Growing up in the northeast of India in the Nineties was not easy. There would be frequent bandhs, especially on January 26 and August 15, when insurgent groups would “request” us to avoid joining the celebration of the “Indian colonial state”. It would be unimaginable to venture out after sunset without your parents worrying about you and almost all business establishments would shut before dusk.
Assam was no different when Tarun Gogoi assumed responsibility as chief minister of the state. It was a time when people were trying to migrate from the state for a better life. An incompetent administration had pushed the state to the brink of bankruptcy. The shadow of ULFA and SULFA (a state-backed insurgent outfit of surrendered militants) loomed large over the most prosperous and populated state in the Northeast.
The Assamese people, who had emerged after agitations in the 1970s and ’80s, were in desperate need of hope. An alternative emerged in Tarun Gogoi, who was not your traditional crafty politician but a leader who provided the state with a much-needed healing touch. It is not that he did not have adversaries, but his ever-smiling face and approachable nature endeared him to all. In an age of showmanship, power and arrogance, Gogoi’s biggest strength was to make everyone feel loved and wanted. Even his biggest detractors will agree that he was not a vicious person.
As an administrator, Gogoi was more of a delegator. This ensured the emergence of a group of second-rung leaders in the party under his tutelage, among them Himanta Biswa Sarma, Pradyut Bordoloi and Rockybul Hussain. Detractors often criticised him for being soft on religious minorities. The truth is he inherited this problem. In fact, one of the factors that helped the Congress win consecutive elections under Gogoi’s leadership was his subtle rejection of an alliance with AIUDF leader, Badaruddin Ajmal. It is said there was tremendous pressure on Gogoi from the Congress central leadership to “accommodate” Ajmal before the 2006 assembly elections. But to his credit, Gogoi defied the leadership and this open defiance proved to be a decisive factor in the Congress winning the election. The people of Assam saw his stance as a commitment to preserve the heritage and culture of the state.
Not many leaders from the Northeast have been able to hold their own in the so-called national parties. The slogan Indira is India, coined by D K Baruah, is an example of the sycophancy leaders from the region could stoop to. Gogoi was different. He belonged to a generation of leaders like William Sangma, Hiteshwar Saikia, Santosh Mohan Dev, Bibhu Devi, G G Swell and S C Jamir, who held sway on their own and were not seen as the voice of “Delhi” in the Northeast. This is an important aspect missing in today’s Congress — the absence of strong regional leaders who echo the sentiments of the region to Delhi.
The demise of Tarun Gogoi marks the end of an era. As chief minister of Assam, he rebuilt the state and its economy. Millennials may not remember, but if their lives are significantly better than ours, some credit goes to Gogoi. He was a man who appreciated ordinary party workers and never failed to acknowledge their contribution (I have personally witnessed this from my Youth Congress days). His biggest strength was his humility, something hard to spot among our current leaders.
I did not always agree with him when we were in the same party. In hindsight, as a younger person, I was more forceful than him on a lot of issues such as NRC and CAA, and I openly disagreed with the Congress high command. He agreed with me in private, but to my dismay never spoke out forcefully on these issues. Frustrated, I left the Congress while he stayed on. I have always felt he could have done more to influence opinion in the party because of his stature. When I met him earlier this year during a Supreme Court hearing on the CAA, he smiled and said: “I understand why you left the party, but this is how the party functions these days.” I was no longer upset but bowled over by his honesty and humility. Tarun Gogoi the man was no different from Tarun Gogoi the chief minister.
This ability of Gogoi’s — to disagree without upsetting a former junior colleague or a foe — is a quality all of us could try to emulate. His demise may not be felt immediately, but when Assam’s political history is written, it would be impossible to overlook his contributions, especially the impact of his 15 years as CM. All of us who knew him, irrespective of party affiliation, will mourn his demise.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 25, 2020 under the title ‘Leader with a healing touch’. The writer is chairman, Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance.
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