The Garo Hills are Sangma turf. For the ruling Congress, it means the clout Chief Minister Mukul M Sangma wields across the six districts and 24 of the State’s 60 Assembly seats comprising these hills dominated by the Garo ethnic community. For principal rival National People’s Party (NPP), it translates into the domain of siblings James, Conrad and Agatha Sangma.
But the elderly and the first-time voters agree the hills are synonymous with the Sangma the world beyond knows better – former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Agitok Sangma.
“You can take the Garo Hills out of Purno Sangma, but you cannot take Purno Sangma out of the Garo Hills,” says Coxtone Momin, a 62-year-old voter in Hawakhana, a popular locality of Tura, Meghalaya’s largest urban centre after State Capital Shillong.
“There are 10 candidates in our (North Tura) constituency. But we think the contest will be between the Congress and Purnoda’s party,” says Nimai Ghosh, 66, of Tura Bazar locality.
‘Da’ is a form of address in Assamese and Bengali for men who are respected or older by age. Mr. Ghosh, one of some 8,000 Bengali voters in Tura, prefers to call NPP ‘Purnoda’s party’ to keep “memories alive.”
First-time voter Lukhy B. Marak of Dopananggre locality too holds Purno Sanga in awe. “That is a name you cannot ignore in these parts, even when he’s no more,” the 19-year-old says.
Purno Sangma, nine-time MP from Tura Lok Sabha constituency and Chief Minister of Meghalaya from 1988-1990, died in March 2016. His younger son Conrad replaced him as MP in the by-election.
Mr. Sangma also took over as president of NPP, which his father had founded in January 2013 after taking over a virtually defunct Manipur-based party of the same name.
Missing the leader
“This is the first assembly election after he passed away. We really miss him. The whole credit of what’s happening goes to him, all said and done,” Mr. Sangma told The Hindu at his residence here.
“If Conrad Sangma had floated his own party and tried to build up NPP, I don’t think he would have got the response he is getting now. It is only because of the brand name of P.A. Sangma attached to the NPP. There’s a soft corner (among people) as soon as PA Sangma’s name comes up, there’s a sense of trust in the party. Even though he’s not there with us, his legacy still remains, his ideology remains, and this is the strongest part of the foundation of the party,” he says.
Rivals are wary of Purno Sangma’s aura too. “The NPP is definitely contesting this election with an emotional advantage associated with the legendary leader’s name,” says Aanamika J.G. Momin, an independent candidate hoping to spoil NPP candidate Agatha Sangma’s party in the South Tura seat.
Agatha, Mr. Sangma’s sister and a former Union minister during UPA-I, is the NPP general secretary.
Purno Sangma, who left the Congress on the issue of former AICC president Sonia Gandhi’s nationality, made the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) a force to reckon with in Meghalaya, where the electoral battle has traditionally been between Congress and regional parties.
His decision to contest the presidential poll against Pranab Mukherjee made him quit NCP in 2012 and form NPP, which fared poorly in the 2013 assembly election by winning only two of the 32 seats contested.
“The situation is different this time. NPP is no longer perceived to be a party of Garo Hills and has a fair chance in the Khasi and Jaintia hills,” party spokesman W.R. Kharlukhi says.
The difference, Congress says, is because NPP is the B-team of Bharatiya Janata Party. The basis of the connection is NPP’s membership in North East Development Alliance helmed by BJP.
“The BJP and NPP are rivals in many seats. We did not have pre-poll alliance in Manipur last year, and we have no alliance in Nagaland this time. An alliance for development does not mean a political alliance,” Mr. Sangma says.