File photos of Congress leaders Gaurav Gogoi and Sushmita Dev. | Photo: Twitter
File photos of Congress leaders Gaurav Gogoi and Sushmita Dev. | Photo: Twitter
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Guwahati: Barely three months ahead of the assembly elections in Assam, the Congress is looking rudderless in the absence of its tallest state leader, three-term chief minister Tarun Gogoi, who died late last year. With no other leader holding a mass base across the state, the faction-ridden opposition party is looking like a disorderly house.

Gogoi, who was the longest-serving CM of Assam, had dominated the state’s political scene for nearly two decades, winning the party three consecutive mandates before losing to Sarbananda Sonowal in 2016. He died on 23 November 2020 at the age of 86 due to post-Covid complications.

Now, in Gogoi’s absence, analysts believe the Congress will have to work hard to rebuild a credible leadership in the state, capable of winning the lost trust.

Gaurav Gogoi, a two-term Lok Sabha MP from Kaliabor and Tarun Gogoi’s son, is being seen as the leading candidate, but there are others who are ready to take a more prominent leadership role, if entrusted with. Gaurav is currently on a month-long tour of the state to immerse his father’s ashes in the Brahmaputra, with his grief shaping the poll campaign.

According to sources, Gaurav and Sushmita Dev, former MP and president of All India Mahila Congress, are the two leaders considered close to the party high command.

Dev said, “Congress workers are definitely geared up for the elections. Losing Tarun Gogoi was not a good thing for us, but Gogoi ji also wanted a generational change in system. I never heard him say anywhere that he is going to be the CM again. We would have to find a face in the next generation and that is for the high command to decide.”

Other Congress leaders also see a future in the younger generation.

“Every political party goes through such a loss. It’s a big loss, but we have to move forward. Congress has a whole lot of young leaders who may not necessarily replace him, but on whom people can repose their faith and confidence in,” said Bobbeeta Sharma, chairperson of the media department of Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC).


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Gaurav Gogoi’s politics of grief

The Congress had been struggling with the succession question even before Gogoi’s death. But there is more urgency to find an answer now.

There is speculation that Gaurav Gogoi could get a chance to emulate his father’s feat of leading the Congress to victory again, with his personal grief becoming the centre of his public identity. On 4 January, he tweeted that his state tour had crossed 21 districts of Assam.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi had appointed Gaurav as the party’s deputy leader in the Lower House after he found national prominence with his participation in Lok Sabha debates.

Analysts said while young leaders have “limited acceptance” in parts of Assam, Gaurav still has more public support than his colleagues.

“Gaurav could be the chosen one for 2021 elections. He has more acceptance than other leaders, but it will be a serious test for the Congress this time and an uphill task, considering the emergence of new regional parties in the state,” said Shyamkanu Mahanta, political analyst and entrepreneur.

Other analysts, however, say Gaurav is unlikely to be comfortable in Assam politics. “Politics of death and memory can evoke response on a temporary basis. Gaurav is more comfortable in Delhi politics, not Assam,” said Nanigopal Mahanta, professor of political science at Gauhati University.

“With his comfort in English and Hindi, and knowing the whole dynamics in Delhi, I think he is very uncomfortable in Assam politics. The engagement which is required for a party in a multi ethnic, linguistic, cultural state like Assam… he is not a big factor,” he added.

Moreover, the charge of dynasty politics against Congress — a factor that led former Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sarma to switch sides and move to the BJP in 2015 — is more than likely to come up against him, according to analysts.

ThePrint couldn’t reach Gaurav Gogoi for a comment.


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Internal tussle

Already plagued by an “ideological vacuum”, the Congress has been left a divided house after Tarun Gogoi’s demise, say analysts. Earlier, Gogoi would downplay internal disputes as “misunderstandings”, but Assam Congress has also lost a crisis manager with his death.

According to Nanigopal Mahanta, the state unit is currently divided into five camps — led by Ripun Bora; MLAs Debabrata Saikia and Rupjyoti Kurmi who “openly defied Bora”; central Assam group of Rockybul Hussain and Pradyut Bordoloi, “mutually antagonistic but claim otherwise”; Lower Assam leaders who believe in association with the AIUDF; and another MLA who proposed a museum for ‘Miya’ people (Muslims of Bengali origin)
living in the char-chaporis (sandbars or shifting riverine islands) of Assam.

Last month, two former Congress legislators who were expelled for “anti-party activities” joined the BJP. The two leaders claimed that they left because the party was directionless. The party’s effective strength in the 126-member assembly is now down to 20.

In an attempt to stop renegade political behaviour, the All India Congress Committee asked its members not to speak against party leadership, sources said. However, Assam Pradesh Congress Committee general secretary Ranjan Bora denied any rift, calling it “differences of opinion” among colleagues.

Bobbeeta Sharma said it is “immaterial” to discuss the leadership issue when the “main motto of Congress is to serve”.

Asked why the state unit office, Rajiv Bhawan, wears a deserted look before elections, the leaders said it is because the party members are campaigning across the state.

“There is a massive difference of opinion within the BJP, between the CM and Himanta Biswa. It is deeper and has far more implications than our differences of opinion. We are in the opposition, we are the party with less resources — so obviously, our visibility would be less because we can’t flood the city with hoardings right now,” said Dev.

Mahanta, however, said: “Congress is rudderless. I don’t know of any miracle that can change its fortunes.”


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What the other leaders say

Even as this tussle plays out, contenders await the party high command’s call on Assam leadership.

Sushmita Dev, daughter of late seven-time Congress MP Santosh Mohan Dev, said she and Gaurav will accept whatever decision the party takes.

“Please remember, between Tarun Gogoi ji, me and Gaurav, although I am 10 years older than Gaurav, there is another generation in the middle — leaders like Pradyut Bordoloi, Debabrata Saikia and Ripun Bora,” Dev said.

“Although Gaurav and I are leaders in our own right, am sure the high command will keep in mind the entire generation between Tarun Gogoi and us,” she added.

Nagaon MP Pradyut Bordoloi said, “Mass leadership emerges, you cannot have it overnight. And for that you also need to have opportunities. Tarun Gogoi had been a colossus. In his absence, we have to put our act together and fight elections.”

He added, “When it comes to seniority and experience, if the responsibility is given to me of stewardship of the party, I would accept it.”


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