The Indestructible Tarun Gogoi & the Art of Assam Politics

Indeed, Tarun Gogoi’s soul remains eternal and true to his name, the embodied memory of the political legend of Assam remains evergreen.
The Indestructible Tarun Gogoi & the Art of Assam Politics

By Prasenjit Biswas

Tarun Gogoi’s demise from this earthly world is best described by his able heir Gaurav Gogoi in this way, “the human body is destructible, while the soul is eternal.” Indeed, Tarun Gogoi’s soul remains eternal and true to his name, the embodied memory of the political legend of Assam remains evergreen or ‘Tarun’, as said in Asomiya.

Tarun Gogoi’s lived world and the labour of his life revolved around uniting people across communities, languages, religions and places in Assam and its hinterland of Northeastern region, which remains unshakeable, in spite of his absence now. In effect, his absence became more powerful than his presence; as friends, a friend turned foe and, rivals all alike recount his masterful art of politics of overcoming any politics of division.

His prolonged presence in Assam’s fractured polity of multiple ethnicities and identities in tales about his strategies both within the Congress party and in the larger society reverberates with every political move by both opposition and the ruling dispensation in Assam.

It has always remained very important for India as a whole to address issues of underdevelopment, illegal immigration, insurgency and ethnic homeland claims and overall, security issues that primarily arose from Assam and spread to other Northeastern states; especially politics centring National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) became central to Eastern India because of NRC exercise in Assam, which then found a place in the political pantheon of India.

As often, Gogoi would self indulgingly say, “NRC is my brainchild”, or “I am the author of NRC” to lighten the burden of humanitarian issues of exclusion in the list with an assuring grace of not depriving anyone of their rights. Such an avowal would not only warm the hearts but, also calm down political emotions like gaslighting anger against the state’s minorities. Such was the grace of Gogoi’s language.

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His inclusive mindset became a much-hated or much-criticised polemical subject in his opponents. His bête noire though had accused him of pandering to what they call ‘appeasement’ for minority vote bank; indeed Gogoi never got swayed by the typical political impulse of naming a section of Assam’s people as foreigners or illegals, even if they were, as this militates against his sensibility, his humaneness at the end of the day. This very act of a kind and considerate political acumen made him into a father-figure of Assam’s politics, who wielded an enviable moral authority even after he lost power in 2016. His detractors shall occupy a place of not even a footnote before his political sagacity and visionary leadership, as no one can emerge as such a towering figure of integrating people and binding them in a thread of goodwill.

When United Progressive Alliance (UPA) lost power in 2014 and Tarun Gogoi continued to be Chief Minister of Assam until May 2016, he never lost the plot to political mobs. As a true democrat, he invited criticism from his opponents, recognised his own shortcomings happily and, scaled them over with a cautious dialogue of “baad diya he” in Assamese, meaning ‘give it up’ or ‘don’t bother for smaller glitches’. One way, it was a politics of hope in Assam’s multiple disruptions of his time like bandhs, agitations and natural calamities, each producing a set of new victims every day.

His politics of hope provided the much needed healing touches in the afflicted and the sufferers, while demands for greater protection grew in Assamese society. He stood in his Buddha-style political precipices by refusing to be drawn into rancour, hate and political score-settling, while he pursued a reach out to all the sides in a conflict.

Occasionally, moving the state machinery has been extremely difficult like in 2012 when Bodoland riots left an astounding four Lakh people displaced, to which Gogoi took steps to improve the falling law and order. Much of his efforts were directed at restraining hatemongers in Bodoland areas, in which he succeeded in bringing back order by making the displaced return to their burnt homes and, destroyed fields remained a very big challenge to him as the CM of Assam.

But what Gogoi helped achieve was a broader political unity between Non-Bodo groups that went against extremism and created goodwill among the Bodos in a major way. Such was Gogoi’s political skills, which didn’t give him only votes and seats, but it gave him the image of a father figure who could work well beyond narrow partisan interests.

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What Gogoi did after he lost power is simply remarkable. He created a rainbow coalition of ethnic groups, political parties with segmental bases and the opposition, keeping in mind the 2021 elections. His style of bringing together the entire opposition became so powerful that it creates chances for a political alternative more real in Assam. This is how Gogoi sailed against the stream.

His absence now makes the need and the urge for unity even more powerful by making actual stakeholders, the fledgeling opposition of Assam much more pro-active. Gogoi’s strategy of affirming faith in multireligious and multi-community coalitions showed the way of an effective counter or resistance to the formation of a bigoted bloc.

Indeed Gogoi went down to the ground level unity between cultural, ethnic and religious groups that acted as a bulwark against divisive agenda in times of crisis, be it times of NRC verification or COVID deaths.

What Gogoi then left for posterity is not just his Congress party but a large politics of inclusion, accommodation and assimilation. The style of bringing together Congress and All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) on the one hand and, on the other, liberals among Hindu- Assamese society of Brahmaputra valley by combining them with ethnic groups and plains and hill tribes created a strong undercurrent of a political change in Assam. The repeated reference to Moghul coming by alluding was skillfully countered by Gogoi’s manner of social engineering. Being an Ahom and an authentic son-of-the-soil, Gogoi could combine Ahoms and minorities that created ripples in Assam politics.

Himanta Biswa Sarma, the chief political manager of Assam’s ruling BJP spelt the metaphor of Moghul in order to counter the Gogoi-Ajmal equation in Assam’s politics, clearly indicating that the ruling party does not yet have a better social engineering plank than emerging Gogoi-Ajmal equation. The fear of Ajmal becoming chief minister from being just the kingmaker could not dent Gogoi’s efforts at bringing a possible reclamation of power by Ahom leadership embodied by Gogoi himself.

A six-time member of parliament and fifteen years of unbeaten rule by Tarun Gogoi gave Ahoms the much-desired confidence in becoming the decisive bloc of power. Gogoi, by his long political stint, could create a captivated powerful community of Ahoms, whose voice he represented in the most trustworthy manner, not in an exclusivist sense, but in the way that the polity and society of Assam needed it, that is, the way of creating a softer space of assimilation and trust between divergent and diverse communities and groups across Assam.

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The motivational role of Gogoi in creating a broad-based social conglomeration stood diametrically opposite to politics of polarisation based on religion. Indeed, Gogoi successfully laid foundations of a long term political change by bringing together smaller groups in Upper Assam such as Moran, Motok, Tai Ahom, Mishing and others along with electoral blocs of Bengali Muslims as a decisive block to change the electoral arithmetic.

Gogoi’s absence does not in any way weaken this self-motivated and interest-driven coalition of forces, which in no way can be taken over by ruling Hindu Right. Who will fill up Gogoi’s absence is a question that shall find an answer from the emergent situation of getting a leader who can bind diverse blocs in the way that Gogoi has shown. Many voices of distinct political orientation and their coming together as blocs within a coalition still need someone like Gogoi as a mastermind to fix people together to common political goals.

The situation, on its own, boils down to new synthetic chemistry when each element remain active with a political will to integrate themselves within a robust formation, which, even though partly, fill up the gap created by Gogoi’s absence.

Gogoi could make the best out of the ruling party’s political compulsions. The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and the mass upsurge against it in Assam and elsewhere in Northeast still runs very deep in tieing the knot between forces that so far remained separated, though proximately follow each other in a common road.

Forces like Raijor Dol (led by the other insuperable Akhil Gogoi), Asom Jatiyo Parishad (A regionalist alternative to Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), part of the ruling alliance), AIUDF and several other emerging political parties and formations across Assam have all moved towards the direction shown by Tarun Gogoi to work closely on the heels of each other and to converge on opposition unity. The clamour for a common candidate against the Hindu Right has gained considerable momentum, although parties haven’t yet formally close their ranks. Gogoi’s initiative to find a common candidate, irrespective of party affiliation, only stirred undeniably the motivation of an emerging unity, which is just a matter of time.

Therefore, it is very hard to write a political obituary for a modern-day democratic swargodeo (a metaphor for Ahom Kings) such as one and only one Tarun Gogoi, whose indestructible soul now binds Assam’s new political alternative after being released from his mortal body.

(The writer is a Philosopher and Political Analyst based in Shillong, Meghalaya.)

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