In election-bound Assam, the Congress is brimming with confidence. The grand old party has stitched together a Mahajot, or grand alliance, with seven other parties with the sole objective of defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party.
What drives its optimism is the electoral arithmetic from the 2016 Assembly election, when the Congress won only 26 seats as against the BJP alliance’s 86. According to those numbers, a simple addition of votes among the current constituents of the Mahajot alliance can arguably wrest nearly two dozen seats from the incumbent BJP-led alliance.
Pre-poll surveys have also come out in . The most recent survey by Times Now and CVoter predicted 57 seats for the Mahajot and 67 to the BJP out of a total of 126 seats. But this was before the Bodoland People’s Front joined the Congress’s fold, a development that will strengthen the alliance further.
While the Mahajot is yet to declare its chief ministerial face, the top post is likely to go to the Congress. And Gaurav Gogoi has emerged as a strong contender.
Gogoi is the party’s deputy leader in the Lok Sabha and the son of three-time former chief minister Tarun Gogoi. The junior Gogoi’s rising popularity was confirmed by the CVoter survey, where 26 percent of respondents named him as the state’s next chief minister, second only to incumbent Sarbananda Sonowal who was named by 44 percent of the respondents.
So, is Gaurav Gogoi eyeing this coveted position? Does he think the Mahajot will perform as predicted? In this telephonic interview, Gogoi spoke to Newslaundry about how the party is handling issues within the alliance and how he thinks the campaign will play out.
The Congress has labelled its campaign in Assam as “Axom Bosao Ahok”, let’s save Assam. What are you trying to communicate to voters through this?
Our campaign has been divided into two parts as of now.
The first was “Axom Bosao Ahok”. Instead of holding big meetings, Congress leaders went to every nook and corner of the state and spent time with farmers, traders and weavers, among others, to get a sense of people’s key concerns. That’s where we found that we need to save Assam from unemployment, corruption, inflation, and the threat to our Assamese identity and culture through the Citizenship Amendment Act.
The BJP has changed the ethos of Assamese culture which was based on the values of Srimanta Sankardev and Azan Fakir, which is so much more inclusive and based on equality and equity. That has changed drastically since the BJP used the CAA to divide society. Moreover, we saw the plight of the people who work in tea plantations. So, since our surveys and field experience highlighted these, we called to the people, “Come, let’s save Assam together and get out of this situation created by the BJP towards a better future.”
After that, we began the second part of our campaign on March 11: the Congress’s five-guarantee yatra. We are going to people with the message that, if elected, the Congress will fulfil the following: a law that nullifies the CAA; five lakh government jobs; raising tea workers’ wages to Rs 365; free electricity up to 200 units per household; and Rs 2,000 monthly income support for all housewives.
There’s an allegation that the Congress’s five-guarantee promise is a poll gimmick since the party failed to address some of these issues when it was in power for 15 years. Why should people believe you this time?
I think it’s a mindset issue and people understand that. While the BJP likes to just promise and deflect, the Congress has an experienced, focused leadership and a solution-oriented mindset. Development, which is a continuing process, hasn’t happened in the last five years. So, problems are far more acute now than before: unemployment is much higher, inflation is much higher, but the wages of tea workers remain stagnant.
When the Congress came to power in Assam in 2001 with the BJP at the Centre, there were many challenges that people thought we would not be able to resolve. But we did it. For example, we revived the fiscal situation, ensured that government salaries were paid on time, and led Assam down a fiscally responsible path.
When I was touring the state last December carrying my late father’s ashes, I met many people who acknowledged the sea change that came in Assam post 2001. I believe it’s going to be a case of history repeating itself. The way the Congress came to power in 2001 and turned Assam from darkness to light, the same will happen this time too.
Why has the party chosen to ally with the All India United Democratic Front after resisting such attempts in the past? Many say it goes against the Congress’s secular credentials, something the late Tarun Gogoi always upheld.
People in Assam know that it was my father who, when the Rajya Sabha election was going on early last year , proposed the concept of the Congress and the AIUDF coming together. That’s how the two parties came together to send Ajit Bhuyan, an independent candidate, to the Rajya Sabha.
We all realised there is a pre-CAA Assam and a post-CAA Assam. On one hand, there is a pro-CAA alliance led by the BJP. On the other, there's an alliance of the Congress and AIUDF that opposes the CAA. The latter is beyond the interests of the Congress or the AIUDF; it includes the Bodoland People’s Front too, which has a sizable number of legislators. It includes the Left front parties, which have a good percentage of votes, and the Anchalik Gana Morcha, a promising local outfit. So, it is a very comprehensive umbrella.
Of course, as with any alliance, there are slightly contrasting ideologies within. But we are united by the fact that we are pro-poor, we oppose the CAA, we uphold peace and harmony, and we want to protect Assamese cultural identity from the powers in Delhi.
Why do you think the arithmetic from 2016 will translate to an electoral reality this time? Last time, the parties were not in alliance and voters voted with a different picture in front of them.
I think the chemistry and the arithmetic works in favour of the Mahajot.
When it comes to chemistry, as I already said, there is a post-CAA world. We have seen in our campaign that people are responding to the fact that the Congress is focused on real issues and providing solutions. People are well-reminded of the tall promises the BJP made and that nothing came out of them. Moreover, people have also seen a united leadership in the Congress as we are all traveling together and carrying a message of hope. So, that’s where the chemistry comes from and that is much more important than the arithmetic.
When the news of the alliance with AIUDF did the rounds, some of your prominent leaders and party workers in upper Assam saw it as detrimental to the Congress’s interests. Some, including a sitting legislator, even publicly. How do you see this?
Firstly, I am proud that I belong to a party where every person has a view and the right to express it. I don’t think this can happen in a party which has prime minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah.
Coming to these concerns, we saw Rahul Gandhi’s first rally in Sibsagar in upper Assam. It was a huge rally. Then we saw an even bigger rally for Priyanka Gandhi in Tezpur...which is again an Assamese-dominated belt. So, it just shows that the people of Assam are ready to bring the Mahajot government to power.
The CAA is at the heart of the Mahajot’s poll narrative. But after the first wave of protests in Assam, the CAA did not have an impact on the 2019 Lok Sabha election as the BJP literally swept the state. You have made it the centre of your campaign again. Why?
Had it not been for Covid, the anti-CAA agitation would have been at its peak. The kind of protests that took place bring back memories from the 1980s [of the Assam agitation].
Coming to your question, in Assam, when it comes to the state election, we have a unique history with respect to the Assam Accord.
CAA will be seen as a reflection of the poor leadership of chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who has been unable to defend the Assam Accord in letter and spirit, and the sacrifices of the martyrs of the Assam agitation. Of course, in a national election, there are other issues as well. But in a state election, at an emotional level, CAA is the number one issue.
But your alliance’s leaders and workers in the Barak Valley hold contrarian views on the CAA. For example, All India Mahila Congress chief Sushmita Dev recently an anti-CAA gamosa in Sibsagar. The message coming out of all this is very contradictory and confusing for voters.
Not at all! We all feel that the Assam Accord needs to be followed in letter and spirit and the CAA completely violates that. Even Sushmita Dev says that. There are genuine issues for Indian citizens who are excluded from the National Register of Citizens, but an unconstitutional method [like the CAA] will not provide relief.
Therefore, I am saying that if the Congress comes to power, the state government in Assam will become a party to the ongoing CAA case in the Supreme Court. We will put all our legal resources in the Supreme Court to get this law withdrawn because it’s purely unconstitutional. Also, with a unique perspective in Assam, it goes against the Accord. We will consult legal experts to bring a possible law that can nullify the CAA in Assam.
In contrast to the thrust on CAA, the Congress’s campaign is almost silent on the NRC. If voted to power, how do you plan to address the uncertainties arising out of the NRC exercise, foreigners’ tribunals, and detention centres?
We have listed that in many of our public programmes and it will be featured in our manifesto as well: that we will not leave stranded those genuine Indian citizens excluded from the NRC. We will expedite the process for bringing those Indian citizens under the NRC. After all, it is a baby of the Congress party. We want to see it reach its logical conclusion.
There are genuine concerns that cases in foreign tribunals have been pending for years. We will definitely try for such cases to be expedited so that a ruling is reached and justice is done. Similar, , we want to see the process followed and fast-tracked.
How much of a challenge will the new regional parties – the Asom Jatiya Parishad and the Raijor Dal – pose to the Mahajot alliance? They have emerged out of the anti-CAA demonstrations and with the backing of the All Assam Students' Union and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, the two most dominant civil society organisations behind the protests. They too have several pockets of influence across the state.
The Mahajot – with the BPF, Congress, AIUDF, Left front, Anchalik Gana Morcha, and several key individuals representing different ethnicities – is confident of forming government. So, right now, we are only focused on governance and how we can implement our guarantees once we form government. I think the people of Assam clearly want the Mahajot to come to power. It is for other political parties to decide their direction. We have no ill-will towards the two new parties. We have spoken out against the extended incarceration of Akhil Gogoi [the president of the Raijor Dal] and we will continue to do that.
After the demise of Tarun Gogoi, many believe that the Congress in Assam has become a divided house, that there is no longer a big leader who can unify all the factions within the party. The repercussions were visible when the ticket allotment was underway, with several leaders and speaking in public about different lobbies. This clearly threatens the party’s prospects in many constituencies.
I think we are a very united house. It has been a very united campaign. All the senior leaders have been on the bus for the last month and a half – sometimes as part of each other’s tours, sometimes on their own tours. So, I don’t know where this concept of a divided house comes from.
And as for my father, of course he was a tall man and it’s impossible to fill his shoes. There will be a vacuum but as he has mentored so many of these leaders for so many years, his imprint and values remain alive, with all of us as his students.
As I already said, history seems to be repeating itself. Prior to 2001, four or five years before, the Assam Congress had lost a tall leader in the demise of [ex-chief minister] Hiteswar Saikia. And at that time, a group of young leaders led by my father rallied the troops and brought the party back to power and remained undefeated for 15 years. Similarly, we have lost a tall leader now but the next generation of leaders are rallying the troops, who are toiling endlessly and running one of the best campaigns in the party’s history in any state of India.
Many in the state now project you as the successor to the great legacy left behind by Tarun Gogoi in the Assam Congress. But contrary to expectations, you decided not to fight from your family bastion of Titabor this time. When are you shifting to state politics?
As for the seat of Titabor, it was a conscious decision within the family that the seat should not be retained by us but instead go to an able representative from Titabor, someone who is a local and connected to the Titabor society. My father represented the seat for 20 years and after his demise, we felt it was more than just to pass the baton to someone else. I will always have a special relationship with the people of Titabor which goes beyond electoral politics.
The Congress party has given me so much already that I will never ask for anything. They have made me the deputy leader in the Lok Sabha within such a short span, a CWC member in the past, AICC in-charge of West Bengal and Manipur. I am always there to serve the party wherever they deem me fit.
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