‘Tarun Gogoi needs to remind himself that he is a servant of the people’

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Himanta Biswa Sarma | 45 Health and education minister, Assam, Photo: Ujjal Deb
Himanta Biswa Sarma | 45 | Health and education minister, Assam. Photo: Ujjal Deb

Edited Excerpts from an interview

In 2011, the Congress retained power for the third straight term under Tarun Gogoi’s leadership, winning 78 out of 126 seats in the Assembly polls. In this General Election, the party could manage only three out of 14 seats. What explains the poor performance?
The result was not a surprise for me. I anticipated that our party would get around four seats. This realisation dawned on me about 18 months ago. We won the 2013 panchayat polls, but many MLAs reported that our vote share decreased. That was an alarming sign. I told the CM about it, but he didn’t pay any heed. I took the matter to the party high command. They said that corrective measures will be taken, but nothing happened. If you look at the Bodoland riots in 2012, the government was caught on the wrong foot. On the burning issue of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, (Narendra) Modi cashed in on it and polarised the voters; he could do it because we gave him the chance. We made promises on issues such as rhino poaching, genuine citizens being harassed in the grab of D-voters, updating the National Register of Citizens, flood and erosion, but did not deliver. After winning the 2011 Assembly polls, governance under Tarun Gogoi’s leadership has been poor. The CM is not to be squarely blamed for this; we are all responsible, but when we asked for his intervention, to take corrective steps, he perhaps misunderstood us. He felt that we are trying to oppose him. His arrogance has led to the failure. If he does not correct his attitude and the high command does not act, the party will face more electoral reverses in Assam.

Are you saying that the CM’s attitude is the main reason for the brewing dissidence?
We are elected legislators who have to work with the people. The people had voted us to power with a huge mandate; they also have the power to throw us out. The CM is unable to read the ground reality. Anti-incumbency has set in. Three straight wins made the CM arrogant. He perhaps thinks that the party won because of his persona, but the reality is that every Congress worker, leader and MLA contributed to the victory. Some people who are close to him made the CM believe that the government is only about him and his success. During the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council polls, which we won, I was there for a month. I could sense that we are not doing enough to keep the people satisfied. I reported it to the CM, but he overlooked it. It hurt me. After all, I have worked hard for the party. As a minister, I have tried to contribute to the success of the government. Don’t I have the right to be heard seriously? And I am not the odd one out; around 46 MLAs will tell you the same story.

Had the high command been more proactive, could the dissidence have been nipped in the bud?
Let me make this clear: there is no dissidence against Gogoi. I have never asked for his removal. What we want is that Gogoi should treat and hear every minister and MLA with equal importance. He should not form his ideas based on inputs of only a section of people within the government and the party. This kind of attitude has given birth to differences. The high command did not take our matter seriously; they seem to have blind faith in Gogoi. In Delhi, there is a belief that the party succeeded in Assam because of Gogoi’s persona. In Assam, votes got polarised this time because of the communal agenda of the BJP and the AIUDF. We could not stop the polarisation because since 2011, our governance has been found weak in the hours of crisis.

If Gogoi was insensitive about the grievances, why didn’t the dissident camp go public earlier?
In the Congress, we follow democratic norms. We had raised the issues at different levels. The idea was never to unseat the CM. We just wanted him to be responsive. With such an overwhelming mandate, he ought to have been very humble; instead, he became very arrogant. The CM wants to be the captain, scorer and match winner. Governance is a team game; to notch a big score, we all need to deliver, but where is the scope? The CM is only concerned about the political future of his son, and acts on the wishes of his advisers, who are giving him the wrong feedback. Had his magic worked, we would not have lost so badly in the Lok Sabha polls. No one asked him to resign, he himself volunteered.

You have raised the issue of Gogoi promoting his son. But does that not fit into the legacy of dynasty politics that the Gandhis have gifted to the Congress?
There is no harm in Gogoi’s son joining politics. Everyone in the party welcomed him. But he should have joined as a normal party worker like any other youngster. We talk of democratic norms within the party, then how can we explain the special treatment for a cm’s son? In my opinion, our party cannot do away with the Gandhis. They have sacrificed a lot for the Congress. Jawaharlal Nehru built it up, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi laid down their lives for it. The Gogois are certainly not the Gandhis. Rahul Gandhi was involved with the party organisation for 10 years; he never became a minister and earned his vice-presidentship with his work and dedication. Wherever CMs have tried to secure the political career of their sons and daughters, they have faltered and the party had to face the loss. Assam will be no different.

The high command is sending observers to speak to the MLAs and come to a solution. Will we see Gogoi’s exit and your elevation as the CM?
We are not against the high command. We are not even against Gogoi on personal grounds, but the deadlock is on issues that have not been addressed for years and the attitude of the man who is supposed to be the guardian of the state. We will ask the high command for an amicable solution. Yes, a few of my colleagues have openly desired that I should be the next CM, but I am certainly not eyeing the chair. Not in this way. If I am to usurp his chair, then how am I different from other power-hungry politicians? We all are Congress loyalists, so there is no question of a split within the party. In this hour of crisis, the CM needs to rise to the occasion and lead from the front, hold meetings and speak to each and every Congress leader to find out what went wrong. Unfortunately, he is busy promoting his coterie; this will be deadly for the Congress and I fear the worst.

Even if Gogoi wants to quit, if the high command decides that he should continue, will you obey the decision?
The onus is on Gogoi. He thinks that he is the master of the people in Assam. He has lost his humility; he needs to remind himself that he is a servant of the people. I will make sure that within 30 days, I will be able to change Gogoi’s attitude. He will have to shed his arrogance and ego and turn from master to servant. I will ensure this change for the sake of the Congress.

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A young IT professional by training and a journalist by chance, Ratnadip comes from the smallest Northeastern state of Tripura and has been reporting out of Northeast India for ten years, as of 2014. An award winning Journalist, Ratnadip started his career with the Tripura Observer and went on to work with the Northeast Sun, The Northeast Today, News Live, Sahara Time and The Sunday Indian. He has also contributed to BBC, CNN, NatGeo TV, NDTV, CNN-IBN and TIMES NOW. Before joining Tehelka, Ratnadip worked with the national bureau of the television news channel NewsX. He specialises in conflict reporting and has a keen interest in India’s eastern neighbours. He has won the RedInk Excellence in Journalism Award 2013, Northeast Green Journo Award 2013, LAADLI Media awards for Gender sensitivity 2013. He is among 10 young Indian scholars selected by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on trans-boundary river issues of the subcontinent. He is based in Guwahati.

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