This Republic Day, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi was among the first to react to US President Barack Obama’s emphasis on religious tolerance. “Obama’s emphasis on religious tolerance is nothing but a clear indictment of growing religious intolerance during Modi’s reign,” Gogoi tweeted.
In doing so, Gogoi was opening a front against the BJP, which is making steady inroads in Assam, a state known to be a stronghold of the Congress.
Gogoi, who many believe would not be contesting the crucial Assembly polls in the state scheduled for 2016, is worried, since his party is losing its traditional votebank. The Muslims are moving to the perfume baron Maulana Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and the tea-tribe votes are going to the BJP.
A substantial chunk of the Hindu votes in Assam, too, have shifted to the saffron party. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress managed to win only three out of the 14 seats in Assam. The BJP, on the other hand, won seven and the AIUDF won three.
The division of votes along religious lines is helping the AIUDF the most. The BJP, too, has been able to ride on the Modi wave and create a domain for Hindutva rethoric in Assam. In the Assembly polls, it will only translate into more votes for the BJP.
Facing anti-incumbency was something that Gogoi would have predicted, but since 2012, the straight-spoken Assam chief minister has faced open dissent within the party. Only six months ago, the dissenting camp openly ran signature campaigns to oust the three-time chief minister. They also lobbied with the Congress high command for his removal.
Gogoi stood his ground. He axed two dissenting ministers and the leader of the group — former health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma — tendered his resignation. “But it left the Congress in Assam a divided camp. This has affected the party at the grassroots level and the BJP would like to capitalise on it,” says Afrida Hussain, a local journalist.
Gogoi fought dissent with the backing of the Congress high command, especially party vice-president Rahul Gandhi. The high command removed Assam Congress chief Bhubaneshwar Kalita and replaced him with Anjan Dutta. Dutta was initially in the dissident camp and has now switched sides to the Gogoi camp. Gogoi got the next shot in the arm when the high command allowed him to do a complete rejig of his Cabinet.
Gogoi then engaged in sanitising his Cabinet. He asked all his ministers to tender their resignations on 18 January. Then he did a major reshuffle — 14 ministers were sworn in. Gogoi only retained six from his previous cabinet of 14. He had the choice of expanding the ministry to 18, which is the maximum Assam can have, but the veteran chief minister chose for restrict it to 14.
Interestingly, many senior Congress MLAs in Assam, who were once seen with the dissenting lobby, got ministerial berths. Prominent among the fence-sitters who got a ministerial berth are former chief minister Bhumidhar Barman, who has been allocated the revenue and disaster management, administrative reforms and training portfolios. He is also responsible for the implementation of the Assam Accord. Another senior minister, Sarat Barkotoky, has been made in charge of the education, pension and public grievance ministries. Interestingly, Barkotoky was projected as the chief ministerial face by the dissenting camp.
“We have been told that the high command became very worried after the media in Assam started reporting on dissenting leaders talking to the BJP. But the high command decided to act with an iron hand. In doing so, the high command believed that it has, for the time being, handled the dissent within the party in Assam. It also believes that the 2016 Assembly election in Assam would be highly polarised and is very crucial for the party. The party has no other face to project except Gogoi, who won three straight elections and is known as a Gandhi family loyalist,” says a senior Congress MLA from Assam.
“The high command, thus, reposed faith in the chief minister, who used a tried and tested formula. First, he weakened the dissident camp with the high command’s help. And now, with a cabinet reshuffle, he is trying to please those who switched sides to his camp. But it might lead to trouble ahead of the elections and that period will be Gogoi’s acid test.”
Senior AIUDF leader Aminul Islam says, “The very fact that Gogoi and the Congress had to reshuffle the Cabinet is an indication that all in not well within the Congress. This reshuffle is not for the betterment of the people of Assam. The Congress is trying to give an impression to the people that they have axed non-performing ministers and are trying to portray the new Cabinet is a fresh team, but this plan will not work. They have done it to settle the dissent and many non-performing ministers, who are close to the chief minister, are still in the cabinet. The fact that the people of Assam are reposing faith on Opposition parties is enough to indicate that the Congress will bite the dust in the next Assembly election.”
The Opposition’s claims carry the weight of truth. Take the case of forests minister Rockybul Hussain. While he retains his panchayat and rural development portfolio, in the reshuffle, he was allocated agriculture, horticulture and food processing along with parliamentary affairs.
“We see Gogoi as one of the most successful chief ministers, but lately his administration has become weak. Rockybul Hussain miserably failed as a forest minister. Rhinos are still being poached in Assam. Gogoi should have dismissed him, instead he was promoted because he ensured the win of cm’s son Gaurav Gogoi in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls from Koliabor constituency. The chief minister should understand that young voters like us take more interest in politics after Modi became the pm,” says Nipul Nath, a young voter from Koliabor constituency, the home turf of the Gogois. Another dissenter who become a minister is Chandan Sarkar, who has been allocated the irrigation and soil conservation department. Only a year ago, Sarkar had spoken against Gogoi in public.
Even after the reshuffle, the spectre of dissent looms large. The newly appointed PCC chief Anjan Dutta apparently wrote a letter to all the ministers asking them to not “let down” the chief minister and the party and reminding them that they must not become ‘power’ hungry.
Earlier, in an interview, former health minister Sarma said, “I have no interest in this reshuffle. The main test for our government is the 2016 Assembly polls and our party will face the challenge.” If insiders are to be believed Sarma is playing his cards once again.
The BJP’s plans in Assam have gone right so far. But with the appointment of Siddartha Bhattacharjee as the new party chief in the state a few months ago, the air of dissent has started to blow in the Assam BJP as well. Once a strong force, the Asom Gana Parishad also has a ‘re-emergence’ plan for the 2016 assembly polls.
The big question is can Gogoi’s reshuffle work or will the plans of the Opposition click?