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I am only playing secular politics, not the Hindu card: Assam CM Tarun Gogoi

Assam CM says he is confident of winning a fourth term, rules out any tie-up with AIUDF’s Badruddin Ajmal, talks of the “vast difference” between Narendra Modi and “broad-minded” Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and says dubbing people anti-national “will only alienate them further”.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi |
Updated: March 21, 2016 1:00:46 pm
Tarun Gogoi, Chief minister of Assam at the Indian Express idea exchange in New Delhi on March 14th 2016. Express photo by Ravi Kanojia. Tarun Gogoi, Chief minister of Assam at the Indian Express idea exchange in New Delhi on March 14th 2016. Express photo by Ravi Kanojia.

Why Tarun Gogoi: Seeking a fourth term in Assam as CM, Tarun Gogoi has called the forthcoming elections in the state a direct showdown with PM Narendra Modi. At 79, he is confident of his government’s performance, and believes that infighting in the BJP-AGP camp would help him secure a win. The Congress is pinning all its hopes on Gogoi for a victory in the state, because it would give the party a much-needed boost at the national level, where it has so far failed to counter Modi. Before taking over as CM, Gogoi had been a Lok Sabha MP for six terms.

Watch video Idea Exchange With Tarun Gogoi

LIZ MATHEW: This is the first time that Assam is seeing a contest between two national parties, the Congress and the BJP. You are fighting for a fourth term. What are you relying on most for your victory?

We are definitely relying on our performance. We have brought peace to Assam, there’s development, insurgency has been contained to a great extent. The situation has completely turned around since we came to power in 2001. This, of course, is our achievement. We have delivered good governance. The BJP does not have any presence at the grassroots level. Yes, they have the marketing power and then they have also been exploiting the sentiments of the Assamese people. It is what they are doing across India.

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There have been two floods in Assam since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power but he never visited the state during that time… There was a wave in Assam too when the AGP came to power. Then they were thrown away (2001)… They also exploited Assamese sentiments, they played the same game. So exploiting sentiments may pay back once, but it will not happen all the time.

Then there is the issue of infighting. Initially, they (the BJP) thought that they could form a government on their own. But a few months ago, they realised that their popularity is going down. That is why they started hobnobbing with the BPF (Bodoland People’s Front). Here too they are making a mistake. A Prime Minister shouldn’t attend party meetings and the BPF is not even considered a regional party in Assam, it is sub-regional. But he (PM Narendra Modi) went, even Amit Shah (the BJP president) went (to meet BPF leaders). The BJP’s house today is in complete disorder.

Tarun Gogoi, Chief minister of Assam at the Indian Express idea exchange in New Delhi on March 14th 2016. Express photo by Ravi Kanojia. Tarun Gogoi, Chief minister of Assam at the Indian Express idea exchange in New Delhi on March 14th 2016. Express photo by Ravi Kanojia.

LIZ MATHEW: Do you think the BJP is trying to polarise voters? Is that a major challenge for the Congress given the charged atmosphere across the country now?

Polarisation doesn’t work all the time. At the most, it can work once. Why did the BJP lose in Bihar? Why did they lose in Delhi? Polarisation is not working anymore. In India, I am not talking about Assam, polarisation does play a role during elections. But Assam is different from other parts of the country, the state’s history is different.

LIZ MATHEW: You too have been accused of playing the Hindu card, which has antagonised the Muslims in the state.

No, no. These are wrong perceptions. I am only playing secular politics, not the Hindu card. I have been fighting for the minorities since the very beginning. I am for the protection of Hindus, Muslims and every other Indian citizen. Yes, those who are foreigners (immigrants), they have to be detected. I do feel that the minority communities have not got a fair deal in our own state.

See, the Hindu card doesn’t work in Assam. It will not work in India either. Hindu religion is full of diversity. There are thousands of gods and goddesses. In Assam too, we have the Sankardevs, there are the Vaishnavites, the tribals, they all have their own system of gods and goddess. Hinduism is about tolerance. RSS (members) are not real Hindus. This is my theory. I say I am Hindu. Secularism is real Hinduism. The RSS is simply going to pollute Assam, our tradition and culture.

MANEESH CHHIBBER: The BJP has tied up with the AGP. Will the Congress tie up with anyone?

We are not going to tie up with anybody, we are completely on our own and we can fight back. The same alliance (the BJP-AGP-BPF tie-up) was there in the 2001 elections too. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta was the chief minister then. But we managed to defeat them. So I am not getting into an alliance with anybody.

MANEESH CHHIBBER: Not even with Badruddin Ajmal of the AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front)?

No, we are against them. He too is playing communal politics and helping the BJP.

VANDITA MISHRA: Prashant Kishor is helping out with the Congress campaign in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. Were there any conversations with the Assam Congress as well?

Initially there were, but after that, he (Prashant Kishor) didn’t take much interest. We also didn’t want it. So after that, there was no progress.

Tarun Gogoi, Chief minister of Assam at the Indian Express idea exchange in New Delhi on March 14th 2016. Express photo by Ravi Kanojia. Tarun Gogoi, Chief minister of Assam at the Indian Express idea exchange in New Delhi on March 14th 2016. Express photo by Ravi Kanojia.

VANDITA MISHRA: You have said that Assam elections are different in terms of its issues, concerns. But what about something like the JNU agitation and the controversy that has followed? Does it have any resonance in Assam?

Yes, there is some impact. Many people are not aware, but in Assam too, in the ’60s, there was a big students’ movement. I was also part of the students’ movement. In the ’60s, our general secretary was picked up from the hostel and arrested. At that time, the entire state was burning. (Jawaharlal) Nehru had to come… We submitted a referendum. So, I too have witnessed such agitations as a student leader.

VANDITA MISHRA: But were you branded an anti-national then?

What is anti-national? See, if I go by the Central government rule, I will have to put thousands of people in jail in Assam, because everyone is demanding something. Assam would have turned into a jail. How could I have dealt with that? Even today, a lot of people support the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom). They (some of the ULFA supporters) may have taken a picture with me too. But then there are those who indulge in violence and take up arms… then yes, (there should be action against them). Otherwise, I don’t feel there is a need to take action. Our doors will remain open, these are my own brothers and sisters.

VANDITA MISHRA: So, you are saying that there has to be a link to violence for any action to be taken?

See, if they took up arms, yes, we have to deal with it. But for raising slogans… If you make everyone an anti-national, that will not help at all. That will only alienate them further.

LIZ MATHEW: Do you think the BJP is trying to make it a ‘nationalist versus anti-nationalist’ campaign?

I don’t think (such a situation) has come to Assam yet. Suppose somebody is exploiting poor people, that is also anti-national. Anything going against the interest of India, the country, that is anti-national.

AMRITH LAL: The situation in Assam during the ’80s and ’90s was very different, there were issues of separatism, the ULFA came up etc. How has Assam changed in the last 15 years?

Yes, things have changed. The fact is, peace has to come to a region first, followed by development. You need to understand people’s sentiments. Unless you know the culture, sentiments, hopes and aspirations of the people, change and good governance are not possible. Why do you think the separatists have gone? They had become separatists because of the lack of employment opportunities and lack of development. Then they realised that there is a sincere government in place, which is doing its job and creating employment.

First I gave importance to building roads in rural areas. The moment you build roads and bridges, the farmers can transport their products. Security personnel can have access to these areas too. That is how it works. You have to give importance to cultural activities to keep them (separatists) busy. I give a lot of importance to education too.

ABANTIKA GHOSH: Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was part of your government, left the Congress. And there is a perception that one of the reasons he was miffed was because of the way your son was promoted in the party. Do you think the Congress is losing out on grassroots leaders in its effort to push dynasts?

He (Himanta Biswa Sarma) is not a grassroots leader. He was involved in the armed struggle, he was an ULFA leader with a case against him and the prevoius chief minister had to save him. So he’s not a grassroots worker. He himself made the statement that ‘I’m an RSS fellow’. Yes, he was my blue-eyed boy, everyone in Delhi was accusing me of promoting him. I was promoting him, there’s no doubt about that. Then he started all this (rebelling against the party) even before my son (Gaurav Gogoi) entered politics. My son wasn’t interested in politics, he only came in during the 2011 elections. Before that, he was a man nobody knew, he didn’t take any interest in politics. In 2011, he started taking interest. See, he (Himanta Biswa Sarma) can give any excuse, but the fact is if you are so scared of my son, who has just entered politics, then what kind of a leader are you?

SEEMA CHISHTI: What is it about the Northeast that makes it so important to the BJP?

They want it all. They want to show that they are an all-India party. But in the Northeast, they are zero, by and large. Last time in Assam, they got some seats, but it is a fact that the BJP is weak in the Northeast at the grassroots level. It is the same situation in the south too. You can’t claim to be an all-India party if you don’t have a foothold everywhere. So they are trying their level best.

LIZ MATHEW: The BJP has an interest in all border states and the RSS is working in these areas strongly. Do you think that’s the reason why they want to be a strong force in the Northeast?

They can definitely try, but they will not be successful. The culture in the Northeast is different. We are broad-minded, a lot of people eat beef here. In Assam, even the Brahmins eat meat, and the Assamese are broad-minded people. In large parts, the caste system doesn’t exist the way it exists in states such as Bihar. There are no divisions between Hindus and Muslims in Assam. Unlike in some universities which have separate hostels for Muslims, in Assam, there is no such division. Even after the demolition of the Babri Masjid (December 1992), there was not much disturbance in Assam, despite the fact that we have a sizeable Muslim population. Assam is culturally quite different from the rest of the country, so they (the BJP) haven’t been able to make much of a mark.

ASHUTOSH BHARDWAJ: After your party’s poor performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, you had indicated that you would resign from the chief minister’s post. Since then, how has the situation changed? What makes you hopeful now?

It’s true that I wanted to resign, but other people didn’t want me to. Frankly, I was contemplating retirement, but then people said what will we do without you, so then I decided to fight. And today, I’m in a fighting mood, I am not a reluctant man. Other leaders in my party also felt they needed me, so about six to eight months ago, I decided to fight. I am quite hopeful.

VANDITA MISHRA: After Bihar, it would seem the Opposition would have learnt the importance of unity to take on the BJP. Wasn’t the Mahagathbandhan model considered in Assam? But you said you are going alone.

Normally, the Congress high command leaves the decision to us (states). There is a lot of faith in the state leadership. Suppose we have an alliance, whatever minority base we have will be eroded. And once it is eroded, it will be a mistake. Whatever (voter) base you have, you must try and retain it and improve it. The moment another party puts up its candidate, my (voter) base weakens, instead of strengthening. In the long run, we will lose out. That has been my policy (about alliances) from the very beginning and today my party has also realised it.

MANEESH CHHIBBER: Have you interacted recently with Rahul Gandhi? What are his inputs for the elections?

I’m very happy at the way he (Rahul Gandhi) is gaining maturity. I have seen his interactions and I have been watching him very closely for the past two years and I have seen how he’s matured. He also feels that the defeat (in the 2014 general elections) was a good lesson. You must have challenges or you will not learn. I have seen defeats, good days and bad days. So it’s a great lesson for me too.

AYUSHMAN BASU: There have been reports about the growing discontent within the BJP and AGP alliance in Assam. What do you make of the current political situation in the state?

More internal dissent means people losing faith when alliances are formed without principles. When people see that these alliances are only meant to capture power and that there are such major differences between the two parties, that there is no common minimum programme… people aren’t fools. So now people will realise that they (the BJP-AGP) are the most opportunistic people.

When the BJP was in power at the Centre (early 2000s), the AGP was in power here in Assam. What was the condition of Assam then? When you (the BJP) were in power, how much did you help the state government? When Assam was reeling under insurgency and economic bankruptcy, what did you do? Then too the AGP allied with the BJP.

During that time, something called “secret killings” took place. Relatives of extremists, mainly the ULFA, innocent men, were picked up at night and eliminated. I took up the issue. I said when I come to power, I will stop this. Can you believe it — people were killed because they had relatives in the ULFA? And after the killings, there was no investigation. Who was in power then? Why didn’t the Centre put a stop to it?

LIZ MATHEW: In your first stint as chief minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the PM. Now we have Narendra Modi as PM. How would you compare the two leaders?

There is a vast difference. Vajpayee had an all-India outlook, he’s very broad-minded. Modi speaks very well, he talks to me nicely, I’m also very good to him. We talk about politics and other things too. We talk one-to-one, he doesn’t like officers coming in the middle. I have told him often that it’s not always possible to talk one-on-one and we should involve a few officers. But he doesn’t want that.

Vajpayee has also helped me. He understood the problems (of the Northeast). You can’t really compare the two (Modi and Vajpayee). I have great respect for him (Vajpayee) and I am grateful to him too. Vajpayee was from the Centre, Modi has come from a state. That is the difference.

SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Assam hosted the South Asian Games recently and quite successfully too. There was a huge Pakistani contingent, but there seemed to be no problem. But there was an issue with the Pakistani cricket team in Himachal Pradesh and CM Virbhadra Singh refused security to them. Do you see politics in play there?

I don’t know because the sentiment is different everywhere. I don’t know what is the reason. But it’s different in Assam. Pakistanis (players) were very happy with me, they took many photographs. They did have a few doubts initially, but I took care of them and looked after them. But their (Himachal Pradesh) situation is different and my situation is different, so I don’t want to compare the two.

LIZ MATHEW: MPs from Assam say you continue to enjoy the goodwill of the older generation of voters. But how do you plan to attract the youth?

During the previous elections too, I encouraged youngsters. Some seniors in Delhi accused me of ignoring senior people. But I always encourage youngsters. I got the same encouragement when I was young and came to Delhi in ’71. I was from Assam, who knew me then? My son has an advantage because he is my son. No one knows my father’s name, he wasn’t a politician, nobody knows him. In Assam, no one bothers about my family background, my family is completely non-political. In fact, my father considered me a spoilt son, he asked me why I wanted to get into politics and not be a doctor or a lawyer.

Transcribed by Pooja Khati & Shantanu David

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