Mahanta, Gogoi in high stakes battle for Assam

Mahanta, Gogoi in high stakes battle for Assam

Nagaon (Assam): He visits us very often, even when there are no elections. He goes to mourn with people in his constituency if someone dies and comes to congratulate us on happy occasions like births, good results…He is like God to people in Bahrampur," said Deepu Nath, a resident of Bahrampur assembly constituency in Assam.

Prafulla Kumar Mahanta’s life size cut-outs and colourful posters greet you as soon as you enter the Bahrampur area in Nagaon district. Mahanta, former chief minister and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) leader, has a larger-than-life persona in this constituency—from where he has been elected to the legislative assembly in every single election since 1985.

Mahanta, now 57, was the leader of the movement in Assam against alleged illegal immigrants in the state and traces his origin in politics to his stint as president of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), which spearheaded the agitation between 1979 and 1985.

From a decrepit university room to the pinnacle of power in his state in less than 10 years, Mahanta’s meteoric rise in politics was impressive.

When Mahanta took over as chief minister of Assam in 1985, he became the youngest ever chief minister of India. He was just 31 years old when AGP came to power, breaking the Congress domination in the state. After ruling the state for the entire term, Mahanta came back as chief minister in 1996— then only the second chief minister to do so after veteran Congress leader Hiteswar Saikia.

“Mahanta is such a shrewd politician, so intelligent and alert politically. But his greatest quality as a politician is immense patience, which keeps him in good stead always," said Arindam Borkatoky, professor at Nagaon University who has followed Mahanta’s career closely.

However, Mahanta’s almost dream run in politics suffered a major setback for three years beginning 1998. He was linked to the infamous secret killings—or the extra-judicial murders of friends and sympathizers of United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa); it cost him the ensuing assembly election.

Later, the Saikia Commission, constituted by the Tarun Kumar Gogoi-led Congress government indicted Mahanta for his role in this series of killings of Ulfa kin.

“He (Mahanta) is a sinner, he should be severely punished. He is an unapologetic person who has committed grave sins," said Rockybul Hussain, Congress leader and state minister. Hussain is Mahanta’s rival in the Samaguri assembly constituency in Nagaon district—the second seat from which the latter is fighting this election.

“Mahanta is the kind of person who will not regret taking a step back if that helps him take two steps forward. For example, he will fight even from constituency he knows he will lose, only since that helps him build a base," said Borkatoky.

Interestingly, despite his larger-than-life image, Mahanta’s assets are modest. In the election affidavit filed by him, Mahanta claims he has no car and has a cash balance of less than 12,000. He has declared his total movable assets is worth 19.17 lakh.

After his principal rival, Tarun Kumar Gogoi, Mahanta is still regarded as the other most powerful and influential politician of Assam. His critics, however, claim he is gullible and also, does not keep promises.

“He betrayed the people of Assam. He came to power with a massive mandate in 1985 with the promise to solve the foreign national and migrant issue, but never addressed it after that," said Dhirendra Nath Bezboruah, former editor, The Sentinel.

“He can so easily be misled," said an AGP worker who did not want to be identified. “That is the worrying part."

But for now, this two-time chief minister of the state remains invincible among his constituents. The big question is whether this will translate into another stint at the helm.

Prafulla Kumar Mahanta


Qualification: LLB (Bachelor of Law)

Years in politics: 40

Something else: Is jokingly referred to as “Mr Clean" because of his penchant for always dressing up in spotless white clothes.

Four decades since being hand-picked by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to organize the youth of Assam, Gogoi is looking to etch his legacy in the state

Few know that Tarun Kumar Gogoi, second time chief minister of Assam and a veteran Congress leader, was hand-picked by former prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1971 and tasked with the job of organizing the youth of Assam.

It proved to be a landmark year. Not only did he make his debut in the fifth Lok Sabha, five years later he went on to become the joint secretary of the All India Congress Committee.

Four decades later, he is looking to etch his legacy in the state. If the two-term chief minister can fight off the challenge from the party’s principal rival, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), then Gogoi would become the longest serving chief minister.

Gogoi, now 75, began as a lawyer while simultaneously engaging in socio-political activities and is described by his political rivals as an immensely “shrewd" politician.

“Tarun Gogoi is very cunning, one of the most shrewd politicians. He gives the impression of being innocent, but is far from that. He is very good at handling media and can be a smooth talker when it suits him," said senior AGP leader Atul Bora.

In 1968, he was elected as a member of Jorhat Municipal Board, before making his entry into mainstream politics in 1971 as member of Parliament from Jorhat constituency. He was then elected to the Lok Sabha four times between 1971 and 1991. An indication of Gogoi’s growing stature in the party came when he was made general secretary of the AICC in 1985. Between 1986-90, he held another important post, serving as the president of Assam Pradesh Congress (I) Committee.

Journalist Wasbir Hussain, who wrote Gogoi’s official biography, describes him as a “blunt and almost politically incorrect" politician. The authorized biography— Tarun Gogoi: Inside story of a blunt politician released in 2010, signals Gogoi’s ambition by detailing that he aimed to be the “Prime Minister of India since he was in class IX".

Says Hussain, who has known the chief minister for two decades now, “Gogoi can be blunt to the extent of being politically incorrect. But then, that is his USP (unique selling point). He calls a spade a spade and people like him for that. He never believes in beating about the bush."

Gogoi was inducted into the Union cabinet in 1991-93 as minister for food (independent charge). From 1993 to 1995, he held the portfolio of the food processing ministry as minister of state (independent charge).

His electoral debut in state politics was during 1996-98 when he was elected from Margherita, but he returned to the Lok Sabha in 1998 and again in 1999. However, Gogoi returned to state politics and led the party to a victory in 2001 winning 71 of the state’s 126 assembly seats.

Giving an insight into Gogoi’s decisive politics, Hussain says, “In 2006, when a new minority party— the AUDF led by Badruddin Ajmal was formed, who were all traditionally Congress oriented, Gogoi could have easily extended an olive branch to them to mitigate any damage. He, however, chose to snub and ignore Ajmal instead because he believed fighting with AUDF would have eroded the party’s traditional minority base...This year, however, he publicly extended an olive branch to AUDF (Assam United Democratic Front) knowing they might reject it. This is Gogoi’s politics, this is how he operates."

The incumbent chief minister, facing criticism for his alleged involvement in a multi-thousand crore scam in the North Cachar hill district of Assam, has also been credited with fast tracking the peace process with insurgent groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa). At the same time, he has also been subjected to criticism for alleged misdemeanours in office and governance concerns.

The response among the electorate is mixed, suggesting the chief minister is not riding any wave. Says Mrinmoy Phukan of Guwahati, “Gogoi has unleashed a rein of corruption. I have always been a Congress supporter but he is making me re-think. However, one can’t doubt his dynamism and shrewd political sense."

On the other hand, Nirmola Debi of Titabor constituency in Jorhat— Gogoi’s constituency—says the leader’s “candid charm and ability to make a difference" create a special place in voters’ hearts.

Dhirendra Nath Bezboruah, former editor, The Sentinel, says he has always been a “strong critic of Gogoi’s style of functioning".

“The way corruption has increased in the state in leaps and bounds in the last 10 years shows how he (Gogoi) rules Assam. There are no government projects here; money is siphoned off and this is happening with the government’s blessings. Gogoi has made Assam one of the most corrupt states from being one of the least corrupt," he said.

Weathering such harsh critics would be an obvious priority for Gogoi. Mani Shankar Aiyar, Congress MP and someone who has known Gogoi for 26 years, said the chief minister has the ability to adapt.

Releasing his biography in December, Aiyar said, “Gogoi was a practical politician who knew one could not win all the time, but could use the failures to his advantage."

Tarun Kumar Gogoi


Qualification: LLB (Bachelor of Law)

Years in politics: 40

Something else: As a child, he would sneak into an orchard and climb a mango tree, just as he would dream of reaching the top echelons of Indian politics and becomingthe prime minister. His interests include food, golf and clothes.