Interview: ‘The Assam Election is a Fight Between Modi and Gogoi’

As the BJP and Congress gear up for the forthcoming polls in Assam, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi says the Modi government’s talk about development of the Northeast can’t be squared with his denial of special status to the region

Tarun Gogoi, chief minister of Assam. Credit: Akhil Kumar

Tarun Gogoi, chief minister of Assam. Credit: Akhil Kumar

New Delhi: Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, Pondicherry and Assam go to polls this summer, but the BJP’s best chance could well be only in the north-eastern state. The party is hoping to grab power there by banking on its rising curve of popularity from the 2014 Lok Sabha polls to the civic polls last February. While it seized seven out of the state’s 14 Parliamentary seats, it won 340 of the 746 municipal board and town committee wards.

Assam is also a battle of prestige for Congress which has been ruling the state for 15 consecutive years now.

The importance of Assam can be seen from the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the state twice in a span of a month (on January 19 and February 5) to address public rallies. Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi has also made two visits since December 16, 2015.

The BJP has named Union sports minister Sarbanada Sonowal as its chief ministerial candidate. Sonowal was a popular leader of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) before joining the BJP. The Congress is banking on its three-time chief minister Tarun Gogoi to rustle up the magic numbers to help it form a government for the fourth time in a row in the state. Gogoi has said that the fight is not between Sonowal and him. It is between him and Modi as “it is a battle not for the chief ministership but for ideology.”

In an interview to The Wire, Gogoi – in New Delhi to receive an Economic Times award to Assam in the Best Power Sector category – said, “BJP has declared the Assam polls as the Battle of Saraighat. I agree it is. That party is going to meet the same fate that the Mughals did in that battle where the Assamese gave the invaders a fitting reply.” The BJP too calls itself the protégé of the venerated Ahom general Lachit Borphukan who thwarted the Mughals’ invasion 17 times over in 1671, thereby making the northeast the only region in present-day India to not have a long Mughal period of history.

Excerpts from the interview:

Just after the Bihar polls, you suggested a grand alliance on the lines of what we saw in that state but now the Congress in Assam has decided to go it alone in the coming polls. What went wrong?

I was misunderstood. I never suggested a Bihar-like grand alliance but talked of a Maha-understanding with parties who may fight elections with (against) each other but are committed to secular values. A Bihar-like grand alliance means seat sharing. There is no question of seat sharing here. It may be CPI, CPI (M), All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) or any student body who are opposed to communal, divisive forces. If you recall, in the last assembly polls, even if we had an alliance with the Bodo People’s Front (BPF), we never did any seat sharing with it. It is another thing that we lost those seats but we never gave up our seats to the ally.

Now the BPF has joined hands with the BJP and both are reportedly going to enter into a seat sharing arrangement, which will affect the Congress’s prospects in the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) area.

At least, none of the parties in the state have openly admitted aligning with the BJP yet, except BPF. The BTAD area is different from the rest of the state. The BJP may ally with the BPF there but not all Bodos support BPF. Also, there are a large number of non-Bodos in that area. Whom would they vote? So BJP shouldn’t bank on BPF alone to win all the BTAD seats. That Modi came in January to launch the BJP’s election campaign from a BPF rally in Kokrajhar said a lot. BJP is so worried about its prospects in the state that it made its prime minister address the public from the platform of an ally. It was quite shameful for a PM to do so. BPF is not even a party which has a strong all-Assam presence. Even when the Congress had an alliance with BPF, I never used their platform. Also, as far as the Bodo vote is concerned, there are many Bodos living outside the BTAD area, some of whom are Congress voters.

This year, you will go to the voters to seek a fourth term in office. How worried are you about the anti-incumbency factor?

Anti-incumbency applies to governments that have not worked but I have. I won 71 seats in my first term. Yes, it came down to 53 the second time but I got 79 in the third term. So where is anti-incumbency? Voters can see. At the same time, they are going to see the opponent also. In the last 15 months, people in Assam have seen what the BJP government at the Centre is doing; more promises and little delivery.

Some say that your spin doctor Himanta Biswa Sarma is not with you this time to help you get the numbers. He is helping Sarbananda Sonowal.

Well, I am glad he is not with me. Let me remind you that Sonowal is the same man who brought a corruption charge against Sarma in the Louise Berger case and now he is siding with him, all to win an election. Both are going to give Modi a headache in times to come as both are ambitious. Sarma’s dream of becoming Assam chief minister has not happened this time because of his corrupt reputation but he will not give up that dream easily.

Both did a padyatra in your constituency this week.

I wish them luck. Let them come to my constituency; people will give them a fitting reply.

But if we see from the 2014 LS elections to the civic polls last February, the BJP has clearly seen on an upper curve. Would you not call this election your biggest challenge then?

Yes, they did well till last February but now, if you go to the people you will know where the BJP stands. People have not forgiven the BJP for its decision to give citizenship to the Hindu Bangladeshis living in the State. It is a sentimental issue and BJP has played with it. Assamese people will not forgive them for its decision to make illegal Bangladeshis Indian citizens. Also, it gave Assam’s land to Bangladesh. When the UPA II government wanted to solve the problem, the BJP came to the streets in the state saying that Tarun Gogoi is siding with Bangladeshis, look what it has done now! People will see though their double standards. Also, since the 2014 LS polls, BJP is losing 4-5% of its vote share.

To the last part of your question, I wouldn’t like to say it is my toughest challenge but would add that every election is tough and this one is one of them.

Tarun Gogoi, chief minister of Assam. Credit: Akhil Kumar

Tarun Gogoi, chief minister of Assam. Credit: Akhil Kumar

The BJP government at the Centre has fulfilled some of the promises made in the Assam Accord, like the Assam gas cracker project. It announced two days ago that the Bogibeel bridge will be completed by 2017.

You should ask the Modi government, who started work on these projects? Who completed nearly 70% of the work? The Bogibeel bridge is going to be the country’s longest rail-cum-road bridge, it takes time. The UPA government released funds for it, that’s how so much work on it happened. The work has been going on even before Modi took over. These are not new projects. People are not fools. BJP is even trying to take credit for the recent South Asian Federation Games but I ask, who made the infrastructure so that the games could be held in Guwahati? It is again my government which has just sent a proposal to the Centre to start the Guwahati Metro. It is my government which started the update of the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) as per the Assam Accord to identify illegal immigrants in the state.

Every time Modi has addressed the public in the Northeast, he has talked about development. Even in that BPF rally, he talked of his ‘development mantra’.

Well, it is one thing to say it in a pubic rally and another to deliver. If his government is so concerned about NE development, why has it then lifted the special status from the region granted by the Gadgil-Mukherjee formula? I told Modi that after you came to power you lifted that status. By doing so, you indirectly brought the North East at par with developed states like Gujarat . How can we compete with them? On top of it, his government has also taken away the Backward Region Grant Fund from the state, which was launched by former PM Manmohan Singh in 2007 to address persistent regional imbalances in development. It also stopped the North East Industrial Investor Programme policy. Many companies, who may not have a market in the northeast, had set up their manufacturing units in Assam simply because that policy which gave them certain incentives. Now that is gone. Who will come to invest in the northeast?

Also, take the issue of Central funds for Assam floods. The Centre told us to use funds from the state exchequer for rehabilitation work and it will reimburse us but that fund has also not come even after many reminders were sent.

Take Assam’s demand for oil royalty. Since 2008, we have been seeking that oil producing companies pay royalty to the state on the well head price determined by the actual price of the crude oil prevailing in the international market and not on the sale price as defined by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas. Gujarat went to court demanding the same. The Supreme Court decided in its favour. Now, while the Modi government is giving that price to Gujarat, it has refused to pay Assam. An SC order should have applied to us also. Now, Assam is forced to go to the court because of it. If this is not partiality, then what is?

The prime minister has said one of his ministers will visit Assam once a week.

What is the use of their coming to Assam when their ministries don’t give its people anything? When Sonowal was the Union skill development minister, we sent a district-wise proposal to empower our people but nothing happened.

You have written to the PM recently seeking a Rs. 1000 crore package for the tea garden community which has been Congress’s traditional vote bank but is now being wooed by the BJP. Some would call it a poll ploy.

It is a genuine concern. If Modi can give Rs. 1000 crore package to the Bodos, why can’t he give it to the tea garden community?

The hyper religious nationalism that the BJP is propagating across the country will not work in Assam. Take the question of beef eating. Many in the northeast eat beef. For instance, all Nagas do. So are you saying all Nagas are anti-nationals?

Let’s come to the question of the Muslim vote. Muslims form 34% of Assam’s population now.  How popular are you in that community considering there is AIUDF in the fray?

The Assamese Muslims are with Congress. They will never vote for AIUDF simply because that party has always worked only for the Bengali-speaking Muslims. The Assamese Muslims are asserting their ethnicity now. In fact, many Assamese Muslim students’ organisations have declared recently that they would not support AIUDF.

Just after the Bihar polls, the BJP declared that it will give ST status to six communities. One of them is the Tai Ahom community, to which you belong. What happens if that comes through?

Well, I have asked the PM why it hasn’t  been listed in this budget session [of parliament].  Mere promise is not enough, why doesn’t he deliver it before the elections?

What do you think will work for you in the elections?

Good governance. Also, some of my schemes have been appreciated by people. Some may call them populist but I tell you they go a long way in helping people. Take the case of distribution of mosquito nets and blankets to the poor in Assam. It protects the poor from catching diseases like malaria, common in the belt. It also helps my government as I don’t have to then spend a lot of money and other resources if a large number of people don’t catch that disease annually. Then, for the last 10 years, Assam is the only state that has been giving a computer to a school pass-out who gets above 60% marks. It is much appreciated by the people. Also, we have a scheme under which we pay a one-time Rs.10,000 grant to an unmarried woman to start a small business. This is to help an unmarried woman avoid getting financially dependent on her family. No state has thought of such a scheme. When a girl child is born in Assam, we help her family open a bank account and give a one-time Rs 5000 grant for her education.

Recently, we created six more districts to bring administration closer to people.

What do you think will not work for BJP?

What will not work for the BJP is its attempt to silence the voices it doesn’t like. The hyper religious nationalism that it is propagating across the country will not work in Assam. Take the question of beef eating. Many in the northeast eat beef. For instance, all Nagas do. So are you saying all Nagas are anti-nationals? Issues of sub-nationalism are important in the region, such as that of illegal Bangladeshis threatening to take away land and other resources from the indigenous people. That Bangladeshis are coming to the region is not the fault of the state governments there. It is the duty of the Centre to seal the border. Do you know why the Congress lost after the Emergency? Even though people felt that many things were working better than before during that period, they rejected Indira Gandhi in the elections because she tried to silence the voices of the people. It doesn’t work in India. Modi is doing the same. But there is a difference here. While Indira Gandhi was a democrat who decided to give up power to go to the people, it seems not [to be] the case here. The Centre is now in the hands of a one-man brigade, no minister has any decision-making powers. Where are we heading to?

  • N Motwani

    Good interview!

    Some main points:
    (1) Beef is eaten in the North-East and the BJP is trying to ban beef here?
    (2) Disrespecting the Assam Accord by talking about giving citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis – But BJP forgets that indigenous Assamese people do not want Bangladeshis in Assam, hindu or muslim.
    (3) There are two kinds of Muslims in Assam – Assamese Muslims and Bengali Muslims. Assamese Muslims came with Mir Jumla, or even before that – much before the Mughals came to invade Assam. Famous Muslims like Bagh Hazarika defended Assam against Mughal invasion. Secondly, Bengali Muslims in Assam are not all Bangladeshis. Bengalis from Goalpara, Dhubri live in borders of Assam, but they are also legitimate citizens of Assam even though their dialect is different from ‘likhit’ Assamese.
    (4) Giving Assam land to Bangladesh after protests by BJP previously – double standards!
    (5) Modi govt has done nothing for Assam – merely visiting Assam is not enough, what have you given Assam? Even the recent railway budget gave NOTHING to Assam and North-East.