Assam Congress in shambles
The disastrous defeat of the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections along with its very poor performance in Assam has considerably weakened the ‘High Command’s hold on the party. So much so, that it is unable to find an answer to a simple question: should Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi continue or quit? Frequent air-dashes to Delhi by the Gogoi loyalists and dissidents and their attempts at winning over the High Command to their respective points of view have not been able to resolve the Shakespearean dilemma: Gogoi to be or not to be the CM ?
Mallikarjun Kharge visited Guwahati on Monday to ascertain the views of the 78 Congress legislators – dissidents (46), Gogoi loyalists (14) and fence-sitters (18). He flew back to Delhi to report to the Congress President. The dissidents led by Education and Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma have been trying to dislodge Gogoi for the past couple of years without success. But the party’s electoral defeat has come as a shot in the arms for them. But the problem is that the dissidents are not united. There are several chief ministerial aspirants among them.
Himanta Biswa Sarma is a controversial figure. He was once in the secessionist outfit ULFA and was arrested by the police. While in police custody, the then Chief Minister Hiteswar
Saikia struck a deal with him and persuaded him to join the Congress. He agreed and the criminal cases against him were withdrawn. Soon enough he emerged as a powerful and crafty politician. The case records against him mysteriously disappeared from police custody after he became a minister. Today he has emerged as a strong contender for chief ministership.
Another ticklish question is, should Gogoi resign, who will be the Chief Minister and who will replace the PCC president Bhubaneswar Kalita. One formula doing the rounds is that if the CM is someone from Lower Assam then the PCC chief should be from Upper Assam; or if the CM is from Upper Assam then the PCC chief should be from Lower Assam. Various permutations and combinations are being tried without any agreement.
Some defeated Congress candidates in the LS polls are fuming with rage that their defeat was engineered by the dissidents. They maintain that without massive internal sabotage, the BJP, which has neither a strong organizational base nor a State level leader of any stature in Assam, could not have won seven out of fourteen seats. One particular instance is the defeat of the Congress candidate Rani Narah at Lakhimpur constituency where all the Assembly segments are now held by the Congress. These defeated candidates are learnt to have poured out their mind to Kharge during his brief visit.
The High Command is reportedly in favour of an Ahom from Upper Assam (the ethnic group Gogoi belongs to) being made successor to Gogoi. But all these are confabulations and conjectures. Gogoi has all along enjoyed the blessings of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. This had kept the dissidents at bay but in the new situation they have become more assertive. Not all the dissidents who want the ouster of Gogoi are prepared to accept Sarma as CM. So the situation in the Assam Congress at the moment is extremely fluid. It is learnt that the High Command has deferred a decision on Gogoi till 6 July.
Meanwhile, another development has put the BJP, greatly elated over the extent of its electoral success, on the mat. During the poll campaign Narendra Modi had harped repeatedly on the danger of ‘Bangladeshi infiltration’ which is causing a demographic change in Assam and vowed to push all Bangladeshi infiltrators back to Bangladesh once he came to power. He did not elaborate how the infiltrators would be identified and by whom and through what process and, if Bangladesh refused to accept them, what his Government would do to these people. Those familiar with the Assam situation know that the ‘infiltrator issue’ is a very emotive one on which public sentiment can be easily whipped up. So Modi’s anti-infiltrator campaign went down well with the Assamese voters.
But now disillusionment has set in. Within days of coming to power Modi sent a set of proposals to Chief Minister Gogoi. These included lifting visa requirements for Bangladeshi nationals below 18 and above 65 years of age; issuing multiple visas to Bangladeshis coming to Assam and – surprise of surprises in a State where unemployment reigns high – giving the Bangladeshis ‘work permits’.
Gogoi has turned down all the proposals. He has said that it is already a very difficult job to keep track of foreign nationals coming to Assam with valid visas. ‘No visa’ will make the task of the police and the intelligence agencies to keep track of the Bangladeshis more difficult. Allowing entry with multiple visas or issuing work permits to them is out of question.
But the NDA government’s proposals about Bangladeshis has taken the people by surprise and caused strong resentment among them. Akhil Gogoi, president of the powerful Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, has accused Modi of making a volte face immediately after coming to power.