One of the first things that struck anyone who met Tarun Gogoi, whether in or out of power, was his smile. But behind that beaming exterior was an astute political mind and a strong will. Gogoi, who came up the ranks of the Congress, had a finger on the public pulse.
He was all that we know — a three-term chief minister (successive terms and the longest-serving), a six-term Member of Parliament, a minister in Delhi, who held the posts of Congress joint secretary at the national level and was the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee chief before leading the party to victory in the 2001 state elections.
But there was much more to Gogoi — a family man who treasured his private moments and valued friendships, but who also believed till the end in dialogue, political respect, and protecting vulnerable groups, whether minority or otherwise. He enjoyed playing the dhulia (drummer) at Bihu festivals.
Some vignettes may help draw a portrait of a complex man who brought peace and stability to Assam after a traumatic period of bloodshed, fear and uncertainty. Like many political leaders, Gogoi thought he knew the answers to most of the problems, but he was always open to new perspectives and suggestions.
Soon after he became CM for the first time in 2001, Gogoi was intrigued by the idea of extending the Sixth Schedule to the Bodo areas in the Brahmaputra Valley. A sub-committee was set-up to review the schedule under the Constitution Review Commission, headed by Justice Manepalli Narayana Rao Venkatachaliah during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure.
The group recommended exploring the possibility of extending the provisions, which had till then been limited to the protection of the rights of hill tribes in Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Tripura, to the plains. The report was sent to Gogoi. Later, legal experts and officials worked on the idea to design the Bodo Territorial Council. The plan was to build and expand peace, development and dialogue.
Today, not many young people in Assam will remember the traumatic times of the late 1990s and early part of the first decade of this century: An embracing sense of fear, marked by insurgent strikes, ethnic clashes, and bomb blasts ruled. This was heightened by the presence of armed police, paramilitary and army troops on patrol and at checkpoints where vehicles were stopped and searched even in cities such as Guwahati.
“People don’t remember the bad days when Guwahati shut down at dusk. Now see, the cinemas are having night shows; if people feel safe, they will go out, and that’s what we’ve been able to do,” Gogoi once said.
He cracked down on insurgents yet kept the doors open for dialogue. He took advantage of public fatigue and resentment against the violence that people felt was preventing Assam from taking its place in the national economy. Gogoi helped the state recover and then grow. He had the ear of Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
As a grassroots politician and one who also worked at the policy level, Gogoi knew that the region and India gained from Assam’s stability. His state, the biggest in the Northeast, was the pivot for peace and growth. In his view, the two were inseparable.
During his long-and-illustrious political career, Gogoi faced significant political challenges and endured many failures. He could shake off the jousting with former chief minister Hiteswar Saikia only after the latter’s demise.
The second was his falling out with his one-time close confidant and energetic health minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, over a range of reasons, not least being the Congress leadership’s inability to respond to Sarma’s concerns. It was a colossal miscalculation. Sarma joined the Bharatiya Janata Party and, with Sarbanada Sonowal, led the saffron party to a victory in the 2016 elections. This has transformed the Northeast’s political map and reduced the once-powerful Congress in the state to tatters.
Sanjoy Hazarika is a well-known commentator and author on the Northeast and its neighbourhood
The views expressed are personal