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Purno Sangma: The rise and the tumble

July 17, 2012 14:22 IST

P A SangmaAfter the presidential poll, Sangma may well realise that 'miracles' and 'conscience' do not really exist, especially in Indian politics, they have long become extinct, says Anirban Ganguly.

Purno Agitok Sangma's finest moment -- according to his own admission -- came when he, an ordinary person, 'a tribal from the remote north-east of India' took oath as cabinet minister along with Madhavrao Scindia of royal lineage and Buta Singh, 'son of a commoner from Punjab.' Purno saw in this, the beauty of the Indian Parliamentary system which opened up opportunities for even the remotest tribal of the land.

Purno's tribal identity  has in the past, repeatedly propelled him to do many 'firsts' in Indian politics -- first tribal cabinet minister in 1995 and the first tribal Speaker of the Lok Sabha in 1996 -- and it is this again which is pushing him to make a last attempt at another first -- a tribal President for the republic. For a politician who has never lost an election this one seems to be a tough call, driving Purno to publicly discuss the powers of miracles and the benefits of conscience.

If Pranab Mukherjee was Indira Gandhi's visible and voluble man Friday, Purno was her silent foot soldier from the north-east, who timely rallied the area's regional parties in support of his mentor during her worst political phase. When Indira was politically routed in 1977, Purno, then 30, was among the few to enter Lok Sabha on a Congress ticket. Indira was impressed by this electoral feat as well as by the political dividend of his loyalty.

Captain Williamson Sangma, one of the stalwarts of the Meghalaya statehood movement, had decided to give Purno a ticket overlooking the demands of many other seniors of the party. 'Let us give this promising young man a chance', Captain Sangma had then pleaded paving the way for Purno's three decades long rise in national politics. For a boy, born in a remote West Garo Hills village of Meghalaya, then a tiny spot in undivided Assam, that chance came as a big break.

The sixth Lok Sabha lasted only 32 months and despite not being on the best of terms with Sanjay Gandhi, Purno returned to Parliament from Tura in 1980 fighting the elections on his own mettle. The rise followed, his leader appointed him joint-secretary in the All India Congress Committee and after a brief but active spell she inducted him in the cabinet as a deputy minister in charge of industry. As deputy minister when no files came to Purno for decision making he seems to have directly told Indira, 'Madam, there is no work for me. I should better be working in the AICC where there is a lot of work.' Remedial action, it is said, was swift and fast.

Purno's rise continued unabated and unlike his current bête-noir he seems to have struck a close working relationship with Indira's son Rajiv Gandhi. This saw him continue first as minister of state for commerce and supply and then with independent charge of the ministry of labour. It was during this period that Purno is said to have emerged as one of the chief trouble-shooter and crisis managers for the Congress. Following Rajiv's directive in 1988 Purno obediently agreed to head a short lived 48-member coalition government in Meghalaya during a phase of crisis in the state. The experience was not a very happy one.

His mettle as a survivor and practitioner of realpolitik saw him being inducted in Narasimha Rao's ministry in 1991 and then being elevated to a cabinet rank in 1995. This political phase, culminating in the speakership of the Lok Sabha, was perhaps Purno's last best phase. Under his stewardship the Coal India Limited saw a turnaround during this period and officers remember how Purno as a hand on minister, at times got into the pits alongside miners to understand their plight.

As labour minister he had developed a close relationship with the Left -- even though the current bunch of comrades appear to have forgotten it -- the late M K Pandhe once recalled how Sangma was always accessible to the trade unions and leaders and was a workers' leader in his own right. Purno's best jibes were reserved for his Leftist friends, one of his old associates remembers a slogan he had coined on the Left trade unions attitude to work: 'Amra asle gale maina pabo, overtime dile kaam korbo'  (our salary is for coming to office and going back home. But if we are expected to work, we must be paid overtime).

Purno's crowning moment came in 1996 when Parliament unanimously elected him, then a member of the opposition, as its Speaker. It was a first all through -- the first to be elected unanimously, the first tribal to become Speaker, first from the opposition to be elected to the chair, the youngest to be elected as presiding officer. His best performance came out here: his cajoling, coaxing, ordering the televisions shut, his entreaties in Garo laced Hindi, 'boithye, boithye, aap, boithye' and his addressing a special session of the house to commemorate the golden jubilee of independence where he called for launching a 'second freedom struggle' to achieve 'freedom from our own internal contradictions' did created a national impression. The local boy from Garo Hills appeared to be inching towards a greater national profile and role.

And then came the 'the clash and the eclipse' and the long tumble. Differences on the foreign origin issue against Sonia Gandhi saw him trust Sharad Pawar and breakaway from the mother party in 1999 in order to form the Nationalist Congress Party. Purno claimed that supporting Sonia went against his 'ideology of nationalism and patriotism.' He was still heady from his speakership experience, perhaps.

Purno could never really recover politically from that schism. The north-east hardly responded to his call on the issue keeping him confined to Meghalaya.

Despite being always on very good terms with the Bharatiya Janata Party which appointed him a member of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, Purno could not align with it completely citing religious compulsions in his home turf.

In 2003 the BJP went out of its way to support and coordinate the formation of Purno's North East Peoples' Forum, an umbrella body of 17 non-Congress regional parties from north-east that had planned to fight the Lok Sabha elections in coalition with the NDA. Veteran of Assam politics, the late Sarat Chandra Sinha and then BJP in-charge of the north-east V Satish were the chief point's men along with Purno's confidant B B Dutta for the entire operation. The NEPF, however, remained a non-starter with the last minute abstention of the AGP, then the largest regional formation.

His small state background became for the first time a disadvantage for Purno, who could never really match or challenge Pawar's clout within the party. On the issue of supporting the UPA-I, Purno split from the NCP, again raking up the 'foreign origin issue' and labelling his faction as the real NCP. The move did not cut much ice with the main faction and then, perhaps impulsively, Purno turned to Mamata Banerjee convincing her to form the Nationalist Trinamool Congress. The experiment was short lived, Mamata refused to share her political space and aura and Purno, given a short shrift by her acolytes, retreated and retraced his steps back to the NCP. It left a bitter taste on both sides. That he had also not fully surrendered to the Pawarites nor adjusted to the NCP was evident by his recent revolt against the official party line on the presidential elections.

But what perhaps, was seen as major faux-pas by his supporters and admirers was Purno's declaration in June 2009 that he had apologised to Sonia Gandhi 'for what had happened ten years ago.' Purno gushed that the lady at Janpath was 'gracious' and had remarked 'past is past forget it.' Yet as late as January 2012 Purno continued to express his worry over the institution of the prime minister, 'I strongly believe', he said in a public speech at the heart of New Delhi, 'that the prime minister being subjugated to an extra-constitutional 'super' authority is a dangerous precedent.'

Some had heaved a sigh of relief at his apology; others saw in it a calculated move for another innings at something else and a few perceived it to be a blundering political miscalculation. Purno had indeed tripped, the lady refused to meet him with his petition for presidentship in May this year -- she rarely forgot and never forgave. He was out into the cold once again till his time tested friends in the BJP and other regional formations came forward to shield Purno from a possibly long political winter.

It is interesting to see that the once undisputed master strategist from the north-east has received pledges of support from the south and from Odisha but none as yet from the north-east. See it as you may -- his political exile from the region of his birth or his pan-Indian national appeal.

A close observer of and participant in Purno's politics upholds the question that continues to 'tantalise': 'Whether his current [political] fate was the by-product of misplaced ambition or whether it was the deliberate outcome of the political undercurrent' within a Congress that was being bound, post 1996, to the habit of functioning under dynastic-edicts. Historians of modern Indian politics will have to await a final verdict.

Meanwhile Purno may well realise that 'miracles' and 'conscience' do not really exist, especially in Indian politics, they have long become extinct!

Anirban Ganguly