Editor's note: Within the span of 15 years, the Congress party in Assam has transformed itself from a fortress of invincibility to a heap of ruins. This four-part series will examine what ails the party in Assam and if there is a possibility of a spark that rekindles hope for the party to relive its glorious days. This is the first part of the series.
"Most importantly, when their supreme leader has resigned from the presidency of the party holding himself accountable, why are the small fry and old frogs clinging to their positions in the state in the most odious manner? Have the opportunists made Rahul Gandhi the sole scapegoat for their incompetence?": This scathing remark from senior Congress leader Kirip Chaliha perhaps exposes the raw wound the party is failing to cure not only in Assam, but across the nation.
Reduced to a mere three seats in Lok Sabha election in 2014, the results for the Congress in Assam were no different in 2019. It remained at three while the BJP increased its tally from seven in 2014 to nine in 2019. It's 11 for the National Democratic Alliance if Asom Gana Parishad's two seats are also added. The change of fortunes for the BJP in the state was scripted in 2014 when it added three more seats than 2009 by adding a whopping 19.29 percent to take its vote share to 36.5 percent. The Congress in the same year lost 4.31 percent of its vote share and had to be content with 29.6 percent. The party also lost four seats in 2014 bringing its tally of seven in 2009 to merely three in the state.
For a party so used to winning in the better part of the history now suddenly finds itself sucked into the deep abyss of defeat. Poor performance in elections, departure of key leaders to the BJP at regular intervals, deep-rooted infighting, lack of a proper roadmap to fight back, absence of a popular face after former chief minister Tarun Gogoi has only compounded the problems for the grand old party in the state.
Shaky state unit leadership
Despite such a bad show, the state leadership is still putting up a brave show and preparing for civic polls next year under the leadership of Ripun Bora, whose resignation was not accepted after the Lok Sabha election debacle in May. But there is indeed a clamour, silent if not loud, going on within the party seeking a leadership change in the state.
"(State Congress president) Ripun Bora is somehow hanging on. Politics is very fluid now. Everyone is playing a calculative game. In fact, too many calculations have led to the downfall of the Congress," said a party insider who preferred to be anonymous.
"There are fundamental flaws within the Congress party. When even the grassroots workers are sensing that why the leadership has failed to realise that? Everyone knows including the leadership that drastic measures are required to save the party from the precarious situation but no one has any clue how to do it. The leadership has not yet learnt from the recent fiascos. There is still infighting among the leadership," the insider said. "Leaders are supposed to build a party but now they are not confident that they can bring any confidence to the party. They only want to survive in the name of the party."
Nowgong MP in Lok Sabha Pradyut Bordoloi made it abundantly clear that the party needs new vigour at the top.
"Obviously, the party has to be restructured, the ranks and files have to be outreached immediately, a new narrative has to be developed and new inspiring leadership face has to be projected before we think of doing well in the state elections scheduled for 2021. Instead of flashing the same old haggard faces of leadership, the party will do well if new, bright and communicative young faces are put up before the next elections," Bordoloi told Firstpost.
Chaliha was equally ruthless when it came to the criticism of the state party leadership.
"Does the state leadership have either the vision or leadership quality to create a new image and identity to recover its lost ground in Assam? Do they have capable leaders from the All India Congress Committee who are aware of the intricacies of Assam politics and have the dedication to work only for the interest of the party? Can anyone have the desire or political will to go for drastic actions to weed out the opportunists and the corrupt in the party?" he asked.
Even the young turks in the party feel the immediate need for a change in the state leadership.
"There is a rising popular opinion that there is a leadership crisis in Assam Congress so we need changes at the organisation level to allay such fears. They share the same opinion about the CLP, we need someone who has fire in the belly," said Assam Pradesh Youth Congress, vice-president, Angkita Dutta.
Bora's phone, however, remained unanswered despite numerous attempts.
Personal ambitions, lobbying in party harmed Congress
The race to be ahead of each other within the party crumbled the very edifice of the organisation before the BJP dislodged it.
"At one point of time, Congress got so overcrowded in Assam that everyone joined it seeking personal gains. The competition within the party rose severely because people got so used to staying in power that they started forming sub-groups to lobby for their personal goals. In fact, infighting is one of the major issue plaguing Congress today. After being in power for so many years, our leaders became arrogant enjoying the benefits of power for so long," the insider said.
The situation within the Assam Congress has become so dire that a gradual decline in indiscipline is no longer a secret.
"In absence of strong decisive leadership whether in Delhi or in Guwahati or in absence of the strict adherence to party disciplines by the leaders and workers alike, the internal wrangling and indiscipline are bound to surface in any organisation," Bordoloi said.
The plummet in discipline was palpable ahead of the Lok Sabha election when the supporters of leaders who did not get a ticket created all sorts of trouble, both online and offline.
"One must give credit to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. If someone from the Congress doesn't get a ticket, they publicly sully the party be it on social media or in front of the media. But BJP denied ticket to five prominent leaders including sitting MPs Kamakhya Prasad Tasa, Rajen Gohain and RP Prasad and they did not have the courage to make much hullabaloo about it. There is some fundamental difference between the Congress and the BJP when it comes to discipline," the insider said.
Moreover, leadership appeasement practice has also tremendously harmed the party, the insider added.
It is often alleged that due to the appeasement practice, undeserving candidates got tickets to fight the elections resulting in humiliating defeats.
"Wrong selection of candidates have cost the party gravely. There are corrupt practices being done in the selection of candidates. The ideologies of the Congress party no longer exist and people join the party to make money and form a lobby and so that they can become critical in government formation. People with a bad public image are regularly brought in while deserving candidates are often deprived," the insider alleged.
Exodus of leaders
Starting from Himanta Biswa Sarma in 2015 till date, 21 well-known leaders of the Congress have joined the BJP. Although the party is dismissive about the quitting of leaders from the younger ones like former Youth Congress president Hiranya Bhuyan to veteran leader and longtime state Congress president Bhubaneswar Kalita, the exits have indeed affected the party.
"If you see the pattern, most of these erstwhile Congress leaders who defected starting with Himanta Biswa Sarma in 2015, were all accused of running syndicates and alleged to be the masterminds of various scandals during the Congress regime such as the Rs 1,000-crore Dima Hasao Council scandal, Saradha chit fund scandal, Louis Berger bribery scandal, social welfare department fund embezzlement among others. Once BJP captured power in New Delhi, all these leaders were relentlessly hounded by various government agencies, and of course, once these leaders joined the BJP bandwagon, their hidden skeletons in the cupboard have been quietly buried," said Bordoloi.
"As collateral damage of the party not being in power both in Delhi and in the state, some fickle-minded middle rung leaders and some grassroots level workers also seem to be getting demoralised and crossed over to the BJP in the recent past," he said.
Himanta Biswa Sarma-Tarun Gogoi showdown still haunts Congress
The troubles for the Congress are however not fresh. Soon after the 2011 Assam Assembly election which the Congress swept, the rift between then state health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and Gogoi started. While Sarma's wife-led channel News Live made him the face of the victory, Gogoi was hardly amused. In July 2012, the unedited airing of an incident in Guwahati by News Live where a girl was allegedly stripped by a mob led to major flak against Gogoi's government widening the fallout between Gogoi and Sarma to irreparable proportions.
The Kaliabor candidature to Gaurav Gogoi, son of Tarun Gogoi in the 2014 Lok Sabha election worsened the relationship with Sarma feeling further sidelined by the former chief minister. Gaurav won the seat and Sarma finally went on to join the BJP in August 2015 along with a host of young Congress rebels and the Congress never really recovered after that.
Some in public, others in private still blame the Sarma-Gogoi rivalry for the downfall of the Congress with many going to the extent of blaming the former chief minister for being too harsh, even Rahul Gandhi.
"The BJP has been using Himanta Biswa Sarma to the core whether the Congress agrees or not. Congress' failure to retain him is a blunder of the party. It is lack of farsightedness of then Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Had he wished it, he would have managed to keep Sarma in the party. There has been a pile-up of mistakes that Congress finds itself in this situation today," said a party insider who preferred to be anonymous.
Chaliha, who represented the Gauhati Lok Sabha constituency in the 14th Lok Sabha, was quite forthcoming in saying that Gogoi cannot escape his share of his blame.
"How can Tarun Gogoi escape responsibility from the worst ever debacle of the party in Assam? But there were others, who tried to sharpen the differences between the two fighting groups to reap personal favour from the then chief minister. A few like Gautam Roy played dual roles taking the side of dissidents and then instigating Gogoi to go for a fight to the finish," said the former MP.
Ironically, Roy joined the BJP recently on 11 August along with two others and is known to have considerable influence in the Barak valley.
Chaliha also blamed Gogoi for not accepting a compromise formula to broker a deal between the two warring factions.
"Everybody, except the perpetrators of the division, agrees that but for the dissidence within the Congress party led by the young MLAs of the Congress, BJP would have never been able to capture power in Assam. The dissent of the younger MLAs started only after the Panchayat elections in 2013 when many MLAs found out that their lead in the Assembly elections was getting reduced significantly in the Panchayat polls," he said.
The panic-stricken legislators, of whom many were ministers during that time, wanted drastic steps to be taken to protect their seats but allegedly did not get the support of the party higher-ups.
"Worried about the future, they wanted changes in the ministry and effective improvement in the functioning of the government and the party. As the dissident strength started to increase, a few unscrupulous ones started to rally around the chief minister and incited him to brook no criticism and go for the annihilation of the young protesting voices. A tainted few who had no chances of winning their seats started playing for both sides to harden their stands," Chaliha alleged.
Taken aback by this gathering forces against him, the then chief minister chose to take a combative stand instead of going for any sort of compromise.
"As Gogoi became isolated and confused, many Congressmen including a few who were new entrants from regional parties and those who were BJP plants, provoked the groups to go for a fight to finish. To be honest, then Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul, wanted an amicable resolution of the issue. But Gogoi at the instigation of his then minister Gautam Roy and a few others sabotaged the compromise formula. Till today, it is unclear if Gogoi got the approval of the party high command to nullify the mutually agreed compromise formula leading to the eventual split which finally brought BJP to power in Assam. It is known to all that he had lost majority support of MLAs and should have resigned to give the party a fighting chance to recover its lost ground," the former Lok Sabha MP said.
Chaliha has been quite vocal against Gogoi for years now and had even resigned from the primary membership of the Congress after a fallout with then Assam Congress president Anjan Dutta. He is known to be close with Sarma and in March this year, there was a strong rumour that he might join the BJP with Roy. However, of late, the former Gauhati MP described himself "as a diehard personal supporter of Sonia Gandhi".
Angkita also admits that the departure of Sarma to the BJP was indeed a loss.
"Tarun Gogoi delivered during his tenure due to which he was re-elected thrice. But the dissidence in his last tenure cost us Assam. Himanta Biswa Sarma was indeed an asset to the party but he made a choice," she said.
However, the National Students' Union of India national secretary Debashree Bora chose to differ.
"There was no disaster because of Sarma's exit but his presence in the party was a disaster. His entire bad bixombad (dissidence) controversy weakened the Congress party when he was there," she said.
As the chief convener of the North-East Democratic Alliance, Sarma proved his mettle by literally winning the whole of North East for the BJP.
Grassroots workers are a demoralised lot
The state of affairs in the Congress party in Assam leave alone at the national level has led to major disappointment among the cadres in the party mostly by those leaving the party.
"If the grassroots workers have lost confidence in you, how will you survive in some other place? The workers are very offended by these types of leaders. That's why they are being forced to leave Congress. Because of these kinds of leaders, the workers are already working for other parties. The grassroots workers have been demoralised as the leaders are quitting the party. There are many grassroots workers who survive by being close to certain leaders. They don't have the resources to face the election and become an MLA," the insider said.
Perhaps, not even the bigshots have the resources for now.
Updated Date: Aug 20, 2019 12:09:57 IST