Troubleshooter Spells Trouble
Gogoi distances aide, exposes himself in the bargain
On July 28, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited relief camps in the riot- affected Kokrajhar district, he was intrigued by the absence of one person he expected to see there— Assam Education and Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. “Why is Himanta not here?” the Prime Minister asked Digvijaya Singh, in charge of the Assam Pradesh Congress. Manmohan wasn’t the only one left wondering. Sarma’s conspicuous absence, a first since Tarun Gogoi took charge of the state in 2001, lends credence to what people have been suspecting all along— that he is no longer the most- trusted lieutenant of Assam Chief Minister Gogoi.
In his lone- ranger avatar, the Chief Minister has cut a sorry figure. The Congress high command is unhappy, the national media is hounding him and Opposition parties are gunning for his head. “Sarma was firefighting for him all these years. Now we know who was actually running the state,” says a minister from Barak Valley. “That he has loyalists in every government department and a strong support base among Congress cadres across the state also helps,” says another Congress minister.
During the 2011 polls, while Gogoi campaigned in select places as he was recovering from a heart surgery, Sarma led the Congress cam- paign across the state. Sarma’s wife’s channel, News Live, always ahead of its nearest rival by 100 TRPs, also played a strong role in mobilising support for the Congress. Trouble between Sarma and Gogoi started immediately after, with the media crediting Sarma for the victory and lauding his performance as health minister. Relations dipped further with the entry of the Chief Minister’s son Gaurav into politics. While most Cabinet ministers rushed to pay obeisance to ‘ Assam’s prince’, Sarma kept his distance. “If Gaurav calls a minister and wants to meet him, the minister lands up at his home. But Sarma would politely invite the youngster over to his own office or home,” says a Congress MLA.
Tensions finally boiled over between Sarma and Gogoi in April, following reports that Sarma secretly met Congress President Sonia Gandhi in Delhi to suggest the Chief Minister’s name for the vice- presidential elections. Though Sarma denied having suggested so, Gogoi promptly found a new Man Friday in Forest Minister Rockybul Hussain, who is very close to Gaurav. It didn’t help that in end- June, Manmohan directly called Sarma to inquire about the flood situation in Assam while Gogoi was away on a 10- day visit to the US. The Chief Minister, ironically, had gone to study disaster management.