The year was 2001 when senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, representing NDTV, conducted an interview with then Prime Minister and Bharat Ratna Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The interview is still available on YouTube and every time I watch it, it gives me a new horizon and hope for a better India. Well, any interview given by the former PM had a different aura because of the kind of originality he possessed and the intent with which he used to give answers.
Coming back to the interview, I remember him replying to Sardesai on a topic regarding regional politics in India. He said that regional politics is going to stay and regional parties support the aspirations of the masses more profoundly than the national parties. He added, however, that regional parties must develop and take on an all-India outlook.
Politics in Assam has a long history of regional aspirations, but over the years, issues of development and Centre-state symmetry of in terms of governance has taken a front seat over local issues. Both the years 1985 and 2021 were fought largely on the issue of regional sentiments as compared to other issues.
While in the case of the former, the newly formed regional party Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) came to power after the signing of the famous Assam Accord, in case of the latter, history was not repeated as the BJP and its allies emerged victorious by bagging 75 out of 126 seats. As the state has witnessed one of the most volatile protests and unrest in the aftermath of the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), such a mandate can be related to the absence of local issues in Assam.
The anti-CAA campaign, spearheaded by Congress-led Mahajot and the two newly formed parties Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Raijor Dol (RD), did not lead to victory. While the Congress-led alliance bagged 50 seats, Lurin Jyoti Gogoi-led AJP failed to open its account. The other new outfit, RD, registered a single win in the prestigious Sibsagar Assembly constituency. However, Akhil Gogoi’s success got in Sibsagar tells a different story of the larger issue of identity and regional politics in Assam.
Factors like the Congress’ alliance with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and its impact in Upper Assam; a three-way contest with the Congress’ stronghold; an ever-increasing influence of the BJP; and the absence of the contestant himself, as Akhil Gogoi was in jail under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for inciting violence against CAA are enough proof that the battle was not an easy one. But a newly formed party just before the elections did it.
Here, the campaign method of the RD deserves appreciation as they easily learned the dominance of money and muscle factor in politics and deciphered an alternative model of winning the election. And this is where this election took a different outlook. The RD divided its workers into fragmented units to ensure that they reach every corner of the constituency. Akhil Gogoi’s letter was published in the highest circulated newspaper, Assamese Daily Pratidin, freely distributed by party workers in the district. Large processions with the support of Gogoi’s mother and activists including Medha Patekar and Yogendra Yadav were held across the constituency. Bir Lachit Sena and its leader Shrinkhal Chaliha also publicly supported the party during its campaigning.
All these factors contributed to Gogoi’s success in Sibsagar. Interestingly, the Muslim population of the constituency provided unitary support to Gogoi, much like the Muslim support to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi. This is where the efficacy and sound micromanagement of the campaign team can be pointed out as otherwise, there were chances of division of votes with the Congress. This factor helped both the AAP in its two consecutive victories and the increasing tally of both Congress, AIUDF and Akhil Gogoi’s victory in Sibsagar.
Akhil Gogoi, a former student leader of Cotton College, was a peasant leader of the left-wing organisation Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS). Ever since its formation, the collective, under the leadership of Gogoi, has fought against vital issues of Assam, such as the hydropower project on the Brahmaputra and its environmental impact, the rising number of corruption cases in the state, illegal poaching in the Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary, exposing the cash for job scam in the APSC, and many more.
Through his activities of organising protest rallies, his support base in the rural hinterland of the state and crowd-pulling oratory skills place him as one of the influential leaders in Assam. And seeing the success of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh — both of whom are in their current position because of their style of grassroots politics — Gogoi’s success in Sibsagar has many things to say about the presence of the issues of indigenous people of Assam.
I remember hearing Nelson Mandela in his first overseas interview in the New York City College after being President-elect: “A person who changes his principles with whom he/she is dealing cannot lead a nation.” And the same principles can be found in Akhil Gogoi as unlike the congress party he opposed its alliance with AIUDF by citing that it is also a communal party.
When the AGP first came to power in 1985, people had high hopes on them, but they couldn’t live up to those expectations and took Assam backward for many years. Fifteen years of rule by the then Congress brought stability in terms of finance, timely payment of salaries to employees, eradication of insurgency etc.
Later, the BJP’s five-year rule under Sarbananda Sonowal gave the state some infrastructure development, proper dissemination of welfare schemes and checking of the Cash for Job issues in government recruitment as achievements. But the larger issues of illegal migration, confusing status of the NRC, peace in BTR and Karbi Anglong, and high unemployment rate is still far away.
And the role of regional forces is vital for pointing out such issues in the public domain. It is in such a backdrop that the success of RD in Sibsagar has ascertained that politics is uncertain in Assam, and issues of identity and recognition are going to play a larger role in the complex politics of Assam.