The Last Congress Politi­cian

Af­ter three terms, Tarun Go­goi is in a poll go­ing down to the wire. This un­der­lines his po­lit­i­cal sagac­ity

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Saba Naqvi

Should Tarun Go­goi be de­feated in As­sam, we would be see­ing the last of the strong state lead­ers from the Congress. Be­sides Go­goi, the other pow­er­ful state satrap from the Grand Old Party in re­cent times was Y S Ra­jasekhara Reddy, the for­mer chief min­is­ter of Andhra Pradesh. And he died trag­i­cally in a plane crash in 2009.

There are cur­rently two other serv­ing Congress chief min­is­ters in ma­jor states: Sid­dara­ma­iah in Kar­nataka and Oom­men Chandy in Ker­ala. But they are the sort of politi­cians who just hold of­fice. Leav­ing a po­lit­i­cal legacy and shap­ing the his­tory of a state is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter.

AsStron­gas­theyDon’tCome

There are cur­rently some pow­er­ful fig­ures oc­cu­py­ing the chief min­is­te­rial of­fice. But they are ei­ther from re­gional par­ties or the BJP. For the Congress, Go­goi is the last of the Mohicans, the best metaphor to use to de­scribe a sur­viv­ing mem­ber of a di­min­ish­ing tribe. The fact that af­ter three terms Go­goi is in an elec­toral con­test that is go­ing down to the wire it­self speaks vol­umes about his po­lit­i­cal sagac­ity.

Go­goi at 81 is a cool cus­tomer who shows none of the char­ac­ter­is­tic loss of tem­per that stal­warts fac­ing a tough con­test re­veal in the mid­dle of elec­tion­eer­ing. He can crack a joke, use sar­casm against his op­po­nents and sug­gest a wicked strat­egy in the event of ‘be­ing a lit­tle short on num­bers’. He ca­su­ally dis­plays the shrewd­ness it must have taken to man­age for 15 years the many con­tra­dic­tions that make As­sam such a volatile place.

It would have taken nerves of steel to get some con­trol over the As­sam that Go­goi took over in 2001. The state was bank­rupt and the chief min­is­ter tells a tale of how the then-Prime Min­is­ter Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee tried to help him get funds. At that time, the fi­nan­cial mess was so great that the state could not clear 25% of an over­draft with the Cen­tre, es­sen­tial to get cen­tral pay­ments, that the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion had stopped for a while.

What was more de­bas­ing than the bank­ruptcy was the vi­o­lence. When Go­goi’s reign be­gan, As­sam had been trau­ma­tised by in­sur­gency, ter­ror­ism and the ‘se­cret killings’ — the ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings or­dered by the ear­lier Asom Gana Par­ishad (AGP) gov­ern­ment — of fam­ily mem­bers of the United Lib­er­a­tion Front of Asom (Ulfa).

To­day, what most peo­ple do agree on — even those who won’t be vot­ing for Go­goi — is that the fear has gone and lev­els of vi­o­lence, that touched most lives in some way or the other, are down. Peo­ple are now as­pir­ing for nor­mal things: elec­tric­ity, wa­ter, bet­ter wages, land, eco­nomic growth, and many just want to try an al­ter­na­tive af­ter15 years. The BJP, too, has come up with a more or­gan­i­cally grown strat­egy than what was ap­plied in the Bi­har and Delhi polls.

Go­goi, mean­while, has gone with the high-risk strat­egy of not stitch­ing an al­liance with the All In­dia United Demo­cratic Front led by Badrud­din Aj­mal. It was a for­mula pro- moted by some Congress strate­gists work­ing with the party’s na­tional lead­er­ship, who ar­gued that post-Bi­har, the arith­metic of the ‘grand al­liance’ is the safest bet. Go­goi, how­ever, chose that arith­metic be damned. The chem­istry in the event of such an al­liance would make it easy for the BJP to posit the elec­tion as a ‘Hindu vs Mus­lim’ con­test.

Patch­ingUp­with­FreeBirds?

In­stead, Go­goi has been try­ing to make the elec­tion about As­samese na­tion­al­ism, even as his fu­ture also de­pends on poach­ing a sec­tion of the Ben­gali Mus­lim bases of the All In­dia United Demo­cratic Front. The ex­tent to which this hap­pens in the sec­ond and last phase of vot­ing in As­sam to­day on April 11 will also de­ter­mine the out­come of the polls.

Go­goi be­longs to the old school of the Congress that be­lieves ced­ing spa­ces to re­gional forces ul­ti­mately re­sults in their growth at the cost of the na­tional party. He is also of the view that the Bodoland Peo­ple’s Front (BPF) that snapped ties with the Congress af­ter eight years in 2014, and is cur­rently in al­liance with the BJP, can go any way post­poll, de­pend­ing on the num­bers. “The Bo­dos are free birds,” he says with a touch of sar­casm.

But un­less Go­goi is a nose ahead of the BJP-led al­liance, what­ever in­no­va­tive schemes he may have up his sleeve could be frus­trated by the BJP-ap­pointed gover­nor of As­sam, Pad­man­abha Balakr­ishna Acharya. Since his ap­point­ment in July 2014, the gover­nor has fa­mously made re­marks such as, “[In­dian Mus­lims] are free to go to Pak­istan and Bangladesh if they want” and “Hin­dus­tan is for Hin­dus”. Go­goi has ac­cused him of con­vert­ing his of­fice into a “den” of the RSS and an “an­nexe” of the BJP.

The re­al­ity is that in a hung assem­bly sit­u­a­tion, the ad­van­tage would be with the BJP, a party that’s been go­ing for the jugular in states such as Ut­tarak­hand, Arunachal Pradesh and Ma­nipur and throw­ing niceties to the wind. Be­yond elec­toral de­feats and wins, Go­goi would know that there are strate­gies of smash and grab.

Yes, be­ing a three-term chief min­is­ter can be hi­lar­i­ous

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