Tikor the rhinoceros is battling for territory in Guwahati. The mascot for the 12th South Asian Games has been forced to cede space to Union Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and the Congress Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi in the lead-up to the February 5-16 sporting festival.
It looks less a congregation of athletes and more a pre-election rally fest as the two political heavyweights dominate most of the posters here, apart from the giant hoardings featuring PM Narendra Modi who will open the Games Friday.
India’s top athletes such as MC Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal and Gagan Narang are absent on the approach to the airport and around the stadiums.
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Political one-upmanship between the ruling Congress and the BJP has translated into a poster war between state Olympic association president Gogoi and head of the SAG organising committee Sonowal.
There are several reminders that Sonowal is also the “proposed Chief Minister of Assam”. Sonowal, though, insists that the Games and the polls are far from each other. “This is a golden moment for the people of Northeast, particularly Guwahati and Shillong. We are grateful to the prime minister as he has been helping us make this event a success. Pakistan too is coming and it is great because we want our relationship with Pakistan to improve, because that has been an objective of the prime minister. This game is going to help us create peace,” Sonowal told The Indian Express.
Gogoi, meanwhile, has raised a series of questions for Prime Minister Modi. When Modi exits the airport terminal it will be hard for him to miss a giant hoarding that reads “Welcome PM”. The moot question on the poster, which the party asks on behalf of the “people of Assam”, is why there is a disparity between crude oil prices around the world and in India.
Next to this hoarding, which has a caricature of Modi, is another with the smiling faces of Tarun Gogoi, Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. Similar caricatures line the roads.
If you took a taxi from the airport to the city, the vibe of the impending assembly elections is all around. It is no different in the city. At the Nehru Stadium in Ulubari, the venue for squash and wrestling, hoardings of Sonowal and Gogoi dominate the view at the main entrance.
On Wednesday, Sonowal had to switch frequently between his roles as chief ministerial candidate and chief of the organising committee of the games. He oversaw a dress-rehearsal of the opening ceremony and held meetings with various stakeholders. He also made time to join BJP leader Rajiv Pratap Rudy, on a state visit, in criticising the Congress for stalling the GST bill.
Gogoi and Sonowal have been engaged in a continuous war of words for the past 19 months. While Sonowal keeps hitting out at Gogoi for his alleged failure on various fronts, the chief minister often hits accuses Sonowal of not raising his voice at the Centre.
“Though Sonowal is very vocal criticising the state government on various issues, he always maintains a stoic silence when it comes to raising the issues at the highest level. He is keener on appeasing the central BJP leaders to keep his gaddi intact rather than serving the interests of the state and its people,” Gogoi said recently.
Asked how much of mileage his party can derive from the Games, Sonowal was diplomatic. “Elections are held every five years. But this is the first time games of this stature are being held in the Northeast. I want to keep sports away from politics.”
If that were the case Thikor would not have been living in the shadow of the political heavyweights.