Updated: March 16, 2021 8:10:21 am
Hurrying home from a market on the outskirts of Sivasagar town, 40-year-old Rupa Chiring Phukon puts her bag of vegetables down to talk when asked about Akhil Gogoi. “Of course, we all like him,” she says. “He has been in jail for so long, we feel bad.”
Yet, on March 27, when the Sibsagar constituency goes to vote in the first phase of the Assam Assembly elections, it is not Gogoi she will pick.
“I really like the way the BJP is running the government,” she says, especially senior minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. “He seems to know what he is doing, he speaks well. Recently at a rally, my daughter took a selfie with him… Gogoi has a lot of support, yes, but what can one man do alone?”
Gogoi is perhaps Assam’s most vocal agitator, over issues such as land rights, displacements, big dams, and in December 2019, the Citzenship (Amendment) Act. It was following the CAA protests that he was arrested, and later booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, keeping him in jail since. From inside the prison, late last year, Gogoi announced a new political party, Raijor Dol — one of the two new regional parties which owe their origin to CAA protests in the race.
Gogoi filed his nomination via video-conferencing for Sibsagar (Sivasagar district) and Mariani (Jorhat district), both located in Upper Assam, which was at the heart of the anti-CAA protests in the state. Later, the Raijor Dal said Gogoi would contest only from Sibsagar as they didn’t want the anti-BJP vote to get split.
However, like across Assam, in Sivasagar too, the Assembly elections are about who has access to government schemes and soaring prices. Gogoi is much liked, across ages, genders, and strata — but as far as Assembly elections go, he and the CAA are an afterthought.
Jayanta Chetia, a vegetable seller from Betbari Bookabil Gaon, says, “I went all the way to Guwahati a few years back to attend one of Gogoi’s andolans.” But he wants to vote for someone who can control the soaring prices, he says, and he is not sure Gogoi is the man.
Puni Mech, 66, says she and her sister participated in all the CAA protests. But at the end of the day, she says, they are poor and it doesn’t matter “if we like or hate the CAA”. “We have to vote for a government that can make our lives better.”
In Sivasagar town, where Gogoi held his last massive public anti-CAA rally on December 12, a day before his arrest from Jorhat, the Act hardly finds a mention. Shilpi Gogoi, 33, a health worker who had to make it to work past barricades across the city in those days, says, “Now it’s all thanda (calm).”
Even Dipankar Saikia, the Sivasagar district general secretary of the All Assam Students’ Union that led the anti-CAA protests, admits, “It has been some time (since the agitation) and moreover, the BJP government’s developmental schemes seem to be getting appreciation from the public.”
Had Gogoi been out and campaigning, things might have been different, adds Saikia. “He would have definitely been able to make some noise, garner more support.” While Gogoi now has a symbol, a cylinder, the Raijor Dal candidates are fighting as Independents as the party failed to register with the Election Commission.
Sibsagar has long been a Congress bastion, held by the party’s Pranab Gogoi from 2001 till he passed away in February 2020. But here too, the BJP has been gaining ground. In the 2016 elections, the party’s Surabhi Rajkonwar (who is contesting again) lost by just 500-odd votes.
The new Congress candidate, Subhamitra Gogoi, 40, who has appeal for being young, dismisses the possibility of the Raijor Dal posing any challenge to other parties.
Ritumoni Saikia, a local Raijor Dal worker, says they are counting on Akhil Gogoi’s continuing popularity and the sympathy he has for being “singled out”. “The fact that he is in jail actually helps us.”