When Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, 78, took a holy dip at the Maha Kumbh on 10 March, he was perhaps seeking respite from the dissidence he is facing from some young MLAs and ambitious ministers of his party.
Under the veteran leader and three-time CM, the Congress has 79 MLAs in the 126-member Legislative Assembly. But when Gogoi announced on 5 March that the AICC is positive about a proposed alliance with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the main opposition party in Assam with 18 MLAs, there were rumblings of dissidence from the ranks, which soon became more evident when 14 MLAs missed a crucial party meeting.
Taken by surprise, Gogoi asked a few confidants to start a signature campaign in his favour, but 20 of the 79 MLAs refused to sign. The campaign stopped only after the Congress high command stepped in. For now, Congress President Sonia Gandhi has bailed out Gogoi by ruling out any leadership change ahead of the 2014 General Election.
The dissidence may have to do with Gogoi’s attempt to promote the political career of his son Gaurav Gogoi, 29. The elder Gogoi would be 80 when the next Assembly polls are held in 2016, and is unlikely to become the CM candidate. Many Congress MLAs feel the CM is desperate to get his son elected to the Lok Sabha in 2014 and are wary of a possible rise of dynastic politics. “Gaurav is an asset for the party, but it’s too soon to project him as a Lok Sabha candidate,” says a senior Congress leader on condition of anonymity.
Rupjyoti Kurmi, two-time Congress MLA from Mariani in Jorhat district, has openly aired his dissatisfaction with the CM. “We are not happy with Gogoi’s governance. Some ministers and legislators get attention, while the rest are neglected and the work in their constituencies gets hampered,” Kurmi told the media. Health and Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma too is fishing in troubled waters. Once a close aide of Gogoi, they fell out soon after the 2011 Assembly polls. Sarma and the 13 Congress MLAs considered close to him are said to be the key to the current dissidence. In fact, Sarma has publicly expressed his desire for the top job in the state.
Even Paban Singh Ghatowar, the Union MoS in charge of the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region, is said to be backing the dissidents. Ghatowar is influential among the tea tribes in Assam — a Congress votebank — and is eyeing the CM’s post.
But the last straw for Gogoi could well be the proposed alliance with the AIUDF — seen as the party that protects the interests of illegal migrants in Assam. It has emerged as a force to reckon with in the six most populous districts of the state where Muslims are in a majority. In the recent panchayat polls, AIUDF won 62 of the 369 Zila Parishad seats, second only to the Congress’ tally of 215.
AIUDF supremo Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, 63, is a cleric with significant influence among Muslim leaders in UP, Bihar and West Bengal, and is considered important for the Congress beyond Assam. But many state Congress leaders, especially those from the minorities, are against this alliance. “We don’t need the AIUDF’s help in the Lok Sabha polls. It has no base,” Sarma told the media.
Agrees political analyst Rajeev Bhattacharyya, “A long-term alliance with the AIUDF is not possible as it will not go down well with the Congress’ core support base.” Bhattacharyya warns that post Gogoi, the Congress may get divided into several lobbies, each with equal strength. Indeed, Gogoi’s strength lies in being able to keep the flock together. As of now, there is no clarity on who from the Congress can become the CM after Gogoi.
Meanwhile, it seems Gogoi is also hitting back at his detractors. AICC General Secretary Digvijaya Singh, who is in charge of Assam, has reportedly sent a letter to Sarma, seeking an explanation for the “anti-Congress” stand of News Live, a Guwahati- based news channel where Sarma’s wife Riniki Bhuyan is the CMD. The channel had a controversial role in the Guwahati street molestation case, too, and had come in for criticism from Gogoi.