The Writing on the Wall

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Photo: Shailendra Pandey
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

In June, the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) poll results confirmed what many had already suspected: the irrelevance of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, its leader and former two-time chief minister. The AGP could win only one out of 31 seats. In the last poll held in 2003, it had won only 12. The elections, if anything, proved that the annihilation was complete.

The party’s slide started in 2001, when the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress trounced the AGP in the Assembly polls. Ever since, the journey from a state icon to political obscurity has come full circle for Mahanta.

As a two-time chief minister — 1985-90 and 1996-2001 — Mahanta was hailed as the “son of the soil”, a man who would restore the Assamese identity and throw out the illegal migrants who had smuggled themselves into Assam from neighbouring Bangladesh. By all accounts, Mahanta’s fall has been as dramatic as his rise.

Mahanta burst on the scene at a time when the state was gripped by a wave of anger. The year was 1979 and man, woman and child were out on the streets, demanding “Assam for the Assamese”. Leading them from the front was the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and its firebrand leader Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. Such was the support for the movement that Mahanta became the only person in Indian history to go from student leader to chief minister without any political experience in between. The people had voted for change and placed their trust in the man who signed the historic Assam Accord with New Delhi. Then the slide began.

The AGP failed to meet any expectation. The economy was at its worst, and things were looking bleaker by the day. Unemployment was on the rise and the people were disillusioned with their leader. “We all rallied behind him, but when he became CM, the government treasury went bankrupt,” recalls RC Das, a retired PWD officer. “Even government employees did not get their salary on time. People started taking bribes and Assam was dying.” All this time, Mahanta remained a silent spectator.

This ‘let-down’ feeling and fierce anti-incumbency combined to bring the Congress back to power under the leadership of the veteran Hiteshwar Saikia. The architect of breaking the back of militancy in Assam, Saikia also soon became the object of ire for his ruthless and divisive ways. He had successfully driven a wedge into the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) by splitting it into two groups — the ULFA and the Surrendered ULFA, or SULFA as they came to be known. The state was in the mood for change again, and Mahanta was given a second chance. Armed with the people’s mandate, Mahanta became CM for a second time in 1996.

Between 1998 and 2001, Assam saw one of the darkest chapters in its history unfolding. A spree of violence shook the state, when unidentified gunmen went on a rampage killing relatives, friends and associates of ULFA leaders. Later, a 2007 inquiry report tabled in the Legislative Assembly questioned Mahanta’s role in these killings.

The killings also severed the umbilical ties of the AGP with the ULFA, many of whose leaders were formerly students who had agitated alongside Mahanta in 1979. “We had maintained a symbolic relationship with the AGP since our inception, but these mindless killings of our family members ended that,” says a senior ULFA member on condition of anonymity. It was not only the ULFA that felt ‘betrayed’; people also felt that the government was encouraging bloodshed.

In the 2001 election, the people booted out Mahanta again, and this time, the damage was a clear indication that the party had failed the state. Every subsequent poll, municipal or Assembly, has only compounded its misery. As part of the NDA, the AGP was a partner of the BJP, yet both parties contested polls on their own in 2011. The AGP’s downward spiral continued and it could manage only 10 out of 126 seats. In the process, the BJP has managed to eat into the vote share of Mahanta’s party.

The emergence of minority leader Badruddin Ajmal and his All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) has strengthened the BJP’s presence in the state. Consider the 2012 Bodo-Muslim riots in Kokrajhar and the perceived emasculation of the AGP as the party that stood for the rights of the indigenous Assamese, and you have a situation where the BJP stands to gain at the AGP’s expense.

Adding to that is the growing dissent within the party, and a loss of confidence in Mahanta’s leadership. The past couple of years has seen many senior AGP leaders quitting the party.

Former minister and colleague from the days of the Assam Agitation, Atul Bora, left to join the BJP. State BJP president and former MP Sarbananda Sonowal was himself a firebrand leader of the AGP who left the party after the debacle in the 2011 Assembly polls. Senior leader Apurba Bhattacharjee too has submitted his resignation and announced his desire to join the Congress. “Mahanta and his favourites have formed a lobby and tried to use the party for their personal benefit,” alleges Bhattacharjee. “We have promising young leaders, who are never given a chance. We have not won a single poll in the past 12 years. Yet, we have the same leadership, who have nothing to show but the Assam Accord.”

This call for a leadership change has just got louder with the bad showing in the Guwahati municipal polls. Altogether nine members of the party’s executive committee and 15 members of its Guwahati city committee, besides senior leaders like MLA Padma Hazarika, MP Birendra Prasad Baishya, Ramendra Narayan Kalita and Hitendra Nath Goswami have resigned from their respective party posts. An alarmed Mahanta has already embarked on back-room tactics to bring them back, but party insiders believe this is only to save his position as party president, and not to revive the party.

“If we cannot infuse new spirit and young blood, a turnaround is difficult,” says Hazarika, who had contested against Mahanta for the party president’s post in 2012. “The current leadership has failed, so the only option is change.”

At 61, ghosts from his past might have come back to haunt Mahanta, but the soft-spoken leader has always bounced back every time he is written off. In 2001, Sanghamitra Bharali, an assistant language officer in the Assam Legislative Assembly, brought allegations of bigamy against Mahanta. Bharali alleged that the former cm had secretly married her. Mahanta and his family have always denied these allegations. Bharali herself lost credibility after she was handed a four-year jail term by a Guwahati court in a disproportionate assets case. But the damage had been done.

The controversy led to serious differences between him and other senior leaders, and Mahanta was accused of involvement in anti-party activities. The party terminated his membership, one of those rare occasions when the founder of a party is expelled by the party, and everyone thought that was the end of Mahanta. But it was not to be.

In 2005, the former cm formed a new party, the AGP(Progressive), and on 15 October 2008, along with another breakaway AGP faction — the Trinamool Gana Parishad (TGP) led by Atul Bora — he rejoined the parent party.

After the party’s abysmal show in the 2011 Assembly polls, a section of the leaders felt that Mahanta must be made the face of AGP again if the party were to stand a chance. On 27 April 2012, the poster boy of Assam politics was once again elected the party president of AGP.

However, if the recent polls and mass resignations are anything to go by, the lucky charm seems to have worn off, and the new generation of Assam does not believe in a man who has time and again only invoked his past laurels for future gains. As any Assamese will say, the writing is on the wall for Mahanta. The question is, does Mahanta see it?

ratnadip@tehelka.com

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