Assam’s longest-serving chief minister Tarun Gogoi, who passed away on Monday at 86 years of age, will be remembered for his vision of steering Assam on to the path of peace and development, leaving behind the bitter decades of unrest and economic stagnation. It was his political wisdom and vision of building a modern Assam that catapulted him to the fame of a stalwart in Indian politics.
Insurgency and counter-insurgency response, ethnic conflict and internal displacement dominated the public discourse in the state when he assumed office in 2001. Gogoi articulated the policy of peace and development to simultaneously push both. Changing the public discourse to peace and development was his greatest contribution.
He pushed the narrative that development cannot wait for peacebuilding. However, with the empty coffer of the state government, this was much easier said than done. Failure of the previous Asom Gana Parishad (AGP)-led coalition government in providing even the 10% matching share against 90% of central sector schemes as a special category state brought a grinding halt to development activities. Gogoi persuaded late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani to release the central share and relax the norm of mandatory release of the matching share by the state government. He used his personal camaraderie he had developed with the giants of Indian politics beyond the ideological barriers during his long stint in parliamentary politics to convince Vajpayee and Advani to release funds for central sector schemes, relaxing the norms.
Ironically, it was the AGP which convinced the Deve Gowda-led United Front government at the Centre to accord special category status to Assam and the funding pattern of 90:10, and Mahanta enjoyed closer rapport with Vajpayee and Advani from the days of the Assam movement. Gogoi achieved what would have been easier for Mahanta. He not only defended the special category status of Assam but also argued that the state would further lag behind – providing more space for rebel groups like United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) and other armed groups in Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao to become stronger – if the funds for central sector development projects are withheld. The Congress returning to power at the Centre and Manmohan Singh becoming prime minister for two consecutive terms from 2004 to 2014 led to an improvement in funds flow and higher allocations.
The public perception of rhe Congress party’s image as anti-Assamese, anti-ethnic communities that took shape during the Assam movement started fading out with Gogoi’s action of strongly defending Assam’s special category status and higher share of royalty on crude oil. Thus Gogoi, a diehard Congressman, crafted his image as a powerful regional leader in Indian politics which paled images of many other regional leaders. This image was instrumental in AGP’s decline as a defender of regionalism in Assam, with the Congress party filling the vacuum and denying that space to the BJP for 15 long years. It was the dissidence against Gogoi, led by one of his closest confidants – present health and education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma in the Sarbananda Sonowal-led government – which primarily created the space for the BJP to grow in the state, but Gogoi’s popularity prevented the saffron party from achieving the magic number on its own.
The funds that flowed in were used to pay the salaries of state government employees who did not receive salaries for months – some for more than a year – during the previous AGP-led coalition government headed by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. This brought dynamism among government employees and helped Gogoi win the support of state government employees. A large number of employees affiliated to the influential Sadou Asam Karmachari Parishad (SAKP), the apex body of government employees that took active part in the six-year-long Assam Movement spearheaded by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) during the Hiteswar Saikia-led Congress regime, shifted their political loyalties and lent support to Gogoi’s efforts to push development work.
Gogoi often used to share in private discussion with journalists and party colleagues how he had focused on financial management to unlock more funds for pushing development projects and for paying employees’ salaries regularly. He approached external funding agencies like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to provide long-term soft loans and use some portion of such funds in repaying the loans his government had taken to pay the matching shares of central sector projects to get subsequent instalments.
The inflow of funds brought an end to financial doldrums. Roads and bridges were built to improve connectivity across the state. Improved connectivity helped famers and traders to access the markets and trade centres with ease. Investments flowed in and businesses grew as government expenditure increased and the visible rise of infrastructure projects like a modern secretariat complex at Dispur and new medical colleges created a mindset of development, which helped Gogoi break the vicious cycle of under development and insurgency.
Gogoi also wanted the youth, more particularly the rural youth, to be active participants in development projects. He directed the police force to take stern action against those surrendered ULFA leaders (SULFA) and cadres who used to threaten and prevent other youth and contractors from getting the contracts, a dangerous legacy which took roots in Hiteswar Saikia-led Congress regime and intensified during the Mahanta-led AGP regime in the 1990s. This allowed the youth, more particularly in rural Assam, to get contracts for building roads and bridges, and other government construction and supplies. This also helped the youth in ULFA strongholds to wean away the youth from the influence of insurgency. Ending the dominance of SULFA cadres provided the space for Congress party to gain support of rural youth and expand the bases which explain the huge support that helped him wear the crown for three consecutive terms from 2001 to 2016.
As president of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee, Gogoi’s articulation of “secret killing” of family members of ULFA leaders and cadres during the AGP regime as the major poll plank helped the party make inroads in AGP strongholds, that was crucial for the party’s return to power in Dispur. The extra-judicial killing of ULFA family members and supporters by the nexus of a coterie of security forces, including a section of Assam Police officials and a section of SULFA and other surrendered rebels, created a sense of insecurity.
At the same time, Gogoi defended the three-tier Unified Command Structure of the Army, central paramilitary forces and Assam Police continuing the counter-insurgency response. He also issued a directive to the synergised command structure to ensure that innocent civilians are not harassed during counter-insurgency operations. This helped erasing the fear and apprehension that gripped the public due to “secret killings” and created the space for public participation in the development process. Gogoi also continued to offer olive branches to the ULFA and NDFB rebels, and offered safe passages to the rebels to meet family members.
Gogoi was a staunch defender of the federal structure of Indian democracy and believed in true practice of cooperative federalism. He lent full cooperation to the initiative of the Vajpayee-led BJP government at the Centre to bring the erstwhile Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) to the peace process. This led to the signing of the second Bodo peace accord, paving the way for setting up the Bodoland Territorial Council under the amended provisions of the Sixth Schedule.
This helped Gogoi win support of the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) led by erstwhile BLT chief Hagrama Mahilary, who also became the Chief Executive Member of the BTC for three consecutive terms, to form a coalition government at Dispur during the second term. The Congress party had fallen short of the magic number in the 2006 assembly polls after the formation and rise of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and resurgence of the AGP following scrapping of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) in 2005 by the Supreme Court.
Despite a landslide victory in 2011, Gogoi continued the alliance with BPF and inducted a minister from the party to share power with the Bodo political party. Gogoi also believed that the participation of the Bodo leaders as stakeholders of power in Dispur is critical to end the feeling of alienation among Bodos. The Congress-BPF coalition continued for eight long years before the BPF snapped it in 2014 in the aftermath of BJP’s rise in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls amidst dissidence. The BPF move was seen as an impact of dissidence against Gogoi.
Gogoi was aware that the creation of the BTC would open a Pandora’s Box and fuel aspirations of autonomy among various ethnic communities. However, demography did not allow for territorial autonomy to smaller communities. He crafted the idea of development councils for smaller communities as well as the religious and linguistic minorities as a response to this aspiration and in a bid to create the perception of all communities as stakeholders in governance. However, the ad hoc nature of these councils and failure to allocate required funding stemmed his dream and reduced the councils to political rehabilitation of Congress leaders belonging to the communities. This started the gradual alienation of the party among the communities and create the space for the BJP to gain ground.
Gogoi’s emphasis on empowerment of women and girl students through the formation of self-help groups and distribution of cycles for girl students were among the factors that amplified his popularity in rural Assam. The financial support which the SHGs gave the women not only helped them command respect in their families but also empowered them electorally, as the most influential political opinion moulders. Reservation of 50% seats for women in Panchayati Raj institutions added momentum to the empowerment process while distribution of bicycles brought down the dropout rate of girl students.
Gogoi image as an influential regional leader is also attributed to his defence of the Assam Accord. He would not deny the occurrence of “illegal migration” of people from Bangladesh without valid travel documents to Assam but would often discard the theory that it was continuing at the same pace as before or posing an existential threat to Assamese and other ethnic communities. He defended the 1971 cut-off year of the Assam Accord as he would assert that it protects genuine Indian citizens in accordance with the historic Accord that brought the curtains down on the anti-foreigner agitation. He facilitated the tripartite level discussion between the Central government, AASU and the state government at the prime Ministerial level during the Manmohan Singh regime in 2005.
However, he also insisted on being “pragmatic” and granting shelter and eventually citizenship to those migrants from present Bangladesh who he said were “Indians” at the time of Partition and fled the country later due to religious or other persecution. He believed the updated National Register of Citizens would be the base document of Indian citizens to prevent undue harassment in the name of identification of illegal migrants and identification of illegal migrants. Gogoi insisted that NRC should not be updated in a hurry to ensure that there is no wrongful inclusion of “illegal migrants” or “wrongful exclusion” of genuine Indian citizens. Gogoi was aware that the NRC was too complicated a process to push and may have political ramifications for the party among the Congress support bases of ethnic communities as well as religious and linguistic minorities.
A strong defender of secular fundamentals of the Indian constitution Gogoi, however, rushed to lead the party in the movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 when the Modi government pushed for amendment in the citizenship laws to grant citizenship to only non-Muslim “illegal migrants.” This also convinced Gogoi to push for the alliance of the Congress and AIUDF even though he had once fiercely opposed any electoral tie up with the party led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, towards formation of a grand alliance of all non-BJP parties in 2021 assembly polls. Gogoi’s demise will be felt by opposition parties in their efforts to shape the alliance.
Gogoi’s trademark smile was a reflection of a candid politician who gave easy access to not only journalists but also a cross-section of people. His formal press meets would often extend into long private conversation with all journalists – senior and young, photo and video journalists. It was not part of any media management but an honest attempt to get a ==feedback about people’s aspirations and reactions to his style of governance. However, his candid nature also harmed him politically. A politician whose long career remained free from any taint, Gogoi minced no words when asked to comment on corruption charges against his government. His candid admission about the prevalence of corruption and failure to check them sent a wrong signal to the general public and was one of the major factors that helped the BJP gain ground in the state.
Personally, Tarun Gogoi became the chief minister for me before he had taken oath for the first of his three consecutive terms. After the dusts of hectic poll battle settled down in 2001, he gave consent to me for an embargoed interview. The Telegraph planned to publish it in the edition the very next day after oath taking. There was no digital edition then to publish instantly. He sounded confident but was candid about the challenges that lay before him. In 2016 too, when I had taken a video interview in his last tenure as chief minister for nezine.com, he was candid and tried to sound confident even though he could foresee the defeat because of dissidence and the juggernaut of Prime Minister Narendra Modi helping BJP to gain ground in the state.
The interaction with this tall leader for more than 22 years of my 28 years of journalism career till now enriched my understanding of many nuances of electoral politics and governance. His admiration for The Hindu and Frontline helped me engage with him in long conversations as a journalist with the national daily and fortnightly for 11 of his 15 years as chief minister. But Gogoi never shied away from answering any critical questions. Rather, he used to seize the opportunity of articulating a prompt political response to the questions. Assam will remember him forever for the turnaround in governance and development in the state.
Sushanta Talukdar is the editor of nezine.com. This article was also published on nezine.come.