Why Tarun Gogoi’s Death Will Scupper Congress Dream of Cobbling An Anti-BJP Grand Alliance In Assam

Jaideep Mazumdar

Nov 26, 2020, 03:35 PM | Updated 03:35 PM IST

Tarun Gogoi.
Tarun Gogoi.
  • With the prospect of a grand alliance of anti-BJP parties receding with Gogoi’s death, the Congress stares at the bleak possibility of being reduced to a pale shadow of its former self.
  • The death of Assam’s three-time chief minister Tarun Gogoi could not have come at a more inopportune time for his party (the Congress) in the state.

    The next assembly elections expected to be held in April next year are a crucial one for the Congress.

    The party, which has ruled Assam for a major part of the 68 years since elections were first held in 1952, is facing a grave crisis at present.

    In the 2016 elections, the party registered one of its worst-ever performances and won only 26 of the 126 assembly seats.

    This performance was comparable to the 1985 assembly elections when anti-Congress sentiments raised by the anti-immigrant Assam movement were at their peak. The Congress bagged 25 seats that year.

    After its poor performance in the last assembly elections, the Congress has seen an exodus of workers and office-bearers, and an erosion in popular support.

    The party has failed to act as an effective opposition and has conceded opposition space to other parties and even non-political entities like the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS).

    The AASU and the KMSS have been in the forefront of taking up issues against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led alliance in the state while the Congress has been merely watching from the sidelines.

    Given all this, it is imperative for the Congress to at least improve its electoral performance next year and bag a respectable number of seats.

    With this in mind, Gogoi had been leading negotiations to form a rainbow alliance with non-BJP parties in the state.

    The veteran politician, well regarded by all cutting across political divides, was a good negotiator and adept at managing contradictions.

    Gogoi knew fully well that in order to regain its political relevance, the Congress would have to rope in all anti-BJP parties in order to avoid a split in the anti-BJP votes.

    Gogoi was in the midst of conducting negotiations with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) of Badruddin Ajmal to bring the party into the proposed Congress-led Grand Alliance (GA).

    The Congress and the AIUDF are fighting the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) elections slated for early next month as allies.

    Gogoi was pitching for a pre-poll alliance with the AIUDF despite his earlier misgivings about that party. Before the 2016 assembly elections, he had rejected Ajmal’s appeal for an alliance and labelled the AIUDF a “communal party”.

    “The fact that Gogoi did not allow his personal reservations (about the AIUDF) to come in the way of working towards an alliance with it shows how pragmatic he was,” said Congress MLA Rekibuddin Ahmed.

    The Congress high command, though, is yet to approve of the alliance with the AIUDF for the next assembly polls.

    Some senior central Congress leaders have serious reservations about an alliance with the AIUDF since it is viewed as a ‘Muslim party’ whose support base is made up of mostly Bangladesh-origin Muslim immigrants.

    Aligning with the AIUDF will cost the Congress dearly in other states and the proposed alliance can be highlighted by the BJP as the Congress playing footsie with Islamist parties, some central Congress leaders fear.

    Gogoi, say many in the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC), would have been able to allay those fears and lean on the Congress high command to greenlight the alliance with the AIUDF.

    “Gogoi was the only Congress leader from Assam who had the ears of top party leaders in Delhi. His death has thus created an irreplaceable void. His son (Gaurav) is said to be close to Rahul Gandhi, but does not carry the gravitas that his father did,” said a senior Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC) functionary.

    The proposed alliance with the AIUDF may, thus, not fructify before the assembly polls next year.

    More so since the Congress, which has reached a seat-sharing arrangement with the AIUDF for the forthcoming Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) polls, is not expected to do well there.

    The Congress drew a blank in the last BTC polls and is contesting 13 seats (of the BTC’s 40 seats) while the AIUDF has fielded candidates in six seats.

    The BJP, its erstwhile ally — the Bodoland People's Front (BPF) and the newly-formed United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) are contesting the BTC elections independently, but the BJP is believed to have an informal understanding with the UPPL. The BJP-UPPL combine is expected to sweep the elections.

    If the Congress fares very poorly in the BTC elections this time as well, the voices within the Congress against a formal tie-up with the AIUDF for the assembly elections will grow stronger.

    Already, some senior Congress leaders have openly opposed the proposed alliance with the AIUDF and some, like APCC general secretary Biswajit Ray, have resigned from their posts and/or the party in protest.

    The anti-alliance leaders will then be able to successfully lobby the Congress central leadership against okaying a formal alliance with the AIUDF. Gogoi would have been able to avert such a possibility.

    The former chief minister had also extended invitations to the newly-formed Anchalik Gana Morcha (AGM) led by Rajya Sabha MP and veteran journalist Ajit Bhuyan and the Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP) formed by the AASU and another body to join the Congress-led grand alliance.

    Though the AGM and AJP have been cold to Gogoi’s invitation, it was expected that the veteran Congress leader would have been able to arrive at some sort of electoral understanding, if not a formal alliance, with the two new parties.

    Gogoi, who possessed the quality of opposing without offending, was very well regarded by Bhuyan and many in the AASU top leadership. They looked up to him as a senior politician and statesman.

    As such, Gogoi would have been able to win them over into the proposed anti-BJP grand alliance.

    Or, at the very least, the Congress under Gogoi would have been able to arrive at an informal seat-adjustment with these two new parties in order to avoid a split in the anti-BJP votes.

    But the possibility of that is remote since the Congress in Assam simply lacks leaders of Gogoi’s stature who command the respect of leaders of other parties and organisations.

    Most Congress leaders of Assam have an inimical relationship with the AASU and other political parties.

    Gogoi was also involved in informal talks with leaders of another newly-formed party — Raijor Dal or ‘People’s Party’.

    All these three — the AGM, AJP and Raijor Dal — were born out of the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and are decidedly anti-BJP.

    If all the anti-BJP parties, including the Congress and the AIUDF, contest the next assembly polls independently, the anti-BJP votes will get divided and the saffron party will score big.

    If that were to happen, as seems to be the case at present after Gogoi’s death, the Congress will be faced with an existential crisis in Assam.

    Going by the experience in other states, two consecutive electoral defeats suffered by the Congress leads to a severe downturn in the party’s organisational strength, erosion of its support base and mass desertion from its ranks.

    The Congress faces this same grim prospect in Assam. Gogoi was also, in many ways, the glue that held the faction-ridden party together in the state.

    Like in other states as well as the Centre, the Congress in Assam is riven by factions led by egotistical and self-serving leaders. Gogoi used to hold all the factions together because of his status and persona.

    With Gogoi gone, the Congress is once again a divided house. And with the prospect of a grand alliance of anti-BJP parties receding with Gogoi’s death, the Congress stares at the bleak possibility of being reduced to a pale shadow of its former self.

    Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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