Tarun Gogoi: Congress’s man of all seasons who rose in Indira-Rajiv era, foresaw BJP’s rise in Manmohan era
Tarun Gogoi’s end came when his party needed him most. At a ripe age of 86, Tarun Gogoi was trying to work out a ‘great alliance’ against the ruling BJP in Assam for the May 2021 assembly election.
Tarun Gogoi shot to fame in 1976 when he was made the joint secretary of AICC and an office-bearer of the Indian Youth Congress under Ambika Soni’s leadership. Sanjay Gandhi had reportedly asked AICC president Devkant Barooah (of India is Indira fame) to have a look at the young Gogoi. Barua gave Tarun Gogoi the key responsibilities to organise AICC’s Guwahati session where Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had famously said, “Youth has stolen thunder out of us.”
It was a direct reference to the rise of son Sanjay Gandhi and his core team that had Tarun Gogoi, Pranab Mukherjee, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Kamal Nath, Ashok Gehlot and many others.
Reporting for the India Today magazine, columnist Sunil Sethi had observed, “Guwahati had never seen anything like it before. Five tumultuous days melted into cold nights as people from the remotest corners of the country poured in to witness or participate in the greatest show in the country-the All India Congress Committee (AICC) session. Nearly 10 km out of the city, the once thickly forested bit of flat land known as Khana Para, was, by the touch of some magic wand, transformed into a glittering miniature township called Jawaharnagar. The entrance ticket here was the tricolour Congress party badge, emblazoned on a thousand banners and flags every inch of the way. The most significant event of the session was the emergence of the Youth Congress as a major force.”
The post-Independence Congress, under Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, had made a convention of sorts in holding its sessions at newly created cities such as Guwahati (where the Dispur area was named as the state capital), Chandigarh, Faridabad, Bhubaneshwar, Durgapur etc to provide impetus and introduce the party’s legacy to the new towns.
Apart from the emergence of Sanjay+Youth Congress power, Tarun Gogoi was witness to the ‘Seven Sisters’ being given shape. This was for the first time that the prime minister, Union ministers, chief ministers of various important states and other powerful players had gathered in Northeast India. The idea of the seven sisters — Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh — pooling their efforts and resources, was deliberated extensively.
Tarun Gogoi ensured cultural extravaganza too. As Indira Gandhi wore the traditional dresses of the northeastern states each day of the session Assamese silk saree, Naga shawl and skirt, Cargo dress from Meghalaya, there were cultural shows, folk dances from each state alternated with some of India’s best-known artistes such as Yamini Krishnamurthi, Uma Sharma and Ustad Latif Ahmad Khan.
The bonhomie witnessed in November 1976 at Guwahati was short-lived as by March 1977, Indira Gandhi was out of power and subsequently ousted as the Congress president, too, by many who had shared the dais with her at Jawaharnagar. A breakaway group was formed that had Pranab Mukherjee, AR Antulay, Buta Singh, G Venkatswamy and Tarun Gogoi as members.
Indira, by that time, living at Mohammad Yunus’ 12 Wellingdon Crescent, New Delhi had to build the party from scratch. Old timer Shubhabrata Bhattacharya witnessed Indira handing over the first vehicle of the Congress [I] to treasurer Pranab Mukherjee and Tarun Gogoi. Mukherjee excitedly took the wheels, inviting Gogoi to sit next to him. The idea was to drive till 24, Akbar Road, the new party office and flaunt it.
Just as Indira returned to her residence after seeing off Mukherjee-Gogoi, the jeep broke down at the Teen Murti Marg (presently Mother Teresa Marg). Gogoi, Bhattacharya and others had to push and push hard till Mukherjee got the right momentum to accelerate.
For Tarun Gogoi, there was no looking back. When Sanjay Gandhi’s death and Rajiv Gandhi’s elevation saw many from 1976-era youth Congress leaders falling the wayside, Tarun Gogoi caught Rajiv’s eye, putting him in the league of Ahmed Patel, Digvijaya Singh, Tariq Anwar etc and ministerial assignments kept coming, culminating in three consecutive terms as chief minister of Assam from 2001 to 2016. The longest-serving chief minister of Assam achieved a lot including breaking the bone of many militant and separatist movements in the state, making Assam a lot more safe and secure.
The successive Congress leadership’s faith in Gogoi from Sanjay Gandhi to the Sonia-Rahul era, however, proved costly. Aspirants like Himanta Biswa Sarma felt suffocated and switched over to the BJP. Gogoi had accepted this fact candidly. Speaking to the local media in March 2016, Gogoi described Himanta Biswa Sarma, once his most trusted lieutenants and now top BJP leader, as “shani” and said, “Yes I was under the spell of shani for several years.”
Tarun Gogoi had always considered himself an organisational man and remained deeply committed to the cause of the party, equally concerned about happenings in the rest of the country as it were in Assam. Like lyricist-poet Salil Choudhury, Gogoi’s childhood was spent in the tea gardens region of Assam where bulk of the labourers were migrants from various Indian states. This tea estate diaspora helped him understand and empathise with the tribals, backwards and the poor.
When Gogoi’s son Gaurav returned from the USA and desired to enter politics, Gogoi instructed him to spend a few weeks with some of his 1970s friends in order to learn the complexities, paradoxes and intricacies of politics. This sort of schooling helped and shaped Gaurav’s personality. At 38, Gaurav is not only deputy leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha but unvaryingly liked by the old guard and the young in the grand old party.
Like K Karunakaran of Kerala, Tarun Gogoi had firm roots in society and often asserted his ‘Hindu’ identity. As chief minister of Assam in 2012, he could sense the growing rise of the BJP and religious polarisation in the wake of Badaruddin Ajmal’s hold over Muslims in the state.
On April 20, 2012, he had submitted a memorandum to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for granting citizenship to Bengali-speaking Hindu migrants from East Pakistan and Bangladesh. Gogoi used to often take the credit for initiating the National Register for Citizens (NRC) to settle the unresolved citizenship issue of the Bengali Hindus, Buddhists and people who had crossed over to Assam in the face of persecution and torture after the partition of the country. As the Congress chief minister, he would often say that it favoured having no cut-off date for Hindu migrants getting citizenship, “Even if a person takes refuge in Assam today, he should be given citizenship.” The gamble proved costly putting the Congress electoral prospects under threat in the times that followed.
On August 5, 2020 when prime minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, Gogoi had remarked, “The day of performing bhumi puja on 5th August 2020 undoubtedly will be remembered as a day of great national importance as it brings an end of bitter conflict between two parties of dispute belonging to two different religions.”
(Journalist Rasheed Kidwai is the author of ‘24 Akbar Road’ and ‘Sonia A Biography’)