It is not for no reason that Badruddin Ajmal wept at Tarun Gogoi’s death last week, and at the other end of the political spectrum a tearful Himanta Biswa Sarma, senior state minister and BJP’s main man in the region, called it the “end of an era”.
Rising from the ranks, Gogoi served as an MP for six terms, became the state’s longest-serving chief minister, led the Congress while tackling factionalism in its state unit, and despite the BJP onslaught, mustered the courage for an alliance with Ajmal’s AIUDF for the last elections.
The death of the 84-year-old has left a major void in the Congress state unit ahead of the Assembly elections early next year. It remains to be seen how the party’s state leadership plans to make a comeback without the veteran leader, who has been called the “Bhishma Pitamaha” of Congress workers in Assam.
This question – how the Congress state unit will grapple with the situation – was put to Rahul Gandhi, who was in Guwahati last Wednesday to pay tributes to Gogoi. With Gogoi’s son, Lok Sabha MP Gaurav, standing next to him, Rahul had replied: “The guru has taught his shishyas well; he has taught the Assam Congress. Assam Congress will work as per his thoughts…but there is sadness because had he been here, it would have been easier.”
Little time for state unit to look for new face
Tarun Gogoi’s death has meant the Congress in Assam has to look for a new acceptable, all-encompassing face ahead of Assembly polls, scheduled early next year. There are several key leaders in the state unit – Leader of Opposition in the House Debabrata Saikia, Rajya Sabha MP and state Congress president Ripun Bora, Nagaon MP Pradyut Bordoloi, Kaliabor MP Gaurav Gogoi; and MLAs Rockybul Hussain and Ajanta Neog – but each has his limitation. There is also the issue of internal difference of opinions — if one leader has considerable influence in Delhi’s political circuit, another has a good reach on the ground. So all eyes will be on the party's central leadership.
Born in April 1936 in Jorhat district of eastern Assam, Gogoi was elected to Lok Sabha for the first time in 1971, and served as Union Minister of State in the 1990s. In 2016, in what turned out to be his final election, he was elected MLA from Titabor. In the 15 years under Gogoi, beginning 2001, Assam left behind decades of turmoil caused by militancy and went ahead on a path of peace and development.
“At this stage, it’s a huge loss for the Congress in Assam. We have lost a guardian,” party spokesperson Rhituporna Konwar, who was close to Gogoi, told The Indian Express.
For the 2021 state elections, the Congress has allied with AIUDF, which enjoys support among Assamese Muslims of Bengali descent. Gogoi played an instrumental role in giving a shape to the alliance, which had been talked about for long but never announced officially. Rahul, talking to reporters in Guwahati, emphasised that Gogoi could effectively bring together people of Assam, cutting across communities and ideologies, in an “exemplary way”.
While the alliance is speculated to become a game-changer in several minority-dominated areas, Gogoi had faced a barrage of insults from BJP over the decision. In August, Sarma had said, “At his age, instead of seeking Ram and Krishna, Tarun Gogoi is searching for Ajmal.”
Sarma, who had served as a senior minister in Gogoi’s cabinet when in the Congress, personally oversaw his treatment at GMCH and arrangements for cremation.
Party leaders told The Indian Express that after Gogoi, it is time for the state leadership to overcome factionalism and put up a joint front against the BJP.
Debabrata Saikia, leader of opposition in the Assembly, has said in his condolence statement that Gogoi was the “veritable Bhishma Pitamaha for Congress workers of Assam”.
On a Gogoi-less Congress facing the next elections against the BJP-led NDA, which swept the Northeast in 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Saikia told The Indian Express: “He had led us for over 50 years. Of course, he knew better, and there will be difficulties without him, but as I have said earlier, the Congress is guided by its ideology. The party did not shut down even after the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi. So we will continue in Assam, too.
“We will not deviate from our party policy, which is our guiding force.”
“Tarun Gogoi’s absence will be felt; his demise has left a void. But we have to continue unitedly,” Nagaon MP Pradyut Bordoloi said.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines