New Government in Assam

THE CONGRESS(I)'S VICTORY in Assam was indeed expected this time. The ruling Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) that came to power in the State (for the second time after a gap of five years) in 1996 had failed to deliver. And after the BJP clinched a poll-eve alliance with Mr. Prafulla Mahanta and his ``boys,'' the Congress(I) leaders in the State did not have to look back at all. The anger against the AGP was indeed there and if proof was needed, it came in the crushing defeat suffered by Mr. Mahanta himself in one of the two constituencies he contested this time. In this sense, the change in Assam is indeed a reflection of the anger the voters had against the AGP; a reversal of the 1996 verdict when the Congress(I) lost to the AGP. That the Congress(I) at that time was rendered leaderless - after the death of Hiteshwar Saikia several important persons in the party's State unit were trying to take his place - was just another factor that influenced the results. The situation this time was no different. The party was not in a position to project its candidate for the post of Chief Minister. And yet it managed to win a majority in the Assembly only because the political scene in Assam witnessed total polarisation between Ms. Sonia Gandhi's party and that of Mr. Mahanta.

Be that as it may, the Congress(I) seems to be caught in its own problems this time too. It may be true that the choice of Mr. Tarun Gogoi as Chief Minister was managed by the party high command in a ``smooth'' fashion. But then, the fact that the high command's emissary - Mr. Kamalnath - had to invoke the ``authority'' of Ms. Sonia Gandhi to push Mr. Gogoi's case for the Chief Minister's post cannot but be a pointer to the trouble within the party's State unit. Mr. Gogoi's claims were challenged, at one stage, by Mr. Bhubaneshwar Kalita, former chief of the party's student wing, and there were reports of his supporters turning violent in Guwahati in the process. The ``revolt'' was put down only after Mr. Kamalnath conferred with Mr. Kalita and invoked the ``authority'' of the high command. It is in this context (and also the track record of the Congress(I) in the various States) that one cannot but remain apprehensive over how long Mr. Gogoi would be allowed to focus his energy on governance. It may be true that there is a distinct change in the ways in those States where the Congress(I) has managed to wrest power in the past few years. The Sonia Gandhi era in the party has indeed been a shade different in that the high command has hardly done anything to encourage dissidents against such Chief Ministers as Mr. Digvijai Singh, Mr. Ashok Gehlot or Mr. S. M. Krishna. The high command has given them more room to breathe than was the case with others in the past.

It is indeed an imperative for the Congress(I) high command to follow this new culture in Assam too and ensure that Mr. Gogoi is not forced to rush to Delhi every now and then to save himself from the dissidents in his own party. Apart from the fact that such a culture is bound to lead to the decimation of the Congress(I) as a party in the State, the agenda for governance is bound to take a beating in such situations. The new Government has a difficult road ahead in that it will have to deal with the violence unleashed by the ULFA and also the various groups that are now active in Upper Assam. Add to these the gun-wielding youth across the North Eastern States and the influx of refugees from across the Bangladesh borders. The civil administration in Assam will need the active support of the political leadership at this stage. And this indeed is what is expected of Mr. Tarun Gogoi and his team that has been sworn in. Anything that distracts their attention will affect not just the prospects of the Congress(I) as a party but also the society in Assam that is even otherwise fragmented so sharply.