The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the National People’s Party (NPP) have been coalition partners in the governments in both Manipur and Meghalaya. However, in the run-up to the Manipur polls, both parties are contesting against each other all the while remaining a part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
In 2017, the NPP contested only nine seats in the state of which it won four – the best strike rate among all parties – and emerged as the kingmaker. The NPP’s support was critical for the BJP to form government in the state for the first time.
This election, the NPP is being seen as one of the biggest contenders and the party is aiming to play a key role in Manipur. While the BJP is contesting on all 60 seats, NPP is contesting from 42 seats, nearly five times more than last time – 19 of them are BJP leaders who switched sides after being denied tickets.
Mojo Story interviewed NPP President and Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma on his party’s equation with the BJP and the number of issues they face in the state.
Since you had been part of the National Democratic Alliance. What is the National People’s Party (NPP’s) top agenda for this election?
We strongly feel that the governance and the delivery of existing programs and schemes is something we as a political party would try to focus on. What I mean to say is, we will not do different things, we will do things differently. We strongly believe that there is a lack of delivery and governance in the state.
Number one, we will be focusing on better governance, better delivery and ensuring already existing schemes are implemented in a much better way.
Number two, we will work towards repealing AFSPA.
Third, we will also work towards ending the corruption that exists.
Four, in the matters of development, politics and social issues, we will take everybody along regardless of their color, caste, creed or religion that will ensure overall development. These are some generic points from our manifesto. The other areas of focus for us will be youth, women and unemployment.
When you question that there has been an issue with the governance, are you also questioning your coalition with the BJP? Do you feel that your party failed in delivering as it should have?
A coalition is always a challenge and a lot depends on how you build a team, trust and work on the promises you have made. We have felt from the past five years that this coalition has been very challenging. Our Honorable Deputy Chief Minister served this position for five years but was without a portfolio for about a year and a half or two years during that period.
Now, you tell me, how do you want us to work in a situation like that and deliver on the promises we have given? So, while we face those challenges of not being given the kind of freedom to work but because of the commitment given to the coalition partners, we stuck and despite the challenges we faced with them, we still went ahead and gave stability to the government. So, yes, you are right that we should look back. However, we had given a commitment, tried to move forward but the challenges in the coalition were far and great which became hurdles for us to be able to move in the speed and areas we would have wanted.
Since you talked about AFSPA, it has been a long-standing issue in the region. You also were part of the coalition. Have you tried getting this act repealed? Have there been interventions from your side?
We as leaders have been against AFSPA since 2002 and our stand on AFSPA has never changed. When I took over the government in 2018 in my state (Meghalaya), I immediately moved to repeal AFSPA and I am happy that within six to nine months of NPP taking over the government in Meghalaya, AFSPA was repealed. When it comes to Manipur, the Home Department was being dealt with by the Honorable Chief Minister and while we were trying to resolve issues related to the coalition – not being able to work freely with the portfolios and departments assigned – AFSPA was an issue that could not be addressed well.
As I said, the coalition was challenging and if you don’t work as a team, issues like AFSPA couldn’t be resolved. So a healthy coalition is important, teamwork is important to be able to take your agendas forward and be able to resolve issues like AFSPA. That’s why today we are asking the people of Manipur to give us a bigger mandate than what they gave us last time, we shall be in a stronger position to take these issues forward.
The timing of the accusations you are raising now is important. The state is going for polls in a few days. Why didn’t you make these accusations public when you were in power?
I hope you get a chance to interview Mr Amit Shah and ask him how many times I have asked him to resolve these issues (around coalition), maybe I think at least ten times. You can also ask Mr J P Nadda how many times I have mentioned these things to him. For a year and a half, I kept mentioning this to them without any results. They kept telling me “abhi nahi (not now)”, “karte hai (will do),” “kuch karte hain (will do something),” “baat karte hain (we will talk).”
We didn’t make things public then because we thought it was an internal matter of the coalition and would not be healthy giving our decrees in public. During those days also, some MLAs tried to leave the coalition, Hemanta (Assam CM) and I tried to bring them back on certain promises, which were again broken. We kept talking up these issues with almost every individual in the BJP leadership. But now that period of five years is over and it is time for a fresh mandate.
Recently a BJP spokesperson called NPP a “parasite that proved a menace,” now has been expelled from the party. People in Manipur say, NPP is still part of the NDA. The NPP might be fighting alone but they will form a post-poll alliance with the BJP. What exactly is the relationship between the NPP and the BJP?
There are two parts to this. The first part is Elections. When we go for the elections we try to sell the ideology of the party. We try to convince people to give us a full mandate so that we can fulfill our commitments made in the manifesto. So, the election is one part.
When we fight an election and if we don’t get a required mandate or a fractured mandate, then comes the second part, which is the formation of the government. Therefore, we are very clear in both these principles. We will always fight elections on our principles, our ideologies and on our own stand. We will request people to vote for us hoping that we will get a single majority and that does not happen all the time, especially in Manipur. In that scenario, we will look at how it will be convenient for us to form a government and how it will be beneficial for the people of the state. We will also examine how it will be more stable in the long run and how we can move forward in the most practical manner.
So you are not denying the possibilities of the coalition with the BJP again ?
It all depends on the numbers. Let us see how the numbers come in. Some parties could have a majority, you never know that. For some parties, it can be a mix and match in some ways. So, I think it’s not fair for me now to predict what’s going to happen, as the people of the state have to give their mandate. Let people give the mandate then we will decide what to do.
I am told that the NPP has problems with BJP leadership in the state and CM N Biren Singh in particular. As you also mentioned, the Deputy CM didn’t have a portfolio. Now BJP has hinted that N Biren Singh would be the Chief Ministerial candidate if they are voted to power. How has the equation with N Biren’s leadership been?
Yes, we had challenges with N Biren Singh, as I already mentioned earlier. He was the Chief Minister, so if I say the coalition was challenging, I also mean the Chief Minister.
If NPP leaders say something against Biren, we might be branded as having our own agenda. But now, his own people are speaking against him. There is a large percentage of people in BJP who are against him. So, I leave the argument there only.
If only the NPP said this about his leadership, there would have been donuts but since he is being opposed within his own party too, that means there is something not good within the organization. It is upto BJP, whom they want to project and that is not something I should comment on. But as I said, it all depends on the numbers and we shall have to wait for the day the results are out.
BJP leaders in Manipur are saying that NPP is aggressively attacking the BJP but BJP leaders are softer towards NPP because they feel you are still part of the coalition. What are your comments on that ?
I don’t think that’s true. BJP leaders have been attacking us. I don’t know if you read the statement of N Biren Singh, where he said Conrad Sangma has “no identity and no culture.” All their attacks have been on NPP only. In fact, in many places, there has been verbal and physical violence against NPP people. Therefore, I don’t think that is true at all. In the last 40-50 speeches I had in the state, I have hardly used BJP or Biren Singh’s name except for a few times. I’ve always stuck on what NPP stands for and why NPP should be selected. I don’t like negative campaigning but sometimes I am forced to.
I was covering a BJP rally in Kshetrigao. They accused you of being an ‘outsider’ to the state. It was also told that the head office of the NPP is in Meghalaya and the people of Manipur should be cautious before trusting you. Your comments?
(Laughs) I believe you know the answer and I know the answer you are looking at.
No, but I want to hear it from you..
(Laughs) You are putting the question in my mouth so that I reply back the same thing.
No, no it’s not like that. I genuinely want you to answer that.
(Laughs) Let me use another language to put it.
The point is that we as a political party have originated in Manipur. So NPP is as Manipuri as it can be. It was PA Sangma that started the party in Manipur and then it expanded. The BJP has made such comments but I don’t think the people of Manipur will buy it. These are meaningless statements that
People and environmentalists are concerned about Palm Oil cultivation in the North-East. Your manifesto also talks about it. The central government is aggressively pushing it?
No, the Central government is not pushing, they have given us a scheme and it is upto the state government to take it. I believe there could be some areas where the plantations are happening in any case and if it makes sense to do it or creates livelihood without having the impacts we are worried about, then why not. But yes, if the people of the state do not want palm oil cultivation and if the environment is affected in a drastic manner then it must not be taken up. And there is no question of doing palm oil cultivation on a large scale where it impacts vegetation. Even in Meghalaya, I have worked on the same principle. I believe there should be absolute consideration of the sentiments of the people.
There is an unprecedented rise in communalism in the country. Since you have been part of the coalition with the BJP. What are your comments on the recent Hijab controversy?
Our party, the NPP, is a very secular party. Being a secular party and realizing the diversity of the nation and the region, we are very clear that we must respect every religion.
My only point is that sometimes the secular parties when in coalition need to call out the parties who are trying to polarize the environment?
Whenever something communal came up, we raised our issues whether it was Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) or issues around Inner Line Permit (ILP). NPP has always been at the forefront in flagging the issues even communal in the northeast. We have even asked BJP at times about why they are raising it. So, we have been doing that and that’s how NPP has always been.
(The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)