In 2016, Tarun Gogoi, then chief minister of Assam, was fighting his last assembly election. On a cool April night in Titabor, the Upper Assam constituency that he had represented for a decade and a half, he held court among party workers. After more than 50 years in politics, Gogoi had the assurance of a reigning patriarch, an impression that was deepened by the stately grandeur that surrounded him. He had summoned party workers to a tea estate bungalow that had been turned into a heritage hotel, taking questions under a chandelier in the portico as darkness descended outside.

These would have been familiar surroundings for Gogoi, whose father had been a doctor on a tea estate in Jorhat district, where Titabor is located. Biographies and profiles describe how he grew up playing with his siblings and the children of tea garden workers on the lush green estate. He stayed close to his roots for most of his political life, representing constituencies in Upper and Middle Assam at the Centre and the state assembly.

That evening in Titabor, asked when election promises would be implemented, he replied with a familiar Assamese phrase. Change would come “lahe, lahe”, slowly, slowly. Through his 15 years as chief minister, many changes had stolen over Assam, lahe, lahe.

Not waiting for normalcy

When Gogoi took charge of Assam in 2001, he inherited a state ravaged by two decades of militancy, security crackdowns and ethnic violence. Older generations remember Guwahati coming to a standstill after dark and midnight knocks on the door. Under the Asom Gana Parishad government, “secret killings” proliferated. These were targeted assassinations of militants from the United Liberation Front of Asom and their relatives, usually by surrendered ULFA cadres and allegedly with the tacit consent of the government. Meanwhile, the economy was in a shambles – Assam had a budgetary deficit of Rs 780 crore and the state did not even have enough money to pay its own employees.

Gogoi, in his own words, did not wait for peace to address other problems. “All the time people are talking about normalcy. Normalcy first, development second,” he told an interviewer in 2009. “I said, we cannot wait until the normalcy returns.”

Fiscal discipline was restored, welfare schemes and police reforms were implemented as Gogoi went about the painful work of restoring trust between people and the state. By 2009, Assam had a budgetary surplus. The brooding streets of Guwahati were lit up by new malls and hotels. Meanwhile, the secret killings stopped. An inquiry commission set up by the state government found complicity between the SULFA, as the surrendered militants were called, and the police and army. A state human rights commission was set up.

Tarun Gogoi. Credit: PTI

The Gogoi years also saw a tentative architecture for peace put in place. There were peace talks with a section of the ULFA and Bodo militants, and autonomous councils for six ethnic minorities. This policy of quelling militancies by granting autonomous councils, of dividing militant groups and engaging with the non-secessionist factions, had flaws. But, for a while, at least, it ensured a fragile calm in a deeply divided state.

Building bridges

Much of this was thanks to Gogoi’s extraordinary abilities to cobble together a consensus. A consummate politician, he could speak many languages at once. He cut his political teeth with the Assamese language agitation of the 1950s, cultural assertions that would later swell into Assamese subnationalism. Yet he was flagbearer for the Congress, the party in power when the Assam Movement raged in the 1980s. During his tenure as chief minister, the Congress regained its popularity, making inroads in almost every political constituency of the diverse state: tribal, non-tribal, Assamese, Bengali, Hindu, Muslim.

Take a look at the electoral map of the 2011 elections, when Gogoi won his third term in power, and it is evident that the Congress had managed to create a wide social base. It won seats across the state, from the districts of Upper Assam, considered the heartland of Assamese nationalism, to the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley and even some parts of Lower Assam, home to a large number of Muslims of migrant origin.

Even in the polarised assembly elections of 2016, Gogoi stayed away from communal politics. Instead, he spoke cautiously of “regional interests”, which meant the “development of all people living in Assam”. It was a language that no longer worked in Modi’s India. The BJP swept to power in Assam for the first time that year.

The NRC shadow

But if Gogoi could speak the language of inclusive secularism, he also participated in the anti-migrant rhetoric that has been the motive force of Assam’s politics for decades. Assamese subnationalism defined itself against the “bahiragat”, or outsider – anyone who was not considered indigenous to the state but mainly so-called illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who, it was feared, would overrun native populations. The Assam Movement of the 1980s ended with a pact with the Centre to detect and deport such alleged foreigners. In Gogoi’s tenure, these energies were channelled into the demand for a new National Register of Citizens for Assam.

The stated aim of this register was to sort undocumented migrants from genuine Indian citizens. The Supreme Court and the BJP are usually associated with Assam’s updated NRC, published in 2019, the result of a chaotic citizen count that has left millions facing the prospect of statelessness. But it was Gogoi’s government that took up the demand to update the register, last compiled in 1951. Long before the BJP was a visible force in the state, Gogoi presided over the notorious foreigners detention centres and foreigners tribunals, quasi judicial bodies tasked with deciding on matters of disputed nationality.

Yet, such was his knack of speaking many languages at the same time that the Congress never quite lost its base among communities of migrant origin. In the months leading up to his death, the Congress brokered an alliance with the All India United Democratic Front, a party that claims to represent Muslims of Bengali origin, in preparation for the assembly elections next year. In death, he has drawn mourners from across the party spectrum, including former protege Himanta Biswa Sarma, who became the BJP’s pointman in the North East after a bitter parting with Gogoi’s Congress. Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal called him a “father figure”.

With his passing, Indian politics has lost one of the old guard. He was cautious in speech but never shied away from taking questions, even the tough ones. His policies were often imperfect but he took criticism in his stride. He had the gift of forging improbable alliances. It took a complex politician like Gogoi to lead a complex state like Assam for 15 years and leave it better off than when he took charge.