Tarun Gogoi obituary | He steered Assam from violence to development

Assam’s turnaround man. That’s a description one often used to describe Mr. Gogoi’s 15-year tenure as the Chief Minister of Assam.

His abiding political legacy was not just winning three successive Assembly elections (2001, 2006, 2011) for his party; it was also about bringing the State back from the spiral of violence to a path of development.

“By 2001, indicators of development had fallen to an all-time low and insurgency was at its peak...When the history of Assam is penned, my three terms will show up both positives as well as negatives. There will be bouquets and brickbats, criticism and acclaim. But I will leave history to judge these years. I, as a son of the soil, am only content and gratified that I could take centrestage in the turnaround story,” Mr. Gogoi wrote in his memoir, Turnaround: Leading Assam from the Front.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his condolence message to Mr. Gogoi’s family, called him “one of his close friends and tallest leaders of Assam”.

Also read: Former Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi dies aged 84

In a letter to Mr. Gogoi’s son and Lok Sabha MP, Gaurav Gogoi, Congress president Sonia Gandhi described his passing as a personal loss, recalling his association with Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and described him as “Assam’s most universally loved and venerated public figure”.

Former party chief Rahul Gandhi, in a separate letter, described him as a leader who shaped modern Assam; a rare gem with a profound understanding.

Reactions to Tarun Gogoi's death

Lauding Mr. Gogoi for walking the middle path, former Union Minister P Chidambaram said, “I know personally his efforts to wean young men from militancy and bring them into the mainstream of society”.

Tarun Gogoi obituary | He steered Assam from violence to development

The late Congress leader’s political legacy of grooming young leaders within the party displayed his vision as well as his strategy. While the young turks kept his detractors in the party at bay, it also allowed him the space to grow in stature.

Among those many young leaders, Himanta Biswa Sarma (now a minister in the BJP government) was, perhaps, the most prominent example. Mr. Sarma stood out for his political acumen and administrative brilliance but was also someone who was instrumental in BJP’s growth in the State that eventually ousted the Congress.

Such was Mr Gogoi’s political stature that, in 2006, when the party high command had decided to tie up with Badruddin Ajmal’s poltical outfit, he almost single handedly stalled it. But the changed political reality had ‘forced’ the Congress leader to reach out to Mr Ajmal ahead of next year’s Assembly elections in the State.

Until the summer of 2001, when the Congress won the Assembly election by ousting the Asom Gana Parishad, Mr. Gogoi was largely seen as a Delhi-based politician who had won multiple Lok Sabha elections since 1971.

Unitl then, he was seen as fierce Gandhi family loyalist who served as a Congress joint secretary under Rajiv Gandhi and a junior minister in the P. V. Narasimha Rao government.

But ahead of the 2001 Assembly elections, he was Congress’ man in charge to win back the State from the AGP.

The Assembly elections proved to be a turning point. From inheriting a State that was gripped by a sense of fear with rampant political killings carried out by outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA); unrest among State government employees who were not paid for months; allegations of extra-judicial killings of the family members of the militants rocking the State, in five years, Mr Gogoi did boast of turn around, something that gave him two more terms.

Turning point

The 2001 polls proved to be a political turning point for the affable leader. As he described in his memoir, he had inherited a ‘crown of thorns’. A sense of fear prevailed with political killings carried out by outlawed groups like United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA); there was unrest among State government staff as they had not been paid for months and allegations of ‘secret killings’ or extra-judicial killings of the family members of the militants had rocked the State.

Mr Gogoi changed the narrative that development in Assam, whose per capita income post-1947 was higher than the national average, would be elusive unless the extremists were tamed and peace reigned.

“Why should development wait for peace? Peace will come automatically if there’s progress,” he said during one of his nocturnal stops at a dhaba or roadside eatery about 20 km east of Guwahati in June 2003.

In what came to be known as his ‘dhaba diplomacy’, an increasing number of such flashy eateries became a byword for the “changed public mindset” that Mr. Gogoi claimed reflected the improvement in law and order. “People are no longer afraid of terrorists, and spend time at dhabas, far from high-security Guwahati, late into the night,” he had said.

In less than a decade thereafter, most of the ULFA leaders and their counterparts in outfits such as National Democratic Front of Boroland and Dima Halam Daogah had either surrendered or had been caught.

Fillip to sports

The severest of Mr Gogoi’s critics agree the face of urban and rural Assam changed during his reign from 2001-2016. Among the projects were sports facilities that helped Assam host the 33rd National Games, albeit belatedly, and rejuvenating the golfing greens, some 20 of which are in expansive tea estates.

An avid golfer who rued missing teeing off regularly after becoming the CM, Mr Gogoi had once used the greens to underline why it was important to stay positive. “If you focus on the sand bunkers and water hurdles, you will never appreciate the view a course offers and always have a high handicap,” he had said during a promotional at a golf course near his hometown Jorhat.

“Tarun Gogoi was a people's leader who contributed greatly to Assam's political and public sphere. Even though we were rivals, we shared a wonderful rapport and he was a guiding figure,” Assam’s Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said, adding that he would miss his predecessor’s endearing smile.

State Congress president Ripun Bora said Mr Gogoi left behind a vacuum that would be difficult to fill. Other party leaders agreed the upcoming Assembly polls would be a challenge for the Congress without Mr Gogoi as the “guiding light”.

Assam’s Finance and Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, once Mr Gogoi’s most trusted lieutenant before falling out over the latter’s alleged bid to promote son and MP Gaurav Gogoi as his successor, said he had his differences with the former CM but it was difficult not to like him.

“He rescued Assam from a period of darkness and ensured a new phase of development while leading the State for 15 years,” Mr Sarma said.

Senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh recalled Mr Gogoi as a “wonderful man, full of energy and ideas till the very last” but trusted people easily.

“I had in 2011 told him not to trust Himanta so much. He just laughed,” Mr Ramesh said.

The laugh, his contemporaries said, was typical of Mr Gogoi whose pet Assamese phrase was ‘baad diya hey’, meaning ‘forget it’.

(with inputs from Rahul Karmarkar)

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2021 5:32:20 AM |

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