In a significant departure, from the 49-year-old Indian parliamentary experience, the Eleventh Lok Sabha unanimously elected a member from the Opposition, Shri P.A. Sangma, as the Speaker. From a humble beginning in a small tribal village in Meghalaya, he rose to the exalted office of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha by sheer dint of his merit, determination and industry. Affable, friendly and more often informal in disposition and endowed with a spontaneous sense of wit and humour, but firm when it came to ensuring orderly conduct of the House, Speaker Sangma had a charming personality which won him unstinted cooperation from all shades of political opinion represented in the Lok Sabha. His quest for maintaining decorum, dignity and autonomy of the House with meticulous impartiality, earned him approbation nationwide.
Purno Agitok Sangma was born on 1 September 1947 in village Chapahati in the picturesque West Garo Hills District of the State of Meghalaya in North East India. Growing up in the small tribal village, young Sangma realised early in life that he would have to struggle hard to rise in life. Inspired by his mother who inculcated in him the values of diligence, humility and honesty, he learnt that education was the only way to progress in life. After completing his graduation from St. Anthony's College, he went to Dibrugarh University in Assam for his Masters degree in International Relations. Subsequently, he also obtained a degree in Law.
Sangma is a man of many parts, having been, in the course of his career, a lecturer, a lawyer and a journalist before he joined politics. He started his political life as a worker of the Congress Party and his rise through the ranks of the Party has been phenomenal. In 1974, he became the General Secretary of the Meghalaya Pradesh Youth Congress; he also remained its Vice-President for some time. In recognition of his commitment to the party's ideals and also taking into account his organisational skills, he was appointed the General Secretary of the Meghalaya Pradesh Congress Committee in 1975 and held that post till 1980.
Sangma came to the national political scene in 1977 when the country was preparing for the Sixth General Elections. He was elected to the Lok Sabha from the Tura constituency in his home State on the Congress ticket. The 30-year-old Sangma entered the portals of Parliament at a time when the nation was witnessing a major political change with the Congress Party losing power at the Center for the first time since Independence. It was an opportune moment for a budding parliamentarian to make his mark and the articulate Sangma made full use of the opportunity to make an impact as a sincere and hard-working member.
In less than two years, national politics came a full turn and the Janata Party went out of office. The Charan Singh Government which assumed office subsequently lasted but a few months. In the mid-term elections of 1980, the Indira Gandhi led Congress Party returned to power at the Centre. Sangma was re-elected to the Lok Sabha from the same constituency.
In the party organisation too, Sangma moved up fast and became the Joint Secretary of the All India Congress Committee in 1980, before he was inducted into the Union Cabinet and assumed the office of the Deputy Minister in charge of Industry in November 1980, After two years, he shifted to the Ministry of Commerce as Deputy Minister and held that post till December 1984.
Sangma was returned to the Eighth Lok Sabha in the General Elections of 1984. Recognising his potential and dedication to the Congress ideals, the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi inducted him into his Cabinet, this time as a Minister of State holding charge of Commerce and Supply. For a short while, he also functioned as the Minister of State for Home Affairs. Sangma took over as the Minister of State for Labour with Independent Charge in October 1986.
Ever amenable to reason and conciliatory in attitude, Sangma, however, was uncompromising when it came to safeguarding the fundamentals of national interests. It was no wonder then that during his tenure as the Labour Minister, there was a sharp decline in industrial strikes and lock-outs.
Known for his meticulous homework, complete mastery of the subject at hand and phenomenally long memory for facts and details, Sangma was one Minister who could reply to a heated debate in Parliament without the aid of officials' slips from the Officers' Gallery. His amiability, thorough knowledge of the functioning of his Ministry and an inimitable sense of humour enabled him to tackle all challenges in Parliament. The Question Hour particularly brought out the best in him, handling the most ticklish matters with consummate ease. Throughout his Ministerial tenure, he retained the image of an honest and conscientious executive and always steered clear of any controversy.
Sangma had a remarkable understanding of the political realities of the entire North East, particularly of his home State. Though, starting 1977, he was in Delhi and busy in national politics, he never cut himself off from his roots and always kept track of political developments back home. It was this thorough understanding of the State politics which made the Congress Party leadership to requisition his services for Meghalaya in 1988. That year, he returned to Meghalaya politics, this time as the Chief Minister. He headed a 48-member Coalition Government in a tumultuous period in the State's political history. In 1990, following the resignation of his Government, Sangma became the Leader of the Opposition in the State Legislative Assembly.
The call of the nation brought Sangma back to the Centre soon. He returned to the Lok Sabha in 1991 following the General Elections and was inducted into the Union Cabinet, this time by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. Sangma was given the Independent Charge of the Ministry of Coal. In February 1992, he was given the additional responsibility of assisting the Prime Minister in the Ministry of Labour. In the context of the Economic Reforms and Liberalisation Policy announced by the Union Government, his principal challenge was to sell the idea of economic reforms to a restive and apprehensive labour force. Tirelessly presiding over tri-partite Industrial Committee meetings, he made tenacious efforts at convincing the labour of the inevitability of economic reforms. He emphasised the need for a new Management and Work Culture, the hallmark of which was generation of wealth through efficiency, productivity and modernisation and sharing of wealth equitably.
Sangma assumed the Independent Charge of the Ministry of Labour in January 1993. He was elevated to the Cabinet rank (the first tribal to be elevated as such) in the Ministry of Labour in February 1995. As the Union Labour Minister, he headed the Tripartite Indian Delegation to the International Labour Conference in Geneva six times where he proved his mettle repeatedly. He was also elected the Chairman of the Asia and Pacific Region for the International Labour Ministers' Conference, 1994-95. When foreign investors had just begun to favour India as their destination and a furore was raised in some quarters over the so-called 'social clause' issue, Sangma, as Labour Minister, organised a Conference of Labour Ministers from Non-aligned and other Developing Countries in 1994-95. He brought about unanimity amongst them to hold the position that the leverage of international trade should not be used in respect of social issues like labour standards as that would be coercive.
In September 1995, Sangma took over as the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, the post he held till the General Elections to the Eleventh Lok Sabha.
As a parliamentarian, Sangma, by virtue of his interest as well as the offices he held, was active in several Committees. He was a member of the Committee on Subordinate Legislation, Committee on Communications and Committee on Government Assurances and Chairman of the Parliamentary Consultative Committees on Labour, Coal and Communications.
Sangma was elected to the Lok Sabha for the fifth time from the Tura constituency in the 1996 General Elections. On 23 May 1996, he was unanimously elected the Speaker of the Eleventh Lok Sabha with universal support cutting across all political parties. In half a century of Indian parliamentary history, he was the first member from the Opposition to hold the office of the Speaker.
Sangma, undoubtedly, had all the credentials for the august office—legal training, long experience as a parliamentarian as well as a Minister, reputation for impartiality, transparency, humility and wit and wisdom. From the time he assumed the office of the Speaker, he executed his responsibility with such flair and assurance, it seemed that expertise of the job came to him instinctively. He had a unique approach to parliamentary reforms. As a Speaker, he ensured that rules were observed by the members even in the midst of stormy debates. Parliamentary democracy, he observed, meant free debate, objective deliberations and healthy criticism and it was for the Speaker to ensure that these objectives were achieved.
As one who went beyond holding the balance between the Treasury and the Opposition benches to holding the balance of every individual member. Speaker Sangma won the admiration of both the ruling Coalition and the Opposition within a short span of time. He also displayed a tremendous sense of timing and history when he took laudable initiatives towards facilitating greater partnership between men and women in politics and in stressing the importance of ethics and probity in public life. With this in view, during his Speakership, he guided the formation of a Standing Joint Parliamentary Committee on Empowerment of Women and also the constitution of a Joint Parliamentary Committee for considering the Constitution (Eighty-first Amendment) Bill, 1996 which sought to provide for 33-1/3 per cent reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and the State Legislative Assemblies.
In order to maintain high traditions in parliamentary life, Sangma believed, members of Parliament were expected to maintain standards of conduct, both inside the House and outside. He was of the considered view that the ethical values that ought to permeate the legislative, the executive and the judicial wings of the constitutional system had a deep and lasting Impact on the
character, direction, credibility and future of democratic governance. During Sangma's tenure as Speaker, in a move which won encomiums from all quarters, an 8-member Study Group of the Committee of Privileges was constituted to report on Ethics and Standards in Public Life, The Study Group's report was considered by the Committee of Privileges and adopted with some amendments. The report was later presented to the Twelfth Lok Sabha.
Another major initiative taken by Speaker Sangma was the convening of a Special Session of both the Houses of Parliament from 26 August to 1 September 1997 as part of the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of India's Independence. The Session took stock of the achievements and also set a National Agenda for the future. Opening the Special Session, for the first time in the Indian parliamentary history, the Speaker addressed the House and stressed the need for a second freedom struggle—"freedom from our own internal contradictions, between our prosperity and poverty, between the plenty of our resource endowments and the scarcity of their prudent management, between peace and tolerance and the current conduct sliding towards violence, intolerance and discrimination".
As Speaker, Sangma led the Indian Parliamentary Delegations to the 42nd and 43rd Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conferences in Kuala Lumpur in August 1996, and in Port Louis in September 1997, respectively. He also led the Indian Parliamentary Delegations to the 96th Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference in Beijing in September 1996 and the 98th Conference in Cairo in September 1997. Sangma also headed the Indian Parliamentary Delegation to the Second Conference of the Association of SAARC Speakers and Parliamentarians held in Islamabad in October 1997. He chaired the Inter-Parliamentary Specialised Conference of the IPU on "Towards Partnership between Men and Women in Politics" hosted by the Indian Parliament in New Delhi in February 1997. The first ever Conference of the Chairmen and Members of the Public Accounts Committees of SAARC Parliaments was also held in New Delhi in August 1997 during his eventful tenure.
Sangma was an extremely popular Presiding Officer, respected for his knowledge of rules and even more for his innate understanding of parliamentary traditions. He was equally at his best outside the House. He participated in many social gatherings and intellectual interactions organised by activist groups with great enthusiasm, guided objective and non-partisan debates on national issues and added a new social and public dimension to the office of the Speaker.
Sangma has been closely associated with various social organisations and educational institutions. He was the Editor of a Meghalaya daily, Chandambeni Kalrang. He has also edited two volumes of the book India in ILO.
Sangma received the Michael John Roll of Honour of the Tata Workers' Union for "Distinguished Contribution to the Cause of Labour and to the Parliamentary System" in March 1997. He also received from the President of India in May 1997 the Golden jubilee Award of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) for outstanding contribution to the cause of the working class.
Sangma is a multi-faceted personality. His concern for decorum, freedom and dignity of the House earned him the reputation of an outstanding parliamentarian. What, however, made Sangma acceptable to political parties of all shades, as a Speaker, was his ability to earn the confidence of people on both sides of the House. His abiding concern for the underprivileged and his tireless endeavors to eradicate poverty and remove socio-economic inequalities have endeared him to the masses. Indeed, he is a man of the masses with an international standing. It is the human side of Sangma which has brought him a large number of friends amongst the people at large.
In a short span of less than two years, Sangma left an indelible impress of his personality on the office of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. His cherubic face, hearty laugh, quick wit, boundless enthusiasm, impeccable demeanour and earthy wisdom made him a household name, with people from all over the country showering compliments for the rare skill with which he conducted the proceedings of the House. In the media too, his tenure as Speaker was highly appreciated.
The General Elections of 1998 saw Sangma returning to the Lok Sabha once again and presently, he is one of the most articulate and dignified speakers in the Opposition benches, listened to by all with respect and attention.
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