It was during the thick of campaigning just before the 2016 Assam Assembly polls I met Anjan Dutta. Around noon, while I was still unsure about the meet, Dutta called me up to meet him at the Nandanban Resort in Jhanji on the outskirts of Amguri.
A carnival-like atmosphere was already built up at Amguri with the crowd getting bigger to get a glimpse of Congress leader and actor Raj Babbar, who had landed there for the Congress poll campaign.
After my three-hour long wait at Jahanji’s Nandanban resort, on the outskirts of Amguri, Dutta walked into the resort apologising for keeping me waiting too long. "The poll season is too hectic, you see. Time is a rarity," Dutta said with a smile on his face.
That was the only time I met Dutta, the man who revolutionalised Assam’s transport sector as minister in the Tarun Gogoi government and pumped in much life to the dilapidated Assam Tea Corporation. That was also possibly the last interview he gave to any journalist from a major news outlet.
When Dutta passed away on Thursday in New Delhi after a brief illness, Assam lost one of its finest ministers it ever had if not a mass leader. The day I decided to meet him was 1 April, a Friday.
The wait, however, was fruitful.
Over a cup of coffee, the discussion ranged from dynastic politics, the rise of BJP in Assam, the Narendra Modi wave, the disastrous Lok Sabha election results, the dwindling popularity of the Congress among the tea community, the infiltration from Bangladesh, the AIUDF factor, Himanta Biswa Sarma leaving the Congress and the possibility of him becoming the chief minister in the future.
"I am not am ambitious person. My responsibility now is that my party forms the government. Whatever role I would have to play that will depend on the high command. I am a soldier of the Congress party," Dutta had said when asked if he had any chief ministerial ambitions.
For a man who was having a breezy schedule air-dashing to every nook and corner of the state as the star campaigner of the Congress party, he was fairly calm and calculated in his responses. Dutta first came to major limelight when he successfully revived the almost dead Assam State Transport Corporation as the transport minister in Tarun Gogoi's first cabinet in 2001 and brought immense credibility to the Gogoi-led government.
Another fact that the portfolio was held by Pradip Hazarika in the earlier AGP government, his foremost opponent when it comes to the Amguri seat, was an icing on the cake. Having held the industry portfolio simultaneously, he was even credited with reviving the Assam Tea Corporation to some extent. The financial mess created by the previous Asom Gana Parishad government only helped the Congress government to improve its public image due to Dutta's stellar performance.
Surprisingly those high scores did not help him electorally as he lost to Hazarika in 2006. The result had even stunned the sharpest of pollsters. The 64-year-old Dutta had a sea-saw equation when it came to winning from his Amguri seat. He had won the constituency thrice in 1991, 2001 and 2011. The former Congress president often faced tough challenge from AGP's Hazarika, who is also a three-time MLA. In fact, Hazarika defeated Angkita this time in the Amguri seat.
Dutta had a fairly clean political career, which however had to face the test of time, due to his name allegedly getting involved in the Saradha scam. Dutta was questioned twice by the Central Bureau of Investigation in November 2014 and in March last year. The agency even raided his office in August 2014. The former Congress state chief though always maintained that he was open to probe and had not indulged in any unethical income.
Dutta was admitted to Apollo Hospital in New Delhi on 12 May with complaints of severe chest infection before the counting of votes for the Assam Assembly Election 2016 on 19 May. The humiliating defeat that the Congress faced in Assam immediately ignited a quiet mutiny against the state leadership forcing Angkita to openly praise Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal for the kind words for her father during his speech after he was sworn in.
"Respect !! While the CM Shri Sarbanada Sonawal choose to offer prayer for the speedy recovery of APCC President, some Congressi inside Rajiv Bhawan is busy in a signature campaign. A person is in ICU, spare your political conspiracies," Angkita wrote on her Facebook page.
Dutta was appointed as the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee president on 13 December 2014 when Sarma and his followers were at the peak of their dissidence against then chief minister Tarun Gogoi. Although Dutta did not succeed in holding Sarma back, the party had opted to brazenly disregard the loss created by Sarma's exit. This bravado perhaps proved too costly as the results in the recently held Assembly polls showed.
Dutta's sudden demise is no wonder shocking but it is unlikely to cause much change politically. The Congress party is already at its nadir after being forced out of its 15-year-rule in the state. There is little doubt that even before the mourning gets over, the potential successors will begin their own version of game of thrones to outdo the other to grab the chair. And the options are wide open this time as many of the so-called bigwigs from former Union minister Paban Singh Ghatowar to three-time state minister Prodyut Bordoloi have tasted defeat recently. Then there are other leaders like former minister Rockybul Hussain, former Speaker Pranab Kumar Gogoi and even ex-chief minister Tarun Gogoi who managed to retain their constituencies but the road isn't easy for them either. There is a possibility that the Congress high command might even go for a relatively young leader to try and see if the party's dwindling fortunes can be revived.
Politics apart, Dutta was also a journalist at heart. He was the editor of Mahekiya Anubhuti and was known as a prolific writer. Samaye Kubai Jai is a collection of his editorials that was published by Aank Baak Publication in 2011.
It is immaterial to discuss whether the chief ministership would have come in Dutta’s way or not. But, he would be remembered as a people’s leader and the man who saved Assam State Transport Corporation’s thousands of employees and their families from misery. Even his enemies wouldn’t deny that.