‘Muslims, SCs, a Sikh, a woman have all occupied the top post of president. Only ST is left out. Why?’
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D K Singh: When and how did you get the idea of standing for President of India?
P A Sangma: I did not get the idea myself. When Barack Obama became the President of USA, I remembered the famous speech of Martin Luther King Jr, "I have a dream'' on blacks gaining their rightful status in the US. And it happened. USA has a black President. We tribals are a minority in this country. We had an annual conference of tribal organisations called Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad on August 9 last year. When I spoke there, I remembered King's speech and I told the gathering that if Obama can become the US President, why can't we tribals have a tribal as president or prime minister of India? That's when we agreed to raise the issue. Even if we don't get it this time, maybe we will get a chance after five years or after 10 years—it doesn't matter. We have a right to claim this as a citizen of this country. We had another meeting on May 9. Many leaders from across the country attended the meeting, leaders belonging to different political parties—Congress, BJP, NCP, small regional parties. We passed a resolution that we should appeal to the conscience of this nation that they should also consider a minority tribal for President.
Many people are accusing me of promoting myself but we gave half-a-dozen names to every political party. The names were of SC Jamir, five times Nagaland chief minister and Governor twice; Kishore Chandra Deo, the present minister for tribal affairs; third was my name; fourth name was Mr Arvind Neta, former union minister with 25 years in Parliament; the fifth name was Karia Munda, the sitting Deputy Speaker of Lok Sabha. And if the country is looking for a non-political person, we suggested J M Lyngdoh, former Chief Election Commissioner. It so happened that Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik, on the same day, mentioned my name. That's how it happened—I never claimed it myself.
D K Singh: Tell us about your meeting with Jayalalithaa?
P A Sangma: We met Jayalalithaa and gave her the list of names. She said, Mr Sangma I agree that tribals should have the opportunity to occupy this position but out of the six names you have given, only one name is acceptable to me and that is your name. If you agree, I will support you. I said I have no authority to agree, it is for the Tribal Forum to decide. But Arvind, who is the president of the forum, said Jayalalithaa's suggestion was acceptable, subject to the approval of the Forum's executive committee. That's how my name came up.
Dilip Bobb: Did Jayalalithaa approach Naveen Patnaik or did you?
P A Sangma: I think Naveen Patnaik went to Tamil Nadu for an Orissa Divas in Chennai. He was the chief guest. But I had spoken to him on telephone before he went to Chennai. So they must have discussed it there and agreed.
Coomi Kapoor: Why have other regional leaders not come out in support of you?
P A Sangma: Most of the parties at the national level are either part of the UPA or the NDA. The only major players outside are the Left parties. Therefore, the decision will have to be taken collectively by the UPA and the NDA. And we know which way the decision is going, though it is not announced. The Tribal Forum is very clear on which group will go which way. However, there are some small regional parties outside: in the Northeast, the biggest regional party of Meghalaya is the United Democratic Party with 10 MLAs. They support us. We have Goa Vikas Party with only two MLAs—they have announced their support. In Orissa, we have four NCP MLAs who support my candidature. We had a meeting with Asom Gana Parishad too. The leaders to be watched are Mulayam Singh, Mayawati, Mamata Bannerjee and the Left. Which way they go will be the deciding factor.
Amitabh Sinha: What did Sharad Pawar say to you?
P A Sangma: Mr Sharad Pawar has some political compulsions. NCP is a part of UPA as far as the central government and Maharashtra is concerned. We have three ministers at the Centre—Pawar himself, Praful Patel and my daughter Agatha. So he says that being a member and ally of UPA, NCP will not be able to take a decision on its own. He is absolutely right. Secondly, NCP has 15 MPs. They cannot possibly have the right to sponsor any name from the party. The only distinction is that NCP is not an ally of UPA everywhere. In Meghalaya, BJP is our ally and my son is the leader of Opposition to the Congress government. We have MLAs in Arunachal Pradesh, where we are in opposition to the Congress and likewise in Kerala. So we are not bound by the UPA dharma. Sharad Pawar is, my daughter is, but not me.
Muzamil Jaleel: If you had not left the Congress, would you not have stood a better chance as a tribal leader to become president?
P A Sangma: Firstly, I did not leave the Congress. I raised a very important issue of national importance and asked for a special working committee meeting to discuss that issue (Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins). Then I left for USA for my son's convocation. When I returned, I learnt that I had been expelled from the Congress. In 1974, I met Indira Gandhi for the first time. I was a young Youth Congress leader. She said to me, "You are a bright lad, I'm impressed and you have the potential to be successful in politics. But remember one thing: if you want to be successful in politics, you should never run after a post. Work sincerely, with dedication and the posts will run after you."
I have never forgotten Indira Gandhi's advice. I have contested Lok Sabha elections nine times but I've never applied for a party ticket. Even now, this candidature has come automatically to me. I never applied for it or talked to anybody. So whether I am still in Congress or not, makes no difference at all.
We are trying to register our presence in the country. Being an ST should not be a disqualification. If we don't deserve the seat on merit, throw us out. But if we deserve it, please don't throw us out because we are a small people. In 60 years of the republic, why have tribals never been considered for the top post? The Muslim minority has occupied it four times, Scheduled Castes have occupied it, a Sikh has occupied it. So has a woman. Only ST is left out—why?
Muzamil Jaleel: What would change if you were President?
P A Sangma: I'm a keen observer of the American presidential elections. When Bill Clinton was nominated for the presidency, he was asked what he promised the people. He said that he came from a small village called Hope. He promised 'hope' to the American people. If a tribal becomes president, it will give hope to the otherwise neglected people. Today, many of the problems India faces—Maoism, Naxalism, insurgency in the Northeast—are tribal-related problems. I'm sure a tribal president can contribute a lot. I have contributed to the ULFA agreeing to talk with the government. P A Sangma, as a private individual, has initiated the talks. Can he not contribute more when he has an official position? So, a tribal as president will have a tremendous impact on the mindset of the tribals.
D K Singh: How do you react to Ajit Jogi's criticism of your candidature? Do you consider it a rejection by the Congress of your name?
P A Sangma: Firstly, Ajit Jogi's status as tribal is not yet established. Therefore, I do not know whether he is qualified to be a spokesperson of the tribal people of India. But it is certainly an attempt by the Congress to counter our move. I don't believe that Ajit Jogi's comment is his personal opinion and not the party's.
Unni Rajen Shanker: You spoke of the question you raised in national interest (Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin). Have you changed your stand on the issue?
P A Sangma: It has become irrelevant, a closed chapter. When I opposed (Sonia Gandhi as PM because of her foreign origins), I really believed that she was aiming for it. In the first attempt, she could not become PM. In the second attempt, UPA-II had the numbers, Congress and its allies had the numbers. If she had really wanted to, she could have become PM—PA Sangma or anyone else could not have stopped it. But she opted out. I congratulated her. So it is a closed chapter and I don't think we need to talk about it anymore.
Subhomoy Bhattacharjee: You say Sonia Gandhi's nationality is a closed chapter. But assuming that after the next elections, the next president has to decide on whom to call to be prime minister, if Congress has the numbers, wouldn't the same issue arise again?
P A Sangma: I had made a very strong statement at one point of time: the Constitution of India or the Constitution of any country can be changed. Laws can be changed. Blood cannot be changed. I am an Indian. I have Indian blood, I cannot change that. I will never dilute that issue. It is not a political issue, it is an issue of conviction.
Coomi Kapoor: Are you hopeful of the BJP's support? Have there been any informal talks with them?
P A Sangma: I am hopeful. I have met Mr Gadkari, twice. I have met Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley. My appointment with Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi are pending for their return from Mumbai. I have spoken to Narendra Modi too.
D K Singh: You have had secular credentials throughout your public life. Would BJP's support have any bearing on that image?
P A Sangma: I don't think so. BJP is a national party. The second largest national party. They have ruled this country. They are ruling many states. Who can question the credentials of the BJP? With the passage of time, everybody changes. When I met Gadkari, the first thing he told me was that in the present Goan assembly, BJP has nine Catholic MLAs. They are changing.
Vandita Mishra: Much of the conversation around your candidature for president has centered on your identity as a tribal leader. Don't you think that it is an injustice to you, to your very distinguished career in public life, and an injustice to the office of President to reduce it to symbolism alone?
P A Sangma: Politics is driven by circumstances and the conditions that exist in a given time. In the past, we did not stake a serious claim because the political conditions were such that nobody would be able to promote a tribal candidate. This time the situation is completely different as the UPA does not have the numbers, the NDA does not have the numbers. This is the best time to stake a claim and for a consensus candidate.
Vandita Mishra: But why cannot Purno Sangma be a candidate for his work, why Purno Sangma as a tribal leader?
P A Sangma: Purno Sangma belongs to a political party which does not have a significant number in the electoral college. If I were to stand as an NCP candidate, as Sharad Pawar has already said, I would be nowhere. The kind of support that I am getting now, that would not have been there. If I were an NCP candidate, Jayalalithaa would not have been supporting me, Patnaik would not be supporting me, and the Left and the BJP would not be thinking of supporting me.
Dilip Bobb: What sort of image would you like to project as
P A Sangma: The President of India should concentrate more on the country, less on foreign policy. More on development work. For the first time during my lifetime, two years ago, the President of India visited my constituency. She inaugurated the airport. The amount of work that was done for the President's visit to my town, had not been done in the last 30 years. In that one visit of the President, the roads were done up, the buildings were painted, the town was cleaned up.
Raj Kamal Jha: You said you met senior BJP leaders. What is the sense you are getting from them?
P A Sangma: They say it is a major political decision. They will first discuss it within the BJP and if they reach a consensus in the BJP executive, they will place it before the NDA at the end of this month. The final decision will be taken at the NDA meeting. They all said that the claims of the tribals are justified.
Raj Kamal Jha: You said you sent a list of six names to everybody. Who did you send it to in the Congress?
P A Sangma: We did write a letter to the Congress president seeking an appointment for the Tribal Forum leaders. We wrote to Pranab Mukherjee as he is leader of the Lok Sabha. We wrote to Dr. Manmohan Singh because he is the leader of the Rajya Sabha. We have asked to meet them. So far we have received no response.
M K Venu: How do you see politics evolving until 2014 in terms of political realignments?
P A Sangma: I still visualise a hung Parliament. Congress will certainly decline, BJP will not make a substantial increase—although Gadkari and Modi coming to together is very important. In the NDA, the major party is the BJP. Now the combination of Gadkari and Modi, I think, will help the BJP's chances. But there will be a polarisation or realignment of other non-NDA parties and that will be reflected in the July presidential election. So, the presidential election is going to be a clear-cut indicator of what will happen in 2014.
Maneesh Chhibber: If you do not get the President's post, will you settle for Vice President?
P A Sangma: It is not in my hands. I have been proposed by the chief ministers of Tamil Nadu and Orissa. I am also getting a lot of internal messages from other political parties, including the Left. I have met Left leaders and Jayalalithaa has spoken to many of them. This issue has to be discussed and decided by them, not by me.
Muzamil Jaleel: Who do you think could be Congress's candidate?
P A Sangma: I don't know. I think they are not finding it easy to decide on a candidate.
Anushka Sethi (Online reader): Who do you think would be a better President, you or Pranab Mukherjee?
P A Sangma: Today, the country is in very bad shape. The petrol price increase is creating a lot of havoc in the country. The foreign exchange reserve is drastically falling. There are so many financial crises. At this stage, I don't know whether the country can afford to change the finance minister. I doubt it very much.
D K Singh: What if there is a triangular contest for President, would you still contest?
P A Sangma: I don't think there will be a triangular contest. There will be a straight fight.
Transcribed by Prawesh Lama, Naveed Iqbal & Dipankar Ghose
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