Riding a wave that refuses to ebb

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Tarun Gogoi pulled off a coup by becoming CM for the third time running. Ratnadip Choudhury tracks his journey

Third-time lucky Assam has reposed its faith in Gogoi
Photo: Ujjal Deb

WHEN SEPTUAGENARIAN Tarun Gogoi became Chief Minister of Assam for the first time in 2001, his rather blunt — even politically incorrect — utterances were seen as harbingers of certain doom. But his stable performance over two terms earned him the sobriquet gaonburah (village headman) and the opposition could not unsettle him either on the plank of corruption or on illegal migration from Bangladesh. The peace process with insurgents also helped the Congress’ fortunes.

“I am not bothered about corruption. This government has given me irrigation, a handpump for clean drinking water, cycles for my daughters to go to school. I am told my younger daughter would get a laptop from the government if she does well in her board exams. That is why I voted for Congress although I was with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in the beginning,” says Sunil Das, a peasant from Dhekiajuli.

The AGP, which had been the principal opposition party in the state, has been in a freefall for a long time. The Congress has swept the length and breadth of Assam, its ally in the last government, the Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF) has retained its bastion in the Bodo heartland while the Maulana Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) has emerged as the main opposition, thus posing a new challenge for the Congress in the next term to hold on to its traditional Muslim votebank and to check the volatile minority-migrant politics that Ajmal has been playing in Assam for a decade.

People seem to see a clear difference between the Gogoi and Prafulla Mahanta regimes. “In 1996, the regime failed to pay salaries to employees,” says Shubhra Deka of Dibrugarh. “There was hardly any development and killings were rampant. But Gogoi has delivered. We do not mind if people make money out of development works if the masses benefit.”

Gogoi’s forceful rhetoric about the lack of an alternative to the ruling Congress seems to have hit the bull’s eye. Out of the 126 seats in the state Assembly, BPF, which got 12 seats, had Gogoi’s strong backing. The AGP (10 seats) and the BJP appeared to be clueless during the campaign, with party president Chandramohan Patowary and senior leaders Brindaban Goswami and Atul Bora losing their seats. The BJP was reduced to five seats, with its party president Ranjit Dutta losing his own, highlighting the need for a new leadership.

The third-time CM also sees himself as a mass leader who knows how to remain acceptable to the people. As he puts it: “I can sense what the grassroots want. So observers can term my policies as populist. That’s their choice but people have given their mandate in favour of my schemes, and it is not like we run the schemes with Central funds; many of them are totally financed by the state government. It is not easy to hold on to power for a decade, antiincumbency is bound to come, but I have pushed forward anything that I thought is in the interest of the common people very passionately. That has worked.”

The achievement is remarkable, especially since Gogoi never led a mass movement like Assam’s first CM Gopinath Bordoloi did. He is not witty, like another ex-CM, Hiteshwar Saikia. Yet, he has clicked. “It is his never-say-die attitude that has rejuvenated the Congress in Assam,” says Tinat Atifa Masood, a talented writer who is compiling Gogoi’s biography. “People love him for his sense of humour. He is not your regular politician. He is very open-hearted.” Some admirers says he exudes positive energy, which is why his personality attracts people. Gogoi modestly says it is because the opposition has failed to perform its duties. “Tell me one instance where they have been able to push my government to rethink on any policy,” he asks. “They have never been constructive. It would be bad if Assam is left with no opposition.” In his current position, he can be generous.

Born in Rangajan tea estate in Upper Assam’s Jorhat district, where his father Kamaleshwar Gogoi worked as a doctor, Gogoi started taking interest in politics in secondary school. His icon was Jawaharlal Nehru. “I first saw Nehru when I was in Class 3 and became a fan. I felt inspired to do something that helps people,” he says. As a student, he loved playing pranks. His hostel superintendent Lakhi Dutta shouted at him because was busy polishing shoes while others were studying. Dutta had warned him that he would be left with no option but to polish shoes for life if he did not clear his Class 10. This is exactly what happened. He did, however, clear the exam in his second attempt. But Gogoi’s love for shoes continues to remain.

“The good thing about Gogoi is that he is not a power monger,” says Wasbir Hussain, senior journalist, who has followed Gogoi’s rise closely. “Power has come to him, he did not reach out for it even when he was elected MP for the first time in 1971. He was a compromise candidate then. He also does not believe in protégés.”

In the run-up to the 2011 Assembly polls, Badruddin Ajmal had reportedly asked, ‘Who is Tarun Gogoi?’ The reply came through the ballot box

GOGOI may not be articulate, but he has been the Congress’ crisis manager in Assam. After a successful stint in Delhi as a Parliamentarian and an AICC functionary, he had to rebuild the image of the Congress in Assam when he took charge as state Congress president in 1996. He groomed young leaders, giving them space to grow. Now, his is the last word. He has had his differences with the Assamese and national leadership but there has been no serious dissidence against him. “I have been able to strike a chord with the state leaders and the AICC because all had faith in me,” he explains. “By and large, the party stood by me, albeit at times I had to be firm.”

What really sounded the death knell for the AGP is the absence of a chief ministerial candidate who could match Gogoi’s stature. “The voters perhaps found the opposition confused and voted for stability,” says Harekrishna Deka, former Director General of Police. “The anti-incumbency factor could not be cashed in by the AGP.”

What lies ahead for Gogoi and the Congress? “Development and peace will be my priority since this is what we have promised the people,” says Gogoi. He will push the Centre to resume peace talks with ULFA and other insurgent groups. This will ensure the electorate keeps the faith, because despite desperate attempts from Dispur, tackling corruption is becoming a tall order. Gogoi will have to accommodate some party heavyweights despite their tainted image.

Of course, there are potholes along the way. The rise of Ajmal’s AIUDF will be a cause for worry. Gogoi has always seen the Muslim cleric as a key political adversary. He stood his ground to keep Ajmal away from an alliance with the Congress — had the party gone down that road, it would have cost the Muslim votebank and also hurt Assamese sentiments. At the same time, the CM has never employed nasty tactics when dealing with Ajmal. He chooses to use humour. Like the time he asked, “Who is Badruddin Ajmal?” In the run-up to the polls, Ajmal had reportedly retorted, “Who is Tarun Gogoi?” The reply came through the ballot box.

“He is passionate about issues but does not lose his cool,” is what Gogoi’s wife Dolly had once said. She has always been his main support. After his heart surgery last year, daughter Chandrima and son Gaurav wanted Gogoi to bid farewell to active politics. But he feels he has some unfinished work. “I am not satisfied with my own performance. To put it plainly, I need to do far better. I have plans for Assam,” he adds.

His family will have to wait for at least five years before he hangs up his boots. Meanwhile, for the third time running, the people of Assam have in Tarun Gogoi a CM who dares to call a spade a spade, and can tread the not-so-trodden path, yet sail through smoothly.

Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
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