Assam’s longest-serving chief minister Tarun Gogoi, who passed away on Monday at 86 years of age, will be remembered for his vision of steering Assam on to the path of peace and development, leaving behind the bitter decades of unrest and economic stagnation. It was his political wisdom and vision of building a modern Assam that catapulted him to the fame of a stalwart in Indian politics.
Insurgency and counter-insurgency response, ethnic conflict and internal displacement dominated the public discourse in the state when he assumed office in 2001. Gogoi articulated the policy of peace and development to simultaneously push both. Changing the public discourse to peace and development was his greatest contribution.
He pushed the narrative that development cannot wait for peacebuilding. However, with the empty coffer of the state government, this was much easier said than done. Failure of the previous Asom Gana Parishad (AGP)-led coalition government in providing even the 10% matching share against 90% of central sector schemes as a special category state brought a grinding halt to development activities. Gogoi persuaded late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani to release the central share and relax the norm of mandatory release of the matching share by the state government. He used his personal camaraderie he had developed with the giants of Indian politics beyond the ideological barriers during his long stint in parliamentary politics to convince Vajpayee and Advani to release funds for central sector schemes, relaxing the norms.
Ironically, it was the AGP which convinced the Deve Gowda-led United Front government at the Centre to accord special category status to Assam and the funding pattern of 90:10, and Mahanta enjoyed closer rapport with Vajpayee and Advani from the days of the Assam movement. Gogoi achieved what would have been easier for Mahanta. He not only defended the special category status of Assam but also argued that the state would further lag behind – providing more space for rebel groups like United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) and other armed groups in Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao to become stronger – if the funds for central sector development projects are withheld. The Congress returning to power at the Centre and Manmohan Singh becoming prime minister for two consecutive terms from 2004 to 2014 led to an improvement in funds flow and higher allocations.
The public perception of rhe Congress party’s image as anti-Assamese, anti-ethnic communities that took shape during the Assam movement started fading out with Gogoi’s action of strongly defending Assam’s special category status and higher share of royalty on crude oil. Thus Gogoi, a diehard Congressman, crafted his image as a powerful regional leader in Indian politics which paled images of many other regional leaders. This image was instrumental in AGP’s decline as a defender of regionalism in Assam, with the Congress party filling the vacuum and denying that space to the BJP for 15 long years. It was the dissidence against Gogoi, led by one of his closest confidants – present health and education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma in the Sarbananda Sonowal-led government – which primarily created the space for the BJP to grow in the state, but Gogoi’s popularity prevented the saffron party from achieving the magic number on its own.