The book shows how as MP, Minister and Speaker, P.A. Sangma made a difference in the Lok Sabha
At a time when there is widespread scepticism about the role of the political class in the country and its space in the polity, this book — A Life in Politics — comes as a refresher. a compilation of speeches in Parliament by one of the colourful leaders in national politics and former Lok Sabha Speaker, P.A. Sangma, it reveals how a Member, when he or she does thorough homework, can make a qualitative difference to parliamentary debates. In his role as a parliamentarian during 1977-2008, Sangma made a difference not only as a member of Parliament but also as a union minister.
His grasp of issues, intellect and, above all, concern for the disadvantaged sections of society have come out exceedingly well in the book. Sangma, who hails from the small and beautiful State of Meghalaya, had demonstrated these qualities in his speeches, even in his first term as MP of the Tura constituency when he was barely in his Thirties. His knowledge of a host of subjects ranging from rail connectivity for the North East and due representation of Scheduled Tribes in elected bodies of Uttarakhand to the status of beedi workers across the country and State autonomy, coal shortage and foreign policy matters is evident in the book. Given his talents, it is strange to know that he could become Union Cabinet Minister only in 1995, exactly 15 years after he was first inducted into the Union Council of Ministers. This is to be seen in the backdrop of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance-I government (2004-2009) having two first-time MPs — Dayanidhi Maran and Anbumani Ramadoss — as Union Cabinet Ministers. Perhaps, it was due to “compulsions of coalition politics,” a phrase often used by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
During his stint in the mid-1980s at the Labour Ministry, perceived to be unglamorous, Mr. Sangma acquired national attention. He was still Union Minister of State with independent charge. Several major laws such as Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, and Equal Remuneration (Amendment) Act, 1987 were enacted. His speeches at the time of adoption of the relevant Bills displayed how earnest he was in framing them and getting them adopted. They also indicated that he was fully aware of problems in executing such laws in a society characterised by the wide gulf between precept and practice.
Even though one cannot say with certainty that the pernicious practice of child labour has been abolished in the country, Mr Sangma, true to his assurances to Parliament, ensured that the National Child Labour Eradication Policy, 1987 and the National Child Labour Project Scheme, 1988, were formulated.
The way he went about in rectifying lacunae and omissions of the Equal Remuneration Act through an amendment in 1987 reflected his pro-active and serious approach in the enforcement of a law that envisaged enhanced benefits to the working class. The amendment was essentially to prohibit discrimination against women during work. At that time, he had held regional conferences of Labour Ministers in different parts of the country to drive home the importance of the implementation of the revised law. Very rarely do Union Ministers undertake such an exercise.
Contrary to the popular impression of MPs rushing to the well of the House and creating ruckus, Mr Sangma, as a parliamentarian, has made a very valuable contribution by way of articulating issues of public importance and offering sensible suggestions. In a debate in June 1980, despite being a member of the ruling party, he did not fail to provide the Lok Sabha with shocking information that of all the north eastern States, Assam alone had a rail link then. On the presence of Bangladeshi workers in the country, he, referring to the case of Indians working in the Gulf and other countries, suggested that the Bangladeshis be given work permits.
His concern over the tendency of those in power to attack constitutional institutions such as Election Commission is quite relevant. In a debate on the Iraq war in April 2003, he pertinently recalled India's not-so-glorious track record of not condemning the aggression of the erstwhile Soviet Union during the Hungary Uprising (1956) and Prague Spring (1968) and invasion of Afghanistan (1980). He cited these instances only to say that in matters concerning war, there was no morality but national and commercial interests alone mattered.
The book has brought to the fore not only the intrinsic strengths of arguments placed by Mr Sangma through his speeches in Parliament but also the issue that has plagued the office of Prime Minister ever since Manmohan Singh took over in May 2004. In his preface, Sangma, who left the Congress along with Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar in May 1999 on the issue of a foreign-born person being projected as the party's prime ministerial candidate for the Lok Sabha elections held later that year, has stated in unequivocal terms that the Prime Minister being subjugated to an extra-constitutional ‘super' authority was a dangerous precedent.
The book, containing messages from a host of leaders, would have been more reader-friendly if sub-chapters were listed in the contents page also. There are some instances of misprint and spelling errors. But, these are all minor aspects of a book which contains immensely insightful speeches of a person deeply committed to democracy and the interests of the nation.
A LIFE IN POLITICS — Selected Speeches and Lectures, 1979-2004: P. A. Sangma; HarperCollins Publishers, A-53, Sector 57, Noida-201301. Rs. 799.