Resentment is brewing against Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. The 78-year-old patriarch, who so far has had an unopposed run as the state's chief executive officer in Dispur, is slowly feeling the heat of dissidence within the party. The strongest signal that not all is well emerged when he extended the hand of friendship to one-time political bête noire Badruddin Ajmal, chief of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF).
In 2006, the chief minister had famously dismissed the AIUDF leader, saying "Who is Ajmal?" But that was seven years ago, and Gogoi’s son Gaurav was hardly known in the state then. Things have changed rapidly in the Congress ever since the junior Gogoi joined Congress in May 2012.
The chief minister soon realised that his son will find it extremely difficult to climb up the political ladder with street-smart politicians like Education and Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma around. Sarma was once a close aide of Tarun Gogoi, but the distance between both has been growing ever since Gaurav came into the picture. Sarma is aware that Gogoi is keen on promoting his son.
With the secret out, both the Congress heavyweights began looking for opportunities to outsmart each other and the result has been gaping cracks in the Congress. Having figured out that the support from within was hard to come by, the senior Gogoi quietly began garnering support for his son from outside the Congress fold. His sudden warmth towards AIUDF is seen as part of that strategy. There are talks that Gaurav may fight the Lok Sabha 2014 polls from Kaliabor constituency, which is currently held by his uncle Dip Gogoi. The chief minister has realised that without Muslim support, the chances of the victory of his son are slim and hence the new-found fondness for Ajmal.
Not everyone in the party appreciates that move.
"We are against any kind of alliance with the AIUDF as it will be against the wishes of the people of Assam and the Muslim Congress workers. We will let the party high command know about it," Assam Youth Congress president and Raha MLA Pijush Hazarika told Firstpost on phone from Guwahati. "I am not willing to speak about the dissidence issue as we have been asked by the party to abstain from talking to the media about it," Hazarika, who is believed to be from the Sarma camp, said. But action speaks louder than words.
Although the AIUDF is denying any news of alliance with the Congress as rumour, its silence on the topic is being seen by political pundits as strategic.
"All the talk about alliance is being spread by the Congress and the media is blowing it up. We believe in going alone," said Haidor Hussain Bora, secretary, media cell, AIUDF.
However, that’s only one of Gogoi’s problems. The MLAs belonging to the tea tribe group have become another big headache for the chief minister. These MLAs allege that in the latest state Budget, Gogoi, who also holds the finance portfolio, allocated a minuscle amount for the welfare of the tribe in comparison to the sum allocated to the Muslim community. The tea garden tribe has traditionally been a strong vote bank of the Congress.
"We had asked for a Rs 100 crore package. But for a population of 70 lakh in the tea community we got Rs 23 crore only, out of which Rs 3 crore will go for salary. The minority community got Rs 500 crore and another Rs 300 crore in the non-Plan category. We got only Rs 172 lakh in the non-Plan section. With this allocation, a tea community person has to survive on Rs 10-11 per day. We are meeting the Governor soon," Digboi MLA and veteran Congress leader Rameswar Dhanowar told Firstpost from Guwahati.
Indicating that the tea community is not in favour of any alliance with the AIUDF, Dhanowar said, "If this happens we will oppose it at the high command level. If nothing happens we will walk out of the party." This is too big a threat for the chief minister and the Congress high command to ignore. There is no doubt if this faction of MLAs join hands with the Sarma group, Tarun Gogoi will find himself in a tight spot. The state education and health minister is surely watching the developments closely.
While the AIUDF controversy was still heating up, there were reports that All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary and Assam in–charge Digvijaya Singh had issued a show cause notice to the education and health minister for negative news against the state government on News Live, a television channel where his wife is one of the directors.
Following news reports, Sarma tweeted out, "So far I have not received any letter from Sjt Digvijoya Singh, Honble Gen Secy of AICC regarding activities of a news Channel (News Live). However, I am surprised how a senior politician like Bharat Narah can release a correspondence from AICC (if any) to news paper." Bharat Narah, a Congress leader, is a confidant of the chief minister.
"This is a completely political thing. Riniki Bhuyan Sharma, the minister’s wife, is just a member of the board of directors of News Live. I am sure if there is any such communication, the minister will prefer to respond to it politically," Syed Zarir Hussain, the managing editor of News Live told Firstpost over telephone from Guwahati. Riniki reportedly has eight percent share in the organisation.
The first signs of tussle between Sarma and senior Gogoi became apparent when the education and health minister had a falling out with Gogoi after the much publicised girl molestation case in Guwahati on 9 July last year. The incident allegedly involved one of the video journalist of the local News Live channel, headed by Sarma's wife Riniki as chairman and managing director. It went on to capture national headlines, which lambasted the Gogoi government for poor security for women and also criticised the channel for unethical journalism.
The Gogoi government had a tough time in handling the crisis and the distance between the chief minister and his cabinet colleague became visible. From rumours that Gogoi's name was suggested by Sarma as a vice presidential candidate in April last year and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had called up the education and health minister directly in June 2012 to enquire about the flood situation, had all the ingredients brewing of a showdown. The announcement by the chief minister in March last year that a government news channel was in the offing to counter the poor journalism standards of the existing news channels (read News Live) also added fuel to fire.
Until the last Assembly election in May 2011, Sarma was literally Gogoi's Man Friday. With the shrewd and astute Sarma on his side when all was well, Gogoi had no problems in his first two tenure as chief minister. The support from Sarma also automatically ensured that the Youth Congress was also in favour of the chief minister. The Youth Congress shares a good relationship with the education and health minister.
With the regional opposition party Asom Gana Parishad hardly having any notable political significance, the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party is closely monitoring the situation.
"I would not like to comment on the dissidence issue as it is their internal matter. But at the same time it cannot be ignored that illegal immigration has always disturbed the political scenario in Assam. The reason for instable politics in the state is because of the the illegal influx from Bangladesh. Since the Assam Agitation in 80s, successive Congress governments at the Centre hardly gave any importance to the issue of Bangladeshi immigrants," said BJP's Assam state unit, general secretary, Santanu Bharali.