Assam Assembly Election 2021: Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, a mediocre politician, but student leader par excellence

In the 1980s, the name Prafulla Kumar Mahanta triggered an adrenalin rush in the veins of most of the Assamese people determined to protect their community, land and base against the increasing occupation by illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. For the man who spearheaded one of India's most violent agitation from 1979-85 as the president of the All Assam Students' Union, the reverence he commanded in the heydays of the Assam Agitation was nearly folklore.

With 855 young lives lost, many maimed for life, many families destroyed for the sake of 'Mother Assam', the sacrifice was seen as the beginning of halcyon days that the young Mahanta would usher the community into. Today, 36 years later, let alone lead the Assamese community to prosperity, Mahanta is himself on the verge of fading away into a lacklustre path of political oblivion — sidelined, alone and insignificant.

Denial of ticket not surprising

The 68-year-old former Assam chief minister was recently denied a ticket by the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) from the Barhampur Assembly Constituency, a seat he represented continuously for the last 36 years. Mahanta's decision to not contest the election even with an Asom Gana Parishad (Progressive) ticket, a political party that he had floated on 15 September 2005 as a breakaway faction of the AGP, only to merge it again with the parent party later, has effectively sealed his political future.

The former Assam chief minister was expelled from the AGP in July 2005 for alleged anti-party activities but he returned to the party fold in October 2008 by merging the breakaway faction with the parent party.

Mahanta's hard stance against the Citizenship Amendment Act increasingly distanced him from the present leadership of the AGP and also from the Bharatiya Janata Party. The former Assam chief minister openly protested against the implementation of the CAA in the state despite the AGP being a part of the ruling alliance. Along with the rising wave of massive anti-CAA protest across the country, the veteran leader's stand on CAA strained the AGP-BJP relationship to such an extent that both parties severed ties in January 2019 only to join hands together two months later in March 2019 just ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

But it never ironed out the differences completely and the Mahanta loyalists continued to oppose CAA. The discomfiture gradually deepened to such a degree that even after a year the AGP decided against giving a ticket to its co-founder and the party's first president who was at one point the face of the party itself. Although the party has cited winnability as a factor for its decision, in all probability the actual reason lies somewhere else and the winnability is perhaps just a shield for the party to protect itself.

"Since we along with Prafulla Kumar Mahanta actively participated in the anti-CAA protests earlier we anticipated that the AGP, which has been literally swallowed by the BJP, will mentally torture those who took part in the protests near the elections. So, accordingly, a section of us came out of the party and revived and registered the AGP (Progressive) once again and announced that we will fight the polls under its banner," said AGP(P) general secretary Pranab Kumar Goswami.

Even though Mahanta is still officially a part of the AGP, the option in AGP(P) had definitely emerged as Plan B. However, with the six-time Barhampur MLA just recovering from COVID-19 and only returning to the state recently after being released from the AIIMS, New Delhi where he was undergoing treatment, deciding against fighting the polls following the denial of a ticket by AGP, the Plan B is also unlikely to take off.

"But now what happened is that since Mahanta is not going to fight the polls due to health reasons, we have decided not to project any candidate in any constituency so that the anti-CAA votes are not divided. Still, we have a meeting on 11 March and since the last day of nomination for the second phase is on 12 March and if Mahanta's decision of not contesting the polls is final, we won't give any candidate anywhere. It is likely that we will extend our support to one of the anti-CAA parties like Raijor Dal, Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) or the Congress-led grand alliance," Goswami said.

AGP plays it safe

On its part, the AGP is trying hard to play down the matter focusing more on candidates rather than on those who were denied tickets including Mahanta. The party has also been clearly non-committal about Mahanta's future despite him being one of the founding members and has rather chosen to put the onus on the former chief minister himself.

"What his future course of action will be, depends on him completely. We can't comment on that. We have not discussed any future role for him yet. Neither has there been any discussion on whether the party thrived or suffered under him," said AGP information and publicity secretary Manoj Saikia.

Following the denial of a ticket to Mahanta, the AGP is waiting for the veteran leader to make a move.

"It is entirely his call. We cannot comment on that. Prafulla Mahanta is a very skilled politician. He is a good organiser. Mahanta should have got the ticket but for some reason, the party could not give him the ticket. What he decides for the future is entirely his call," said AGP Dibrugarh district unit general secretary Ganesh Gogoi. He however expressed ignorance if Mahanta was not given a ticket for showing dissent. "I am not aware of any such step," Gogoi said.

Fierce to fiasco

Compared to the fiery beginning that he made in 1979 as a student leader, Mahanta's political career however has waned away in a depressing fashion. Looking back at the more than three decades of his political career, there is too little for him to take pride in which he can claim to be a lasting legacy. The Assam Accord of 1985 was the result of the student leader Mahanta and not that of politician Mahanta.

"Prafulla Mahanta's time was over long back. He should have gone out gracefully and long before. The signals were obvious for him. When he opposed the CAA, the AGP was against him. If he wanted to contest he should have worked along with the system and asked for the ticket. So whatever happened was quite natural. Moreover, he has overestimated himself," said political analyst Shyamkanu Mahanta.

What Mahanta perhaps did not realise was that his brand of politics was increasingly becoming a liability rather than an asset. In this high voltage political atmosphere, when religion has also become a determining factor to frame political strategies, the former Assam chief minister found himself on no man's land.

"Assam politics has become very communal either this side or that side. Prafulla Mahanta was not on either side. Congress did not want him. He would have preferred to contest with the support from Congress which did not happen. At the same time, it is the end of an era for Prafulla Mahanta, there is no doubt about it. He has a strong personality but he was inexperienced when he came to power. He joined politics straight from the university and that too in power by becoming the chief minister of the state without having any real knowledge of governance. That shortcoming ensured that the first AGP government which was formed in 1985 failed," said Shyamkanu.

The emergence of the United Liberation Front of Assam as a dreaded militant organisation with secessionist intentions towards the end of his first tenure put a sudden end to the first AGP government after the Congress government at the Centre dismissed the state government on 28 November, 1990 and imposed President's Rule under Article 356.

"In 1996, when he became the chief minister for the second time, he had gained some experience and he should have done better but then he had fallen trap to the issue of secret killings which really killed his image. The secret killings exposed his failure as an administrator. At that point in time, Assam was also under a severe financial crisis," the political analyst said.

The series of secret killings happened between 1998-2001 when unidentified gunmen targeted the kin of ULFA members and the entire state was jolted by these extrajudicial killings. In August 2005, the then Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi constituted the Justice KN Saikia Commission, the report of which was submitted with the state government on 15 October, 2007 and later presented at the Assam Assembly on 15 November, 2007.

The commission came to the conclusion that the state home ministry used the services of the police and surrendered militants and with the help from the Indian Army orchestrated these killings. Although the report did not name anyone directly, the indications strongly pointed towards Mahanta as he also held the home portfolio when these killings occurred. However, in September 2018, the Gauhati High Court quashed the report terming the constitution of the commission itself as "illegal".

Initially, the Tarun Gogoi government started an inquiry into six cases of "secret killings" but the judge who was entrusted with the responsibility moved out of the inquiry after two years bringing the process to a grinding halt. The state government then appointed another commission under retired high court judge Justice JN Sharma which submitted its report in 20005 and implicated none. Soon after the Saikia Commission was formed without dissolving the Sharma Commission, a fact that prompted the Gauhati High Court to call the latest panel "illegal" under Section 3 of the Commissions of Enquiry Act 1952 more than a decade later.

The extrajudicial killings caused major harm to Mahanta's political career as in the 2001 state election despite aligning with the BJP, the alliance was handed a humiliating defeat by the Congress thus paving the way for the Tarun Gogoi era for the next 15 years as the chief minister of the state. It has to be noted that soon after Mahanta lost power in 2001, the secret killings also stopped suddenly.

Legacy of stagnation

Since 1985, the AGP and Prafulla Kumar Mahanta were so synonymous with each other that the party never groomed a second line of leadership.

"The basic problem in AGP all along has been that everybody wants to control the power. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta never really groomed a second line of leadership after him. Mahanta was never a party builder. He had a lot of opportunities because he was acceptable to both the Hindus and the Muslims but he failed to do so in the long run," Shyamkanu said.

Goswami blamed on betrayal by Mahanta's colleagues in the AGP and denied the accusation that the former chief minister was not keen to groom a set of leaders after him to look after the party.

"It will be wrong to say that he did not groom any second line of leaders. This is what he did with Keshab Mahanta and others but they all betrayed him," the AGP(P) general secretary said.

Mahanta had three stints at the helm of AGP with the first term from 1985 to 1991 as founder president. This was followed by another term from 1994 to 2001 when he had to quit from the top post soon after the AGP lost power in the state and an alleged episode of extramarital affair emerged. In 2010, however, the former chief minister made a remarkable comeback to the top post of the party for a third term after nine years with a few months left for the April 2011 Assembly election. He was also elected as the chief of the AGP legislature party parallelly and consequently thus became the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly. This however did not change the electoral fortunes of the AGP in the 2011 state election as the party could only win 10 seats in the House of 126.

The former chief minister had in 2004 made an unsuccessful attempt to become the president of the party but he lost the contest to then party president Brindaban Goswami.

"Mahanta must be made responsible for the decline of the AGP like he was credited for raising the AGP into a formidable force. He got a great chance but he could not convert it. The culture of not encouraging young people in the party to grow is deep and has affected the performance of the party. Mahanta allowed Sarbananda Sonowal who was with the AGP earlier to leave the party. Many other leaders have also left the AGP," said the political analyst.

After being part of active politics for more than 35 years now, it is still difficult to judge whether Mahanta's political career traversed on the road to perdition or success. His winning stint in Barhampur defines him as a shrewd political individual but the state at which his party — the AGP — is seeking to clutch the last straw for survival smacks of poor leadership at the helm for years.

"Nevertheless, it has been said that Mahanta did earn the respect of the bureaucracy when he was the chief minister but the truth is he failed as an administrator and he failed to take the party along and build it despite getting many opportunities. The fact of the matter is Prafulla Mahanta's exit today will have no impact on Assam politics," said Shyamkanu.

Staring at a cul-de-sac in his political journey now, the roaring fire of the 1980s has been quietly reduced to mere embers.



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