Meghalaya chief minister and National People’s Party (NPP) president Conrad Sangma can perhaps be best described as an entrepreneur by passion, a politician by choice, and an artist at heart. In the run-up to the state polls next year and the general elections a year later, Sangma speaks exclusively with CNN-News18 on issues that matter for Meghalaya in particular and the Northeast in general. Edited excerpts:
What are the achievements of the Conrad Sangma government and the challenges it has faced so far?
We have always focussed on the fact that governance and delivery mechanisms should improve. There has to be better monitoring. Every rupee that is spent must have the maximum desired results and the implementations of schemes should be done at a faster pace. We have done well in those areas. Governance has improved in every department. We have been focussing on a lot of technology implementation. We ensured we connected with the grassroots directly.
What’s your entrepreneurial vision for Meghalaya?
I strongly believe that the government’s role is that of a facilitator. We create the ecosystem. We create the infrastructure. We bring the policies. We make the environment. Then we allow the stakeholders in the environment and ecosystem to take things forward. If the government gets into doing business, then it doesn’t really work out. This is not something that I have invented or that I have come out with my own theory. I am just trying to copy what other big nations have done successfully.
Is that the foreign university MBA in you speaking? What are your policy interventions like?
Qualification is, of course, one part. But I don’t think that qualification is everything. Ultimately it depends on how you see things. And for me, I believe in entrepreneurship and in entrepreneurs. I have a great passion for it. So it’s not about education, it’s just something that I believe in. The Prime Minister has also been focussing on start-ups and entrepreneurship at the grassroots level. You see, a lot of times we realise that we don’t recognise the people who actually contribute to things. So what I did right in the beginning before even getting into the policy, as I started recognising the entrepreneurs. I said look, let’s choose one entrepreneur every month and give that person a CM’s entrepreneurship award.
That’s a much-needed boost from the government…
Exactly, it has got multiple benefits: number 1, it’s a pat on the back. Number 2, it’s like creating a role model that others will see. And number 3, overall people will learn from this thing and get encouraged and say, I also want to be that way. If they can, then why can’t I? As we went along we realised that the entire ecosystem was not working. We realised that the entrepreneurs needed a platform, guidance, they needed to be trained, they needed funds and technical support. To achieve that we came up with a holistic program called the Prime program. It deals with everything… from business plans, competition to hand holding and incubation to actually giving them seed money, to organising funding for them, to organising technology partners for them, to marketing.
Moving to politics, what are the major areas of concern for your government and your party, the NPP, in the run-up to the state elections next year and the general elections in 2024?
See, politics is always complicated. It’s never simple and easy. The reason is that there are many issues and concerns and for those issues and concerns, sometimes one solution does not satisfy everybody. Even if the solution is brought in, there are a lot of people who are not accepting the solution. What I am trying to say is there are historical problems that we face. We have had a lot of law and order situations, because, in certain areas we had communal tensions, we had issues regarding infiltration and mechanisms to check it. We had, of course, the CAA episode and others. But at the end of the day, we should try to sell the narrative to the people that the development aspect, livelihood, and economics are also important. Politically we have moved on a lot of things like the border issue. We have passed resolutions on important subjects like the ILP and Eighth Schedule. The challenges are there because we cannot resolve all of them in one go. But we are hopeful that the entire narrative of the government’s work that we have done and also the initiative we have taken in terms of important political issues have seen some results in the past five years.
There is a perception that there is always an invisible hand of the BJP in the running of the Meghalaya government despite there being only two MLAs in your 60-member Assembly. Your response…
Overall, governance is a complicated aspect. If you look at a state like Meghalaya or other states of the Northeast, the maximum funding, in terms of the state’s share of central taxes and the CSS programmes, almost 70 to 80 per cent are central funds. So there is no denying that the central government plays a very important role in the overall funding of different programmes and the funds that are flowing in. The state government has a very important role in ensuring we implement things well so that we get the rest of the money on time. Coming to the practical side of things, this is how things work. If one reads this with political colour and says that since the BJP is sending 70-80 per cent of the funds so there’s the party’s invisible hand in state governance, I would say no, that’s not the way it is. That happens in every state, not just my state. When it comes to the overall decisions that are made at the state level, it is purely the government here which makes the decision along with my coalition partners, my leaders, and my ministers. We take unanimous decisions and move forward. If the decision is tough, then I have to go ahead on my own. There is no interference as such in terms of the important political or economic decisions we make.
Is the CAA threat still looming large on Meghalaya? How is the NPP planning to deal with it?
Again this entire issue is a larger issue of infiltration and identity. That’s really at the bottom of the entire issue. When the first draft came out, there were no provisions to exempt any state. It was only after I and many other leaders from the Northeast jointly urged the Government of India to review it and to find ways to exempt or protect certain states the MHA did that. In the states where the Sixth Schedule like ours was there, the said scheduled areas will be exempted. Where the ILP was not there, they gave the ILP in Manipur and they said that the ILP areas will be exempted. So they went the extra mile based on our stand and met our concerns and our demands in one way. We managed to do it. I think that’s how negotiations and discussions happen and a solution that is acceptable to all is reached.
So as far as the CAA is concerned, you are at ease?
CAA will not be implemented here. But we are not at ease. At the end of the day, as I said, if you see the way the CAA’s dates, times and applications are changed. I am confident that Meghalaya will not be affected by its implementation. But, obviously, we will continue to ensure that whatever steps and whatever stance needs to be taken to protect our state and our people, we as a government will do that.
You are a part of the North East Democratic Alliance. With CAA now out of the way, do you see the NEDA bond strengthening or are there still other issues that remain unresolved?
See, the issues will keep coming. There is no coalition or marriage also that is perfectly smooth. Saying that everything will be perfect and no concerns will come up will be immature and impractical to think of. Concerns and issues will always be there and they come up. We will face them. What’s important to understand is we have a working relationship out here. A certain sense of trust and understanding has developed. When it comes to states like Meghalaya or other tribal states in the Northeast, then please keep these in mind. We learn as we go along the way. I see that in the NDA, there has always been a considered effort to improve that. Of course, they have their own agenda, their own plans, and their own ideological stands which is fine. As long as that does not intrude into the interest of the state and the Northeast, there is an amicable solution that can be reached. I think that’s the way we move forward.
We have been part of the NEDA as a political platform where we work together on different situations. But when it comes to elections we have always maintained different stands. I have been very clear from day one that as a party we try to market our political ideology. If people accept it, it’s great. Else, we work on the political equations we have to. So coming to the 2024 elections and the elections in Meghalaya, we will go on our own. We won’t have a pre-poll (alliance). We didn’t have it in Manipur, Mizoram, Arunachal, and Nagaland. We won’t have it in Meghalaya also.
But the post-poll alliance is surely a possibility, right?
That’s what I am saying. The reason I don’t believe in that is not that I don’t want to go with A, B, C, or D. Or I don’t like them or I don’t care about them. That’s not the point. The point is about the identity of the party. If you start compromising on the identity and the ideology of the party even before the election, then that’s not fair to the people and to the party itself. That means you have already given up on the party before the elections. So I have a firm belief as a party president that we go to the people with our ideology. If people accept us and grant us a mandate then we go ahead with that. If they don’t, it means people have not accepted our ideology fully. Hence, we need to compromise and discuss with other parties and form a government. So post polls are always a political strategy that we have worked towards finding out how to have a more stable and workable government. Pre-election is more about the ideology and the stand of the party and we go with that to the people.
So that’s your stand for both the state polls as well as the general elections?
Yes, absolutely! Yes, yes.
With the Trinamool Congress now looking for political footing in Meghalaya, is the NPP under pressure given Mukul Sangma’s existing political influence in the state?
In my political career spanning, well, officially twenty years and unofficially thirty years now, I have been through a lot. One thing that I have learnt is never to take things easy and never underestimate your opponent. Never write off anybody in politics. And stick to your grounds and be humble. I think these basic principles apply to me no matter what position I am in. When it comes to this election that’s also what I see. I see an opponent and I see the person and the party as somebody who can be a challenge to us… whether it will be or not, time will tell. But, if I already start taking them lightly then I think I’m already starting on the wrong foot. I don’t have any comments on how they will do or not do. I can only tell you that we are going to prepare very hard. I tell my people that every time we go on a battle or an election, you need to think that you are going to lose. That’s when you are in that aggressive stand of moving forward. The moment you think you are going to win, then you are already complacent. Therefore no matter who the opponent is, whether it’s the Trinamool or Congress or anybody else I think it’s important we treat everybody as a worthy opponent and fight the election as if we are going to lose the election with a very tough mindset, is what I believe.
But it’s not just your predecessor Mukul Sangma here… It’s also the Trinamool that is eyeing expansion beyond Bengal. That means leaders like Abhishek Banerjee, who has already begun paying visits, and the likelihood of Mamata Banerjee coming here for campaigns. Does that make you take things differently?
No, I would still treat it as serious even if they had not come. But since you are stressing the entire fact of leadership, we had that before. When congress was there, we had Madam Sonia Gandhi, Mr Rahul Gandhi coming in and campaigning. So, we have been through those situations and, to be frank, the kind of organisational setup that the Congress has even today throughout the nation and even in Meghalaya, it will take some time for the Trinamool to really get close to that level of organisational base. The Congress has spent 50 years building it up.
But the Trinamool is not exactly looking to build its own base here, not at least immediately… it’s rather aiming at using the base that’s already there for Mukul Sangma…
I agree. You are right about that. But that’s where you have to go into the more micro details. That’s where the real politics come in. What’s happening here is there are certain sections of population who are so committed to the Congress that even after Dr Mukul Sangma had gone to the Trinamool, they stayed back with the Congress. All I am saying is that kind of a commitment and organisational base is not there yet with Trinamool. If today Dr Sangma leaves Trinamool, his followers will not stay back in Trinamool the way they had stayed back in Congress. So, it’s not the same. You cannot compare. But even then, as I said, we don’t take anybody lightly.
Do you think Mamata Banerjee as a political figurehead would have an impact on the people of Meghalaya?
She is, of course, a very tall leader. There is no doubt about it. She is somebody who has been a chief minister of a very big state, in the eastern part of the country. Therefore she has her own standing. But the politics in Meghalaya is different. Here the politics revolves largely around individual candidates because the population is small. You are talking about 34,000 to 40,000 votes in a constituency. You are talking of one MLA winning with 10,000 votes. It’s a personal contact that you must have. So it’s a very individual-centric election that we face. Now, if Mamata Banerjee comes here, campaigns, and thinks that she will swing the votes, it may not happen so easily. Let me just put an analogy from their point of view. We had the Prime Minister of the country, and the home minister going to West Bengal and urging people to vote (for the BJP). But, even the tallest leader going there did not have that kind of impact. So it is the same for Meghalaya. So it’s not that simple is what I am trying to say.
How serious are the ethnic differences on the ground currently in Shillong? Can the tribals and non-tribals, especially Bengalis, coexist peacefully given the recent history of trouble?
These kinds of tensions and complications are there throughout the country. I think it would not be fair to single out Meghalaya and say it happens in this state alone. It’s not that it doesn’t happen in Shillong, it does. But I don’t say that a specific incident or a specific person should be generalised into (forming opinion) about the whole population. People out here have been coexisting, there have been challenges, there have been instances where there have been communal tensions and incidents have taken place. But I think that is not the general trend out here. If you were to ask the people out here, everybody believes that the ecosystem in Shillong is moving forward because of the kind of cosmopolitan population we have, because of the contributions that are made by every section of the society. In that process, there could be some misunderstandings that take place. But our effort is to ensure that they are minimised, our efforts are to ensure that there should be peaceful coexistence. Every citizen should be protected. That’s the kind of mindset with which we work.
Before I wrap up, allow me a sneak peek into your artistic endeavours. I hear you are a guitarist and vocalist. Where did you pick this up? How passionate are you about it?
I think everybody has a passion. Everybody has a liking in certain areas. I am into music a lot. It started off in my early days in Shillong. So, I was here studying as a student of class V when my father was the chief minister and leader of opposition back in 1988. That’s when I picked up the guitar in Shillong. As we moved along, obviously my interest grew and obviously, it has always been a part of me. You know, if I get out of this office suit, I am just another normal person. I try to be as normal as I can because that’s how I believe one should be. But music has been something that has helped me to really connect with myself, give me that space that I need all the time. I think more importantly it allows me to connect with the youth. And I think that the youth of our state and of the nation are into music. So I get a chance to connect with them. As you said, I would have loved to play, sing and all. But we are going through a lot of difficult phases right now. This may not be the best occasion to do that. Let me get over this tough phase of floods and on a lighter day and occasion, definitely we will enjoy the music (laughs).
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