Tarun Gogoi dies at 86: Assam's shrewd and smiling statesman politician was unflinching till the end

Ram is above all, said former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi on 5 August concluding a video message on Twitter, which also happened to be his last on the platform, as if blurring the political rivalry he had with the BJP for so long and bidding adieu to his friends and competitors alike.

It was on 25 August, Gogoi had tested COVID-19 positive but exactly two months later he emerged victorious against coronavirus and returned home.

Unfortunately, the three-time former Assam chief minister could defeat the virus but not its after-effects which soon took a severe turn forcing his return to the hospital and ultimately proved fatal. Tarun — a Sanskrit word for "young" or "youth" — was always youthful in the field of politics even till his final age of 86 years. Until he was infected by the coronavirus, there was nothing that could stop the former Assam chief minister from taking potshots at the BJP, particularly, his one-time protégé and Assam health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.

He often held press conferences at his residence when COVID-19 was raging across the country despite repeated reminders from Sarma to be cautious as he was vulnerable because of his age and other medical conditions. But Gogoi had a flair for politics and was a darling of the media; COVID-19 was perhaps the last thing he worried about.

Humble steps before giant strides

Born to Dr Kamaleshwar Gogoi, a physician at Rangajan Tea Estate and Usha Gogoi in Jorhat district on 11 October, 1934, the former chief minister who was a lawyer by training did not restrict himself to the four walls of a courtroom but rather launched himself into the far more appealing field of politics. Gogoi made a modest beginning to his political career in 1967 when he became the joint secretary of the India National Congress and a year later he became a member of the Jorhat Municipal Board. It was a moment that marked the debut of a political career which would last for over half a century — 52 years to be exact.

A staunch Congress loyalist till his last breath, the six-time Lok Sabha MP (three times from the constituencies of Jorhat and Kaliabor each) remained with the party through thick and thin whether it was during the Emergency in 1975 or the Assam Agitation (1979-85). His loyalty did not go unrewarded as he was entrusted the responsibility to head the Congress governments in Assam for three consecutive terms from 18 May, 2001 till 24 May, 2016 when finally BJP successfully wrested power in the state.

Quiet in Delhi

Between 1964-70, Gogoi went to Delhi for 11 times along with his friends Padma Sarma and Troilokya Bhattacharya when he was associated with the India Youth Society. He also went to Chandigarh twice, once each to Varanasi, Lucknow and Agra. In 1970, the three of them went to Mumbai to attend a Congress Plenary Session.

"Prior to that Gogoi formed an organisation called Jatiya Simanta Rakhya Parishad and dedicated himself for the welfare of the society. During this period, I and former Congress MP from Jorhat Bijoy Krishna Handique were with him," said Bhattacharya, according to News18 Assam/North-East. In 1966, Gogoi was the president of the Assam chapter of India Youth Society while Bhattacharya was the organisational secretary and Sarma was the general secretary.

(L) A young Tarun Gogoi on a trip to Mumbai. Image courtesy Troilokya Bhattacharya

In 1971, Gogoi made his Lok Sabha debut when he won the Jorhat seat followed by his re-election from the same constituency for the 6th Lok Sabha in 1977. The second victory was particularly sweet as the anger of the electorate against the Indira Gandhi regime because of the Emergency did not have any adverse impact on him. In 1983, Gogoi again became the joint secretary of the Congress and also got elected to the seventh Lok Sabha.

It has to be remembered that during this time the Assam Agitation was at its peak and despite being surrounded by unfavourable circumstances he won the election. The former Assam chief minister also climbed the organisational ladder parallelly and became the general secretary of the Congress in 1985. The support he gave to the Congress party during such a big crisis in the state when the Assam Agitation was on was unflinching. It was only because of the quiet groundwork that Gogoi and his colleagues in the party did during that resulted in the tripartite signing of the Assam Accord in August 1985 among the Centre, state government and the All Assam Students' Union.

Gogoi was at the helm of the Congress from 1986-90 as the president of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee before he got elected to the 10th Lok Sabha in 1991. This time he became a Minister of State (Independent) in the Union food ministry till 1993 and later became the Minister of State (Independent) in the Ministry of Food Processing Industry.

In 1996, Gogoi was elected to the Assam Legislative Assembly for the first time from the Margherita constituency but a year later he again became an MP from the Kaliabor Lok Sabha constituency in 1998 and resigned as an MLA. In 1999, he was elected to the 13th Lok Sabha from the same seat. During these terms as MP, Gogoi was on the Committee on Government Assurances, Committee on External Affairs, Consultative Committee, Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Committee on Railways as a member.

Although a six-time MP, Gogoi's tenure in Lok Sabha was a largely lacklustre one and he suffered from the ignominy of remaining silent in the Lower House even on critical issues concerning Assam. People didn't know him much as the state political scenario was mostly dominated by former Congress leader and chief minister Hiteswar Saikia and the then Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) president and former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta.

In public perception, Gogoi was just nothing more than a silent MP from Assam.

Rise of the Gogoi brand

In his last term as chief minister, the AGP government under Mahanta literally destroyed the state's economy triggering a major crisis as employees hardly got their salaries, development became nil, militancy rose rapidly and a general feeling of hopelessness gripped the entire state. When the elections to the state Assembly happened in 1991, it was certain the AGP was on its way out and the Congress would regain power.

Congress didn't have a mass leader like Saikia then who passed away in April 1996 and a new face was going to be the chief minister. That new face was Gogoi, catapulted from New Delhi to the surprise of many in the state but still a harbinger of hope as the Mahanta regime gave nothing to the state but a gloomy ordeal. There were other Congress leaders like Bijoy Krishna Handique and Bhumidhar Barman but the party high command expressed the faith on him. People wanted a change and Gogoi offered just that. On 18 May, 2001, Gogoi began his first innings as the chief minister of Assam and actually continued it for three terms until 24 May, 2016. In September 2001, Gogoi was elected as an MLA from the Titabor constituency, a seat he would continue to hold on until his death.

Former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi with his predecessor Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. Image courtesy News18 Assam/North East

Soon after taking over as the chief minister, Gogoi brought back economic stability to the state and revived the Assam State Transport Corporation from its death knell. Salaries became regular for government employees and Gogoi focussed on improving public-government ties by introducing innovative steps like the Raijor Padulit Raijor Sarkar (People's Government at People's Doorsteps). He strived to take democracy to the grassroots and held the Panchayat elections in 2001 which were due for quite a long time. Needless to say, the Congress triumphed in these polls.

Many venture schools and colleges started receiving government aid under his government and many of them were provincialised with the teaching and non-teaching staff being put on government payscale subjected to eligibility. A long-standing demand of pension for college teachers was also approved by his government. During his 15-year tenure as chief minister, the medical education in the state received an enormous fillip with medical colleges being opened in different parts of the state. Then state health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma also played a key role in the process and it has to be admitted that these medical colleges have actually become the backbone of the state government in its current fight against COVID-19.

Former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi with his protege and state health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. Image courtesy Twitter handle of @himantabiswa

How the state emerged from the depressing days of the Mahanta regime was showcased in front of the nation when Assam successfully hosted the 33rd National Games of India in 2007 in the brand new and state-of-the-art Sarusajai Sports Complex in Guwahati. The Barsapara Cricket Stadium which was established in 2012 is another living example of Gogoi government's contribution to the state's sports infrastructure.

Known for his near-constant smile even in the face of adversity (people even called him Hahiram Gogoi, Hahi being the Assamese for smile), the former Assam chief minister at times faced severe criticism for making light comments during serious situations. For a state which is ravaged by floods every year, Gogoi's remarks like 'floods even occur in America' didn't go down well with the people and the Opposition roasted him almost immediately. His trademark 'Misa kole ki dal hobo' (roughly translating to 'what will happen if you lie' essentially implying that he is speaking the truth) will perhaps remain in the state's political lexicon for years to come, an achievement for a leader who was mocked for his deafening silence in the corridors of power in Delhi for long.

Return of peace but there was bloodshed too

Unlike the 'secret killings' (alleged extrajudicial killing of kin of the banned United Liberation Front of Assam cadres) that happened when Mahanta was in power, a raw wound of the former AGP president which Gogoi often used as an armoury to inflict political injury on his rival, the Congress chief minister is credited for bringing many militants back to the mainstream through a well-thought-out surrender plan for them. During Gogoi's tenure, many misguided youths belonging to different militant outfits in Assam particularly the NDFB and the ULFA sought to begin a new lease of life. Barring a few, many top leaders of these organisations have already returned to the mainstream.

If there was peace, there was violence too.

The 30 October 2008 serial blasts that rocked Guwahati, Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon and Barpeta that killed at least 88 people and injured hundreds will be inscribed in history that happened right under his watch. The violence that happened in 2012 and in May 2014 (Gogoi was a lame-duck chief minister then) with Bengali Muslims and Bodos vying for each other's blood will scar his record somewhat as a messenger of peace. Nevertheless, it cannot be taken away from Gogoi that he stared down through the barrel of the gun to usher the state into an era of peace.

Son over Man Friday

If Gogoi's first two terms as chief minister shone because of development in the state, his third term was equally marred by a power struggle within the party as his Man Friday Sarma became an absolute rebel so much so that he left the Congress to join the BJP along with his band of followers including lawmakers. More than focussing on the state, Gogoi became busy with two things in his third term — warding off threats from Sarma and launching his son Gaurav into the political arena by helping him get a ticket as a Congress candidate from Kaliabor constituency which he himself held more than once earlier.

Former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi with his son Gaurav. Image courtesy Facebook page of Gaurav Gogoi

Sarma who worked through the ranks in the Congress immediately saw Gaurav as a trebuchet who could hurl his political ambitions into oblivion and openly expressed his displeasure against the then chief minister for bringing in someone who had zero experience with the grassroots and had no connection with the masses. What Gogoi did for his son was nothing exceptional in the Congress party, a party deeply accustomed to the mechanics of dynastic politics, and something Sarma did not have on his side.

Other than protest and rebel, Sarma had no other way to make himself heard but he was dealing with Gogoi, the father and not the politician. Political pundits say that Gogoi's love for his son (yes, politicians can love their sons and daughters) nearly accusing him of sclerotic management and the consequent hard deal to Sarma was linked to the downfall of the Congress in the state in the 2016 Assembly election but there are other factors that would have to be accounted for like the ghost of the scam-ridden tenure of UPA-2 and the tsunami-like Narendra Modi wave ignited during the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

Indeed, Gogoi lost the election and took responsibility for the humiliating defeat but he never stopped for once in trying to regain the glory days of Congress, not even in the face of COVID-19 when other political leaders had fallen back.

So far, Gaurav has been able to keep his father's faith by winning the Kaliabor seat again in 2019 despite campaigning by Union home minister Amit Shah and by becoming the Deputy Leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha while Sarma continues to prove his tenacity in tightening his grip in the BJP. It was an ailing Gogoi who brought his son and the rebel together again seeking the same result — to get him back on his feet and take him home, but destiny chose otherwise.

Tarun is no more but he will never 'GO-GO-I' from Assam politics

Little did people think that Gogoi, the paradigm of a near-mute MP in Delhi, would end up being the longest-serving chief minister of the state until someone else breaks the record in the future. Gogoi had the right demeanour to steer his politics to the top through different layers of challenges from divergent age groups and stay there. His smile was his schtick in politics that gave the feeling of mejor amigo to everyone but it never made him a milquetoast.

Misa kole ki dal hobo!



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