The Assam Chronicle

News and Views from Northeast India

Infighting in Assam Congress

Guwahati, June 15 (By Dr Rupak Bhattacharjee) - The most significant recent political development of Assam that has caught the attention of many is the internal squabbles of the ruling Congress.One of the major reasons of party’s poor performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections has been the continuous infighting within the Congress Legislature Party (CLP). State Education and Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and his followers had been campaigning vociferously for the removal of CLP leader Tarun Gogoi. The chief minister added a new twist to the ongoing political drama by resigning but that was not accepted by AICC President Sonia Gandhi. The party high command fully backed Gogoi who has been at the helm of affairs since 2001. No other chief minister served the state consecutively for thirteen years in several decades. But at present, Gogoi is confronting the most formidable challenge to his chequered political career.

The murmur of a rift within the CLP was first reported in 2012 following spreading of the rumour that Gogoi would be nominated for the post of party vice president. The dissident camp soon came under the impression that Gogoi’s new stint at the party headquarters would pave the way of Sarma becoming the chief minister of the state. Relationship between the two took a turn for the worse when Sarma suddenly resigned from the cabinet in the same year for “losing confidence” of Gogoi. But Sarma’s resignation was not accepted after a few AICC leaders intervened. Though he rejoined the cabinet, his clout did not remain the same as the chief minister made his displeasure known about the sudden assertiveness of one of his colleagues. Even after being sidelined, Sarma has not abandoned his ambitious designs and been making concerted efforts to win over the legislators close to him and a section of senior MLAs who were not accommodated in the Gogoi cabinet.

The dissident group led by Sarma directly challenged Gogoi at the CLP meeting on October 19, 2012 with 44 MLAs demanding a change of leadership accusing the chief minister of running the government in “autocratic style”. A temporary truce was immediately brokered as the Sarma faction agreed to withdraw their demand in view of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But the simmering discontentment persisted all along and the dissident camp revived the demand for change of guard after the declaration of poll results on May 16. The dissidents sent a memorandum to the high command seeking change with the support of 45 MLAs. Meanwhile, the high command asked Gogoi to continue after he submitted his resignation taking moral responsibility for the party’s debacle in the Lok Sabha polls. In an apparent defiance of high command’s order, the dissident legislators threatened to meet the governor to convey their lack of trust in the leadership of Gogoi. The situation did not spin out of control as Gogoi spoke to senior dissident MLA Sarat Borkataky.

The intense power struggle within the CLP particularly in the post- May 16 period has been exposed like before. On more than one occasions, Sarma publicly criticised Gogoi’s style of functioning saying he would quit the cabinet rather than serve under him. Internal bickering and squabbles of the ruling party further intensified during electioneering. Gogoi-bashing became the order of the day—from Rameshwar Dhanowar, the senior most legislator, to one of the youngest, Sushmita Dev, everyone attacked the chief minister before the full glare of the media. Gautam Roy, a senior minister belonging to the dissident group had gone to the extent of saying that Sarma would replace Gogoi as chief minister within fifteen days. The Congress has already paid a heavy price for dissidence. In the recent Lok Sabha elections, the party’s strength has been reduced to three from seven—it managed to win in 2009. Despite having an elaborate organisational network all over the state, Congress failed miserably in the general elections largely due to intra-party rivalries. Four Lok Sabha contestants—Ranee Narah, B K Handique, Manash Bora and Biren Singh Engti lodged formal complaints against 17-20 MLAs who allegedly indulged in anti-party activities. Among the complainants, only Engti did manage to win the Karbi Anglong reserved seat.

Both the pro and anti-Gogoi camps resorted to hectic lobbying to consolidate their own positions. The dissident group claims the support of 45 out of the 77 Congress legislators in the state. This group was summoned by the high command to air their grievances. A total of 20 dissident MLAs led by Sarma visited 10, Janpath in three batches. On the other hand, a five-member pro-Gogoi legislator led by senior MLA Anjan Dutta and comprising cabinet ministers Pradyut Bordoloi, Rakibul Hussain and first-time MLAs Debabrata Saikia and Sushanta Borgohain had been camping in New Delhi for some time. However, Sarma accused Gogoi of staging a “resignation drama” in the national capital by asking his loyalists both in the cabinet and CLP to raise the banner for his continuation.

Amidst allegations and counter-allegations, the political crisis faced by the Congress had been getting worse with the passing of each day. To arrest further deterioration of the situation, the intervention of the party high command was urgently required. Congress Sonia Gandhi appointed senior leader and AICC Treasurer Motilal Vohra and party’s Assam-in-charge C P Joshi to strike a deal between the pro and anti-Gogoi factions. Reports suggest that the AICC team devised a compromise formula according to which Sarma’s position within the cabinet would be elevated and some of his supporters could be given ministerial berths following a cabinet reshuffle. Moreover, the AICC was reported to be toying with the idea of handing over the presidentship of Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) to Sarma since he enjoys majority support within the CLP. Reports indicate that the high command also explored the possibility of replacing Gogoi with PCC President Bhubaneshwar Kalita, a neutral politician who could amicably resolve the current crisis. But the proposal was turned down by the dissident leaders.

The limitation of AICC’s mediation efforts was also brought to notice. A section of Congress leaders have blamed the AICC’s inept handling of the situation for the present state of disarray. In their opinion, the “partisan attitude” and “indecisiveness” of some senior AICC leaders adversely affected the state’s party unit more than the rivalry between Gogoi and Sarma. One of them remarked, “They tried to please both sides, not giving Gogoi a free hand to run the government or replacing him when murmurs of dissent against him started in 2012 and also not reining in the dissidents”.

However, the high command’s dilemma ended with party vice president giving Gogoi a free hand to “control the situation in the state”. He also directed senior leader C P Joshi who manages party’s affairs in Assam, to assist Gogoi to resolve the crisis. The two-year old political saga took a dramatic turn following the June 5 meeting between Gogoi and Rahul Gandhi who extended full and unconditional support to the embattled chief minister. The very next day, more than thirty dissident legislators led by Sarma decided to end the rebellion after a meeting held at the official residence of Irrigation and Soil Conservation Minister Ardhendhu Dey. Chief ministerial aspirant and dissident leader Sarma said, “Congress is one and there is no division”. Bellicosity suddenly disappeared from Sarma’s attitude towards the incumbent chief minister. He stated that they were not pushing for Gogoi’s removal but had been trying to underscore the need for strengthening the party before the 2016 assembly polls. The dissident camp gave in when it realised that the high command was not in a hurry to replace Gogoi—the longest serving chief minister of Assam. A close confidant of Gogoi has revealed that the AICC is working towards reaching a “final rapprochement without compromising on governance”.

Emboldened by Rahul’s blessings, Gogoi after returning from New Delhi, asked his loyal ministers to prepare a strategy to counter his detractors. Reports suggest that Gogoi’s three-pronged conflict resolution strategy includes facing a trial of strength in the CLP, reshuffling his three-year old ministry and meeting every MLA individually. Ministers and MLAs owing allegiance to the chief minister suggested him to seek the resignation of all ministers so that he gets a free hand to form a new ministry. The dissidents, including four cabinet ministers, claimed that they have sufficient numbers to dislodge Gogoi if he decides to face a trial of strength in the CLP. The Gogoi camp made similar claims.

Among other things, the latest political turbulence faced by the ruling Congress has revealed the contrasting style of communication of two warring leaders. Gogoi has temporarily silenced his detractors “without uttering a single word”. On the other hand, by repeatedly indulging in diatribe against the chief minister, Sarma and some of his associates have needlessly exposed themselves. A major political crisis was averted at the last moment. The worst case scenario would have been a vertical split in the CLP with Sarma taking all 45 MLAs to form a break away faction. But such a drastic step did not have too many takers. Besides, to execute a scheme like that, as one Congress leader has pointed out, the anti-Gogoi camp needs the support of 52 of the 77 party MLAs. In the present context, he has said, “not many are going to risk their career in the infighting by effecting a split or forcing a mid-term poll”. If election is forced on the state, it seems unlikely that the Congress would return to power especially against the backdrop of BJP and AIUDF making serious inroads into the upper and lower Assam districts respectively. The ruling party is yet to come to terms with its worst ever electoral defeat in the Lok Sabha polls, despite having 79 MLAs and being in power since 2001.

By displaying political power play, maneuvering skills and silent diplomacy, Gogoi has contained rebellion directed against him at least for the time being. It is likely that he would undertake strong measures to silence the dissidents, including dropping some of them. But there is no guarantee that he would turn the tide in his favour and sustain it for longer period. The dissident group has retreated from its mission of dislodging Gogoi for a while considering the present political ground realities of the state. The possibility of revival of such a campaign can not be ruled out completely. After all, an ambitious and unpredictable leader like Sarma could turn the table against Gogoi in the first available opportunity. Referring to the recent political turmoil, he said, “There was a political earthquake and tremors were felt by everyone, but no damage has been done”. Interestingly, Assam falls in the high seismic zone. Is he about to draw a political seismic zone of Assam where recurrent jolt would be felt over a period like the horrific experience of 1950 earthquake?