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“The Gentle Giant” Of Assam Politics

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Rarely would one find an Indian politician who loved an understatement about himself as the mild-mannered but shrewd Tarun Gogoi, who died Monday at 85, leavng behind his wife, a son and a daughter.
One evening in 1994, I reached his official residence in Delhi for dinner . Gogoi, then minister of state for food processing in the P.V Narasimha Rao’s council of ministers , had just returned from a tour of some European countries .  ‘Tell me what’s the latest gossip in Assam Congress,” he asked with his usual  smile. “Sir, many say you want to be Chief Minister and you are lobbying hard for that with the High Command,” I said, sipping the strong Assam tea that he had served.  
Gogoi laughed loud and told me  then chief minister Hiteswar Saikia was “the right man to handle a complex state like Assam.”  “Do you realise how complex a state is Assam. It needs a clever Chief Minister like Hiteswar Saikia to manage such a state,” said Gogoi , quashing all rumours that he was keen to be Chief Minister. “Moi yate bhal asu”( I am fine here) he said, referring to his position in the Union Council of Ministers.
Seven years later, as he took over as Chief Minister of Assam in 2001, I reminded him of that evening and his apparent disinterest to be Chief Minister. ‘What I can do, the party wants me as Chief Minister , they think I can fit into the shoes of Hiteswar Saikia,” he was quick to reply. And then with his characteristic smile, he promised to ‘deliver’.  What followed was an uninterrupted fifteen years as Chief Minister of one of the most complex, conflict-ridden state like Assam.  
“Gogoi was a consensus leader, he stood tall like a gentle giant amidst his colleagues , his stature stood out ,” says Assam Pradesh Congress general secretary Bobbeeta Sarmah.
 A six-term Lok Sabha MP and an Union minister, Gogoi was a law graduate who rose steadily in the Congress , first as AICC Joint secretary during Indira Gandhi and general secretary during Rajiv Gandhi.
“But he never appeared to be a man in hurry,” says his former cabinet colleague Bhumidhar Barman. 
Gogoi was a democrat all the way, the tolerant veteran who took criticism in the right spirit, including his government’s relative lack of success in getting big ticket investments to Assam. 
“You could write a story against his government, a bitterly critical story but he would still smile at you in the next press conference and not heckle you as many current politicians do,” says former Assam information director J.P Saikia . Most journalists, me included, would happily agree. 
Tarun Gogoi focussed on resolving Assam’s many insurgencies , like the ULFA armed movement and the Bodo insurgency or those by armed groups of Dimasa and Karbi tribes.  He was partly successful when the ULFA split in 2010 with many top leaders returning to negotiate a deal with the Centre. 
But if he was undone in retaining Assam for the Congress, it owed to his failure to handle the rise of a new minority party led by perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal.  The AIAUDF of Ajmal cut sharply into the minority votebanks of the Congress  in successive elections but Gogoi thwarted Central leaders who pushed for a deal with the new party. ” Ajmal Kune “(who is Ajmal), he had famously said once.
Many say that Gogoi was keen to restore the Congress support among the ethnic Assamese which had been undone by the six-year long Assam agitation (1979-85) .  By all evidence, that worked until 2016, when the BJP pulled off a convincing victory in the state assembly polls.

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