‘Guru’ Gogoi’s demise creates vacuum for Congress ahead of Assam polls

With his death, the fate of the Congress-led alliance in the land of the Brahmaputra hangs in balance

Tarun Gogoi
Former Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi | File Photo: PTI

With thousands in attendance and with full state honours, former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s mortal remains were consigned to flames on Thursday afternoon. The ceremony not only drew the curtains on an era but has left Assam politics, especially the state Congress party, feeling rather lost ahead of the April 2021 Assembly polls.

Rahul Gandhi’s statement to the media, with a postscript, was most telling and realistic. On Wednesday, after paying last respects to his “wise teacher” lying at rest at the Srimanta Sankardev Kalakshetra in Guwahati, Rahul said, “He was the guru who taught his students and the state Congress well. So, it will not be tough for us to fight in Assam. We’ll succeed in keeping alive his aspirations. Of course, it would have been easier with him around.”

Most Congress party insiders echoed the sentiment. While reiterating that the father of Assam politics did mentor Congressmen well, they said that the party will “most definitely miss the voice that could command attention in the corridors of power in the national capital”. And, as Gogoi’s early political colleague Apurba Kumar Barooah said, also “his unique ability to call a spade a spade”.

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The state party unit’s general secretary Diganta Choudhury, in fact, went on to tell a regional newspaper, “We will miss him. He had the stature to stand up and speak against the ruling BJP government’s anti-people policies — from demonetisation to the Citizenship Amendment Act, COVID-19 lockdown, farm bills, and more.”

Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma of the National People’s Party and Opposition leader Congressman Mukul Sangma, who came down from state capital Shillong to pay their last respects to the political veteran, also acknowledged that Gogoi’s demise has created a “big vacuum” since he was the “collective voice” of the Northeast. Conrad Sangma also went on to say that Tarun Gogoi was the “father of Northeast politics and the entire region looked to him for resolution of common problems and issues.”

Mantras without the Guru

The vacuum that Assam Congress is staring at is in large part due to Tarun Gogoi’s active involvement in party activities and electoral campaigns until the August day he was struck down by novel coronavirus — post-Covid-19 complications finally causing multi-organ failure on November 23.

Alive to Gogoi’s political acumen, crisis management skills — sought even by the likes of late Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, and how he could explain “what Assam is, what the people of Assam are, the complexity of the state” (in the words of Rahul Gandhi), the state Congress continued to seek the former chief minister’s guidance on ways to wrest poll victory in 2021. So, despite his advanced age, Gogoi Dangoriya (a term used to refer to ‘gentleman’ in Assamese) remained the party’s guiding force.

“Talking to him felt like talking to Assam. Assam Congress will thus follow his philosophy and guidance, as in what he did and spoke,” Gandhi said.

The bedrock of legacy

Reflecting on the Congress party’s decisive victory in the 2001 Assembly elections, Tarun Gogoi had written in his 2016 autobiography Turnaround: Leading From the Front: “For me, the 2001 election was not about garnering votes: it was about assuaging a realm torn asunder by strife. I realised that by winning the election, the Congress party and I, as its state leader, had been entrusted with immense responsibility. The time had come for me to commit myself completely and utterly to the service of my people.”

Thereon, over three tenures on the trot — from May 2001 until the Congress party conceded defeat to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Asom Gana Parishad (AGP)-Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) alliance in May 2016 — Assam’s longest-serving chief minister adroitly beat the state’s bankrupt economy and combative insurgency with his smart ‘Bring Home the Boys’ policy. The move not only led to the surrender of hundreds of insurgents and an end to militancy but also turned around the economy.

Road ahead in a Grand Alliance?

This time around, for 2021, Gogoi was planning a Grand Alliance with all non-BJP parties. Besides dialogues with Left parties and the allegedly pro-migrant All India Democratic United Front (AIDUF) led by perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal, the Congress had even appealed to the newly-floated Asom Jatiya Party and Raijor Dal to join the proposed alliance.

However, with the passing away of their “guru”, the fate of the Congress-led alliance in the land of the Brahmaputra hangs in balance. A couple of days ago, a Left leader even said that the party’s decision to be in the alliance will depend upon how things pan out.

Today, judging by the crowds that converged around the church, naamghar (Vaishnavite place of worship), mosque, and temples that the popular leader’s funeral procession stopped at — ostensibly in deference to Gogoi’s last wish — the Congress might have served a sleight of hand and cut ice in Assam’s pluralist society with its display of secularism.

Jostling for a share of the legacy pie, Himanta Biswa Sarma, Gogoi’s former confidante and now the state Health and Finance Minister in a nostalgic statement also publicly revealed for the first time how “Gogoi showed courage and keen political sense by refusing to endorse the previous AGP government’s secret killings as a means to pressurise the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) into surrendering.” Even AIDUF chief Badruddin Ajmal has said that he will sponsor a book on Tarun Gogoi’s life and work.

Although apparently rudderless, there is speculation that Gaurav Gogoi could rise to centre stage in the party, and even cash in on a sympathy wave if there is one. “The party poll campaign will focus on carrying forward Tarun Gogoi’s legacy of serving substance, not rhetoric,” said a party insider.

However, events pan out from now until April 2021, Gogoi’s long leadership innings will create ripples that lasts for years, if not decades.

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