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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 12 New Delhi March 12, 2016

A Warm-Hearted Friend

Sunday 13 March 2016, by Barun Das Gupta


Purno Agitok Sangma, who passed away in New Delhi on March 4 at the age of 68, was one of the few illustrious political leaders India’s North-East has produced. His wide circle of friends and admirers will remember him as a warm-hearted friend and a host whose hospitality was fabulous. At the personal level he would be frank even with those who differed with him. From a modest beginning—he was born in a farmer’s family—he rose to be a national leader by dint of his merit.

After taking his law degree, Sangma started practising in the Tura court. He once told me an anecdote. He learnt his first lesson in the actual practice of law from his senior who was a Bengali advocate. His senior told him: “Purno, if you want to be a successful lawyer then you must not only know the law but also the judge.” This piece of advice, Sangma told me, he never forgot as a lawyer.

I first met him at Shillong when he was the Chief Minister of Meghalaya. It was a formal interview for the newspaper I was working for. After the interview was over, when I was getting up to take leave of him, he asked me: “Tell me, what should I do now as the Chief Minister?” My answer was curt: “Mr Sangma, I am a reporter. My job is to report and not to give advice to political leaders or Chief Ministers.”

Sangma’s face broke into a broad smile. “This is the first time I have got such an answer from a journalist. Usually whenever I put this question to journalists, they start giving me voluble advice on what I should and should not do.” Looking back, I think that interview laid the basis of my lasting friendship with him. He used to share with me many interesting tidbits of what was going in the politics of Delhi.

When he decided to leave the Congress and float the NCP along with Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar, I told him he was making a mistake. I gave my reasons. He listened but did not agree. Later he had to leave the NCP also and float his own party. The fatal decision that he took (of leaving the Congress) gradually reduced his stature from a national leader to a regional leader to a State leader and then to a district leader. It was a sad spectacle.

His reason for breaking with the Congress was his bitterness about the top leadership of the party. He narrated some incidents to me in confidence. I must put on record that despite the decline in his political fortune, he never regretted his decision of parting with the Congress. Personal incompatibilities made it impossible for him to remain in the Congress.

He was always respectful to his elders. Even as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha he would address Sarat Chandra Sihha, the former Chief Minister of Assam, as ‘Sir’. Later, the two wanted to build up the NCP as an alternative to the Congress in the North-East. But that was not to be.

One of his memorable acts as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha was his decision that forced Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to resign on May 28, 1996. Vajpayee lost the no-confidence motion by one vote. And that vote was of Janaki Ballabh Patnaik, who had just become the Chief Minister of Odisha but had not, till then, resigned his membership of the Lok Sabha. The question arose as to whether a member of a State Assembly could participate in voting in the Lok Sabha. Sangma ruled that he could. That led to the fall of the first NDA Government. A disappointed Vajpayee lamented that it was the first time that the vote of a Chief Minister had decided the fate of a Prime Minister.

The void created in the North-East by Sangma’s untimely departure will be difficult to fill for a long time to come.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist now based in Kolkata, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.