By Wasbir Hussain
On 11 October 1934, the day Tarun Gogoi was born at his father’s bungalow at the Rangajan Tea Estate, near Jorhat in eastern Assam, a group of people arrived there with an elephant. Tarun’s father, Kamaleshwar Gogoi, a medical practitioner, wanted to own a jumbo and had sent word earlier. It was a sheer coincidence that the elephant was delivered that day. This made his grandmother predict that the baby boy would grow up to become a ‘famous man.’ That prediction has been proved right because Tarun Gogoi went on to become Assam’s chief minister—first in 2001, and then for two successive terms, 2006 and 2011. As he leads the Congress in yet another Assembly election in Assam, due in a fortnight, the question that is being asked is whether he can be fourth-time lucky.
In 2001, the Congress under Gogoi’s leadership snatched power from the regional Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the job was not too difficult. The security situation in the state was dismal. What came to be known as the ‘secret killings’ was the order of the day (1998-2001) where unknown gunmen would knock at the doors of people, mostly family members of the rebel United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa), and kill them as soon as the doors were opened. In 2006, Tarun Gogoi once again led the Congress to victory, bagging 53 of the State’s 126 Assembly seats. The Congress’ ally, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), got Gogoi 11 more seats for him to form the government. Gogoi and his party surprised everyone in 2011 when the Congress swept the Assembly polls, winning 78 seats. Gogoi became chief minister for the third time in a row but kept the BPF, which had bagged 12 seats, as an ally although he no longer needed its support.
Gogoi’s near free-run would soon end as his trusted lieutenant and party strongman Himanta Biswa Sharma, who was health and education minister, raised the banner of revolt against his leadership. The dissidence in the Assam Congress Legislature Party peaked around 2014 with 50 or more of the 78 Congress legislators backing Sharma at one stage. The Congress high-command, however, continued to back Tarun Gogoi, a strong Nehru-Gandhi loyalist, picked up by Indira Gandhi and brought to prominence by Rajiv Gandhi who got him attached to his office as AICC Joint Secretary. Finally, in late 2015, Himanta Biswa Sharma and nine other Congress MLAs, defected and joined the BJP. Meanwhile, as the Gogoi-hatao campaign was in top-gear, ally BPF pulled out. Gogoi actually faced a double whammy.
Where does Gogoi stand now? He continues to be as blunt as before in his comments saying Rahul Gandhi has already projected him as the party’s chief ministerial candidate this time. He perhaps said this to make things clear to those of his party leaders aiming at the hot seat. After all, the day the Congress announced its list a week ago for the first phase of the elections, PCC president Anjan Dutta, who is not contesting, had said if the party wants him to take over the leadership he was ready to do so. “Although I am not contesting, I can get elected to the State Assembly within six months. If needed, my daughter can vacate her seat (his daughter his contesting the Amguri seat he is holding thus far),” Dutta had said. Gogoi has also been making comments saying he was not Sonia Gandhi who sacrificed the job of prime minister. “Who does not want to hold on to the post of chief minister,” Gogoi said, indicating he is still keen to lead from the front should the opportunity arise and not ‘sacrifice’ the top position in favour of another leader in the party.
Since 1971, when he became the Congress’ ‘compromise candidate’ to contest his maiden Lok Sabha polls from Jorhat, his hometown, Gogoi has been having an easy run in so far as his own elections are concerned. The BJP this time has come up with a masterstroke, putting up sitting Lok Sabha MP from Jorhat, Kamakhya Prasad Tasa, against Gogoi in the Titabor Assembly seat. Titabor, near Jorhat, has almost been a Gogoi pocket borough, but the BJP’s decision to field Tasha, a young leader belonging to the tea garden community (Adivashi), can change the equations. Titabor Assembly constituency has around 30,000 voters belonging to the tea tribes. The BJP’s idea has been to try and pin Gogoi down to his own constituency and prevent him from campaigning across Assam. It is true that the Congress has no other local leader who has a pan-Assam influence to mobilize people during an election other than Gogoi.
Earlier, this task was fulfilled by Sharma, who now is carrying out the responsibility rather well for his new party, the BJP.
Tarun Gogoi may be putting up a brave front but this veteran Congressman who has been in politics for 45 years knows the going is tough this time. The BPF is today an ally of the BJP. The AGP too has sided with the ‘rainbow alliance’ led by the BJP. Gogoi is also aware of the anti-incumbency that has crept in, forcing him to drop few of his top leaders from his council of ministers last year. To top it all, quite a few sitting Congress MLAs have risen in revolt against denial of party tickets to contest the ensuing polls. Except a marginal poll alliance with the nascent United People’s Party (UPP) for around four seats in the Bodo heartland, the Congress is going ahead on its own. Gogoi could well be banking on Maulana Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) to bail him out in the event of a crisis, but the fact remains that the AIUDF too is faced with internal dissension over ticket allocation. The odds sure are against the Congress strongman.