of the country has achieved extra-ordinary innings in political and public life.”

Sharad Pawar with whom joined hands against the Congress and co-founded the NCP, wrote in his micro-blogging site, “PA Sangma (was a) vibrant, dedicated parliamentarian & effective speaker. My close companion! Champion of northeast issues.”

I was in class VIII in a city school when the 41 year old PA Sangma was sworn in as Chief Minister in 1988. Stories of his humble beginning were told and retold. Poverty coupled with the loss his father at 11 forced him to graze the household cattle in the remote village close to the Bangladesh border instead of being at school.  Missionary fathers came to his rescue and sponsored his studies. The sixth of seven siblings went on to do BA from St Anthony’s College, Shillong and MA in international politics from Dibrugarh University while being a teacher in Don Bosco School, Dibrugarh. Simultaneously he obtained an LLB degree via an evening college. Inspiring stories indeed as sheer hard work and determination enabled a cattle tender to become the Chief Minister of the state. In December 1989 I was lucky to see him personally in our village. Responding to the memorandum presented to him, I vividly remember he told the crowd he was moved by the area’s backwardness and would personally look into the demands. He couldn’t do anything as on 25th March the next year his government was toppled.

The man from little known North East was to make a mark in the national capital. He occupied various positions as a nine time member of the Lok Sabha. First under Indira Gandhi and then under Rajiv Gandhi he was MoS for Industries, Commerce, Coal and Labour for over 12 years.  He served with distinction. His capability was rewarded when in 1995 he was made a cabinet minister for I&B by Narasimha Rao. He was not just another minister. He was a performing minister. He took and implemented concrete steps to improve his ministries.

1996 was his biggest accomplishment. The intelligent, articulate and affable 49 year old Sangma was elected Lok Sabha Speaker by the Vajpayee (BJP) government making him the first unanimously elected speaker, the first from the Opposition to be a Speaker, the first from the Scheduled Tribe and Christian community to be Lok Sabha Speaker to add to being first tribal Cabinet Central Minister. As a Speaker, he formed a committee on Ethics and Standards in Public Life. The credit for the formation of a Standing Joint Parliamentary Committee on Empowerment of Women and  a Joint Parliamentary Committee to study the Constitution (81st Amendment) Bill, 1996 that required 33 per cent reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies goes to him. As Lok Sabha Speaker he marshalled the house smoothly even during stormy debates. One can still remember his typical Hindi while dealing with varied members of different political parties while being jovial and witty.

PA Sangma reached the peak of his career. 1999 probably saw him reverse his political journey. Ignoring his long association with the Congress he, along with Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar revolted against ‘foreigner’ Sonia Gandhi. The expelled trio co-founded the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). He left the NCP in 2004 when the party joined the Congress government at the Centre and took refuge in Trinamool Congress. He rejoined the NCP later but when Sharad Pawar backed Pranab Mukherjee in the 2012 presidential election he parted ways again. Backed by the BJP, BJD and AIADMK and marked by controversy for invoking the tribal and Christian identity, he unsuccessful contested against Mukherjee. He then launched the ‘tribal-centric’ party, National People’s Party(NPP) in January 2013 and decided to align with the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

His refusal to patch up with the Congress was perhaps, a blunder. He could have achieved much more in the Congress or as an ally with the grand old party. He would have been union minister in the UPA Government or even the Indian president. Sadly outside the Congress he was an ordinary MLA and MP. His calculative leaning towards the BJP did not pay off. Voters did not appreciate his constant switching of parties and his alliance with the communal and anti-minority BJP. His party was nearly wiped out in 2013 Legislative Assembly Election wining just two seats. Concerns were also raised as to whether the steward was hampering the political careers of his children. Though he came back last year when he played a key role in his party winning the GHADC elections to form the Executive Committee in local government, yet the NPP may henceforth have a limited scope in the state and national political scenario.

On January 14 last, in his indomitable style, on the occasion of the inauguration of a youth convention in Tura he asked youth to move from reservation to competition, from acquiring degrees to acquiring skills, from subsidy culture to loan culture, from seeking government jobs to self-employment. Well said! Now we mourn his death. His demise has left a huge vacuum in Garo Hills. My sincere condolences to the family members! Thousands will converge at his home and funeral venue to pay respects and bid farewell to their beloved leader who was their voice for over four decades. I will join them to learn and share more about this towering, inspiring and multifaceted personality.

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