Union Ministers disempowered in Modi regime, Tarun Gogoi says

GUWAHATI,NISTULA HEBBAR: Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi is facing a three-term anti-incumbency in Assam as the State is slated to go to polls early this year. In an exclusive interview with Nistula Hebbar at his chief ministerial residence in Guwahati, he speaks on the polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and why he thinks his main fight is with the Prime Minister and no other….

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi.

You are going into the polls with a three-term anti-incumbency in tow, and it is considered your greatest disadvantage going into the polls.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this. Anti-incumbency is of course a factor, the advantage is that people have seen whether the development process is moving ahead or not. The people of Assam know what the situation was in 2001 and even in 2006 I didn’t get a majority, it was in fact in 2011, for my third term that we got a full majority. Everyone, including the Congress high command expected me to lose in 2011. It makes you question the nature of anti-incumbency and that elections are about who delivers on promises. The people will look at my record as well as the record of those who ruled in the past, so it’s not just that I’ve been here fifteen years and only on the basis of that I deserve to be voted out.

Do you think that the BJP’s campaign around illegal immigration especially Bangladeshi Muslims is your biggest challenge?

I’m not against Mr. Modi, we have the best of terms, but as far as his policies are concerned, we will attack them. Promoting communalism is something we are against, since our country is so diverse, specifically Assam has a history of syncretism. The secular fabric or basis of Assamese society is based on the lives of two saints — Guru Shankar Dev and an Arab Muslim peer, who came here in medieval times, Azaan Fokir. They preached social harmony and by and large that persists here.

What the BJP is doing, combining fear of the outsider and communal narrative is important to tackle. The fear of infiltrators is hardly new to the political discourse in the State, even Asom Gana Parishad had come to power not once but twice on the issue. I remember at that Congressmen were socially boycotted, killed, I could not attend my own brother’s wedding because of the social boycott of our partymen. And today, I have been elected three times. We have experienced the limits of this kind of politics. Emotions do play a part, recently it played out in the parliamentary polls, it’s been 20 months since and they cannot flog the same dead horse.

Is your strategy then to attack Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 20-month record?

Mr. Modi had promised that the moment he comes to power all infiltration will be finished, and Mr. Gogoi’s red carpet to infiltrators will be rolled up. It’s been 20 months, who has stopped him from doing what he promised? Has he been able to do it? He has the intelligence services, if we had given shelter to infiltrators he would have known. At the borders, it is central forces who are responsible for checking infiltration. If you check the performance of even NDA 1 and compare it to 10 years of UPA, our performance was much better. That is my case on infiltration. When India was “shining” (1998-2004) Assam was facing its worst period in its history.

Right after the Bihar elections you said that you were looking for a mahagathbandhan as well. What happened to that?

I didn’t mean mahagathbandhan but a maha understanding. The concept is the voter should either vote for us or anyone who can defeat the BJP, not alliances. I count CPI, CPI(M), All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), All Assam Students Union (AASU) and other student bodies in this grouping. It didn’t take off, but there is a growing feeling that we must fight against communal forces. This is a feeling not just in the political class but academicians and artists as well.

Has AIUDF leader Badruddin Ajmal indicated to you that he is ready for a maha understanding?

He has indicated, but if you ask me I have a suspicion about him.

What kind of suspicion?

That he may have a secret understanding with the BJP. (smiles).

This time, the BJP has decided that it won’t be the Prime Minister as the main face of the campaign but Union Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who is the party’s chief ministerial candidate.

My fight is not with Mr. Sonowal, it is with Narendra Modi. Whether it is Sonowal or A, B C or D, whose policies are going to be followed if BJP is elected. Look at the Central Ministers in Delhi; does anyone have a role to play? The Home Minister (Rajnath Singh) did not know when the Naga Accord was being signed, or even when Governors were being appointed. I have never seen such a thing. Even the Minister for Development of North East Region (DONER), is most helpless. He himself told me that he was entitled to Rs 900 crore for his Ministry, when he went to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, he was told, “whether this money remains in my kitty or your kitty it is the same thing.” One day, at a meeting of north eastern Chief Ministers called by the Home Minister, where the DONER Minister was present, I said, “I don’t hold grudges against you I know your position.”

Mr. Sonowal, however, is much younger and you are the third-oldest Chief Minister in India. Isn’t that a disadvantage?

What is youth without a young, fresh vision? Mr. Sonowal was allotted the Skill Development Ministry, it was most crucial for young people in the country with a direct link to employment. Why was he divested of the portfolio?

What do you make of the amendments proposed to the Passports Act to accord citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus?

On strictly conceptual terms we feel the basis of consideration should not be religion but humanitarian grounds. But on the nitty-gritty, I’m still unclear on how they will get this done. Many of these people do not have passports, and the BJP is talking about extending visas and such. All sorts of notifications and confusions are there. I’m sure that some solution can be found if one sits down and discusses it but I don’t think these people are interested in serious solutions. These are people who work in a superfluous manner. I have never seen such a superfluous government.

Just before the polls a senior leader like Himanta Biswa Sarma has left your party. How does that affect your prospects?

Forget about Himanta Biswa Sarma, was he there in 2001, even in 2011 he was not very serious, he didn’t want that we should get a majority. I know his capacity. Today, because he left us, we are united, our popularity has gone up. He is a man with a destructive mind.

What about the Bodo People’s Front leaving?

Yes, they’ve left. I don’t mind. I was responsible for their creation, now they have left. Sometimes when people leave you, it’s a good thing; it creates a space for other good things to find you. If the BJP is so sure, why are they running after BPF? It’s not a national party or even has a big regional presence; did the Prime Minister have to attend a meeting hosted by them? Amit Shah also went there. Congress president Sonia Gandhi never did that, nor did I.