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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Prafulla Kumar Mahanta: The man who would be king

While Mahanta has been unwell for some time, and sources close to him say campaigning may be an issue, he was clearly not ready to fade away.

Written by Abhishek Saha | Guwahati |
Updated: March 10, 2021 3:01:19 pm
Mahanta (extreme right) with Tarun Gogoi (extreme left) at a 2018 protest dharna against the CAA in Guwahati. (Express photo by Dasarath Deka)

IN WHAT should have been the pinnacle of his political career, two-time Assam chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta is out of the 2021 race, sidelined by the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) he founded, and unable to reach an understanding with the other side.

As the president of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), Mahanta had been the face of the Assam agitation and one of the signatories of the 1985 Assam Accord, from which flow plans for a National Register of Citizens (NRC) to check illegal immigration. The coming Assembly elections are the first since a supposedly ‘final’ NRC list for the state was published, leaving out 19 lakh people. The Assam government has demanded a re-verification.

On March 5, when the BJP, that has been aligned with the AGP since 2016, announced its first 70 candidates, among the seats in the list was Barhampur, a constituency Mahanta has represented seven consecutive times since 1991. The AGP, that has sidelined him since long, indicated there would be no rethink, with president Atul Bora saying they had to consider “winnability”.

While Mahanta has been unwell for some time, and sources close to him say campaigning may be an issue, he was clearly not ready to fade away. In mid February, he had been airlifted to AIIMS, Delhi. A PTI report at the time said Prime Minister Narendra Modi had met his family to wish him a speedy recovery. On returning to Guwahati, Mahanta had said he had a close relationship with the people of his constituency, and snapped at questions regarding the list released by the BJP, dismissing it as “Which party?”

Mahanta’s wife Jayashree Goswami Mahanta, a noted writer and former Rajya Sabha MP, however, had said: “People of Assam have been hurt, we have been there since the birth of the AGP… They have sold the party.” On Monday night, she told the press that Mahanta will not contest the coming elections. “He says he will be with the people of Assam, and will continue to work for them… He will not be deprived of his ideology and therefore he has decided not to contest polls.”

Asked about Mahanta Monday, senior BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma said, “I don’t know whether he will be a factor or not… My concern is his health, not where he is joining.”

Differences between Mahanta and the BJP had been growing, especially in light of the BJP’s plans for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Assam had had widespread protests over the CAA, seen as invalidating the provisions of the Assam Accord. Gradually, the AGP too had sidelined Mahanta, with him holding press conferences separately with his own coterie.

Once earlier, in 2005, Mahanta had split from the AGP and formed a splinter group called the AGP (Progressive). However, he had returned to the main AGP in 2008, and subsequently become its president. In 2014, he had stepped down after the party failed to win a single seat in the Lok Sabha polls. Following the BJP list, there was some speculation that he might rejoin the AGP (Progressive).

A leader associated with the AGP (Progressive), who told The Indian Express they would field Mahanta from Barhampur if he came back, admitted that without him, the party has little chance. “We had thought of contesting around 15 seats. But if Mahanta doesn’t come with us, we don’t want to contest and further divide the anti-BJP vote,” said the leader, adding that they would “ideologically support the alliance or party most strongly standing against the CAA”.

For a while there was another plan on the table, with Mahanta admitting that talks were on with Congress’s ‘grand alliance’. The Congress, which had also confirmed it, delayed announcing a candidate for Barhampur. Eventually though, it went with Suresh Bora.

Had Mahanta and the Congress come together, it would have marked a significant U-turn for the leader who built his politics on anti-Congressism. In the 2001 Assembly polls, the Congress had won raising the issue of “secret killings” of relatives of ULFA members in Assam under the Mahanta government.

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