How Conrad Sangma is giving BJP a Christian-tribal headache in Northeast

Updated 3:40 PM, 4 April, 2019
Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma. Photo: PTI

A popular adage about India’s Northeast describes Assam as “the land of lahe-lahe” (laidback) and Meghalaya “the land of paase-paase” (the one that listlessly follows the slow steps of Assam). But in the ongoing political churn ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, this equation seems to be changing.

After the BJP came to power for the first time in Assam in 2016, the spring in Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s steps brought all non-Congress parties from the Northeast under one umbrella — the North Eastern Democratic Allianace (NEDA). But if there is someone who is truly leading the NEDA at the moment, it’s Meghalaya Chief minister Conrad Sangma and his National People’s Party (NPP).

Following the mess created by the BJP’s proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), Conrad — much like his astute politician-father and former Lok Sabha speaker Purno A Sangma — led the other northeastern states (at least eight partners of NEDA joined the protests) in opposing the controversial Bill. Yet Conrad’s party continues to be a part of the BJP-led NEDA. His real success, however, lies in the fact he managed to spread the NPP’s wings outside Meghalaya as well. From a party that was launched in 2013 by the senior Sangma, it has made major inroads into all other states.

Sample this: Apart from Meghalaya, the NPP is part of a BJP-led coalition government with four seats in Manipur while it is one of the coalition partners in the Nagaland government with two MLAs. The fact that the NPP is in a position to topple both Nagaland and Manipur government is what makes it more powerful. While Conrad’s party is looking at fielding candidates from all the 14 parliamentary seats in Assam, in Arunachal, it is contesting in 33 of the 60 Assembly seats in the coming state elections. In the recently held Mizoram Assembly elections, it contested in nine of the 40 seats.

That’s not all. In the coming Lok Sabha elections, the NPP has decided to go it alone and field candidates in all 25 constituencies of the region.

Even though Himanta Biswa Sarma still plays an important role in the BJP’s scheme of things, it is Conrad who enjoys the real power with his unique no-strings attached tie-up with the saffron party. If whispers are to be believed, it was Conrad who played the “go-between” in reuniting the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the BJP. In January, the AGP had severed ties with the BJP over the citizenship bill, but the two parties have now reunited to fight the Lok Sabha polls together.

However, the Meghalaya CM’s pull was on full display recently in Arunachal Pradesh — which along with Sikkim will have simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly polls on April 11 — when at least 18 BJP leaders, including ministers and MLAs, joined the NPP. Now, a panicked BJP has started accusing the NPP of manipulating the church to get Christian votes (according to 2011 Census, Christians constitute more than 30 per cent of Arunachal’s population).

It’s not for nothing that the Meghalaya Chief Minister claims the NPP is the only party in the Northeast that has championed the cause of the tribals and Christians in the region. The first-time CM often says there is a need for all tribals of the region to come together under the banner of NPP. During the Mizoram elections last year, he frequently travelled to the neighbouring state to drum up support for his party candidates. In one such rally, he had claimed: “We are a party for the tribals and are working hard to restore our identity as one voice from the Northeast.”

It was Conrad’s father who was the original kingmaker in the Northeast. Purno Sangma, the man who never lost a single election until 2013, was the first to try and unite all regional parties under one roof. Following his father’s footsteps, Conrad took the lead in bringing together regional outfits in the Northeast against the citizenship bill. At the height of the anti-citizenship bill protests earlier this year, Conrad was accorded a hero’s welcome on his return from Delhi at the Guwahati airport for his role in stalling the bill in the Rajya Sabha.

“It was an emotional moment for us. So many political parties from different states came and sat together to oppose the bill. Everybody came out to support us…student organisations, NGOs and civil society groups also came and joined us. It was the unity of the people from the Northeast that helped us,” Conrad said.

Samujjal Kumar Bhattacharjya, Northeast Student Union adviser and an influential leader from Assam, too was all praise for Conrad for taking a “bold position despite being a part of the BJP-led NEDA. “We are grateful to Conrad Sangma for being a true leader. He managed to gather support from all corners of the region for the well-being of the indigenous people,” said Bhattacharjya.

Now, campaigning for the NPP for the coming Lok Sabha elections, Conrad has once again pledged that his party will continue to oppose the citizenship bill. “Meghalaya was the first state in India to oppose the bill and raise its objection. We will remain true to our commitment promised to the people of Northeast and will never allow any bill that would hamper the interest of our people,” he said on April 1, while campaigning in North and East Garo Hills in Meghalaya to garner support for his sister and former Union minister Agatha K Sangma, who is contesting the election from Tura Parliamentary constituency.

“Vote for NPP… NPP is the party of the Northeast,” Conrad signed off.