By Sanghamitra Baruah
How long can a revolution last?
A few weeks ago when a very ordinary looking young boy from Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University captured the imagination of the nation with his azadi slogans, many truly believed and cheered the arrival of a hero. Even though an equal, if not more, number of people dismissed Kanhaiya Kumar's "freedom in India" sentiments, no one could deny it was a stellar start. When all that was happening in Delhi, almost 2,000 km away from the National Capital, Asom Gana Parishad leader Prafulla Kumar Mahanta was closely following everything on TV at his Guwahati home. He didn't have much to say though. It's a different story that nobody cares about his opinion much either these days.
But 30 years ago, things were different.
In 1985, when Mahanta took oath as chief minister of Assam, the student leader had emerged fresh out a movement — the Assam Agitation (1979-1985) — that had instilled new hopes in the minds of the people that a better tomorrow awaited Assam. A university student then, Mahanta was the president of the All-Assam students' Union (AASU) in 1979 when it launched the agitation against the illegal infiltration of Bangladeshi immigrants, which the Assamese people feared was altering the demography, economy and social fabric of the state. AASU began its fight demanding the detection and deportation of illegal immigrants living in the state.
The six-year-old struggle came to an end with the historical Assam Accord in 1985 signed by the AASU, state government and the Centre. By the end of that year, the leader of the agitation, who by now had become a people's hero, took over as the president of Asom Gana Parishad, a political party that came into being as a direct result of the agitation's success.
On 24 December, 1985, 32-year-old Mahanta and his friends formed the government in Assam, the country's youngest-ever ministry. Even as the euphoria continued, Mahanta's journey to the CM bungalow straight out of his university hostel room became a popular legend among enamoured journalists who still share it with their junior colleagues.
No one could deny the charisma of Mahanta in those heady days. So much so that a section of the local media and the civil society almost started to believe that that Assam would soon be free of all its ills. As the young and feisty bunch that appeared totally in control, vowed to wipe out the legacy of corruption that they had inherited from the Hiteshwar Saikia-led Congress government, many believed with conviction that the AGP would usher in real change. However, it didn't take long for the people to realise that their faith was misplaced and their dreams shattered.
Within three-and-a-half years in power, the AGP government looked in deep trouble. The same government that had decided to take strict action even against officials taking a bribe of as little as Rs 10, was battling allegations of corruption and high-handedness. Mahanta and his government soon got embroiled in deeper scandals.
"There is a lesson in this for all those in positions of power. What makes reformists forget their cause so easily once they get power? This is not the lone instance in the history of Indian politics. Popular leaders often veer off into different directions and lose their main focus. The same is true for Mahanta and many others before and after him," says senior Assam-based jounalist Dipankar Roy.
In a scenario that looked absolutely impossible five years ago, the people of Assam voted back the Congress to power in the 1991 electons, forcing Mahanta to serve as the leader of the Opposition in the Assembly. But just like a true soldier never gives up easily, Mahanta too made a comeback as the chief minister of Assam in 1996. It, however, seemed he failed to learn any lessons from the past. Mahanta's second tenure proved to be even more controversial, which included allegations of secret killing of relatives, friends and sympathisers of Ulfa militants — an issue that has been raked up by the Congress in this election once again.
According to Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, "Mahanta is responsible for the secret killings and it could not have been possible without the support of the Central government where the NDA was then in power."
By 2001, Mahanta was forced to step down as the president of the party he had once founded after the Congress routed the AGP in the Assembly elections that year. His image hit an all-time low when a junior employee of the state Assembly gave an interview to a local weekly that a "much-married" Mahanta had tied the knot with her in a secret ceremony. Cornered by party members from all sides, he went into political hibernation after quitting the post of party chief. On his return, he tried his best to take over the party reins but was eventually expelled in 2005 for "anti-party activities".
Left with no options, Mahanta floated AGP (Progressive), which was later reunited with the main party in 2008.
Things slowly improved for him as he was made the legislature party chief in 2010 and was subsequently chosen as party president. But time and tide, as they say, wait for none. By this point, the Congress government under Tarun Gogoi's leadership in Assam had already served two terms and was gearing up for a third. As Gogoi and his team retained power in 2011 with a thumping majority, a completely diminished Mahanta was again forced to step down as the party chief.
"There's is no doubt Mahanta was the face of AGP but he has let us down time and again. There was nothing personal in the decisions taken by the party against him," says former AGP president Brindaban Goswami.
A hero, a people's leader, a corrupt politician, a bigamist, Prafulla Mahanta has been called all these and more.
On 18 March, when Mahanta, along with a visibly thinning line of supporters, came out of the deputy commissioner's office after filing his nomination papers from the Badampur Assembly constituency in Nagaon district, those who were a witness to the historic December 1985 couldn't help but recall the frenzied popularity of the student leader 30 years back. Not very far away on the streets of Guwahati, Congress party volunteers were trying to whip up similar support for the party with the help of another student leader.
As Kanhaiya stared down from giant hoardings put up by the Congress, it was not very difficult to read the expression on Mahanta's face. Just like any revolution, its heroes don't last forever either.