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