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How Gogoi's ego clash with Himanta Biswa Sarma cost Congress the state of Assam

Kunal Majumder | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

Congress has lost Assam. Tarun Gogoi, 80, has gone down fighting after three terms as the chief minister of the largest northeastern state. While the final results are still to be announced, the grand old party has won or leading in just 25 seats. Most state cabinet ministers have lost and Gogoi's vote margin in his traditional seat of Titabar in upper Assam has fallen to just 17,000.

So what went wrong? Quite a few things. However, the most stand-out factor is the 47-year-old Himanta Biswa Sarma, a former Gogoi protegee.

The story goes something like this. Sarma was quite unhappy with Gogoi's decision to field his son, Gaurav, in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Rumours suggest that Gogoi, who had by that time already served two terms and was in his third leg, had promised to make way for Sarma - whom he openly credited for Congress' third win in the state.

Also read - WATCH the scion: The Gaurav Gogoi factor in Assam elections

However, this is when Gaurav decided to set foot into the world of politcs. And Sarma saw this as an intentional plot to sideline him. So he went complaining to the High Command. His grouse - Gogoi's age and growing dynastic politics in the state, which in reality is true beyond the Gogoi clan (nearly 30% of candidates in 2016 elections are relatives of Congress leaders). The High Command sent Malikharjun Khadge to the state to talk to MLAs, majority of whom reportedly agreed with Sarma. The final decision was left to Rahul Gandhi. The Congress vice president met Sarma, but ruled out any kind of change in the government leadership (Gogois have also always been Gandhis' favourities; Gaurav Gogoi is part of the Gandhis' 'inner circle').

Sarma returned and led a rebellion within the party. Nine Congress MLAs along with him joined the BJP (six of whom were given BJP tickets and have won this Assembly election). The saffron party immediately appointed him the chief poll strategist. Even though Sarbananda Sonowal was declared the chief ministerial candidate, the central leadership put Sarma in charge of the campaign. And the rest is history.

Also read - Assam post poll prediction: Union cabinet for Himanta Biswa Sarma, Atul Bora deputy CM?

But could Congress have managed a fourth term if Sarma was around?

While it is a hypothetical question, the fact remains that Sarma is a master strategist. As incharge for Congress' campaign in the last election, he managed to swim against the tide (two terms' anti-incumbency) and helped increase the party's seats.

The other factor that could have helped Congress would have been a grand alliance with Badruddin Ajmal and other "secular" parties. Sarma was the only one who could have swung that. Gogoi is not seen as a leader with good inter-party relationships. In fact, he repeatedly thwarted all attempts by the likes of Nitish Kumar and Prashant Kishor to cobble an alliance that would have consolidated the minority votes against the BJP.

Also read - BJP storms to power in Assam. Here's the man who made it possible

Sarma, on the other hand, who has friends across the political divide, did exactly the same and brought the three parties - BJP, AGP and BPF - on a common platform. This turned the entire election into an 'outsider versus insider' battle.

This alliance, if not the entire agenda, would have been a difficult proposition under Sonowal's stewardship, who was formerly with AGP and had quit the party over personal differences with the leadership.

However, the question on everyone's mind is how long will the ever-ambitious Sarma last in the BJP, without the chief ministership?

First published: 19 May 2016, 6:08 IST
Kunal Majumder @kunalmajumder

Editor for Speed News aka Catch Live and Operations at Catch, Kunal enjoys measuring his life in numbers. Of his 30 years of life, 12 have been spent working, 9 of them in journalism. The remaining 3 were spent in 2 call centres, talking to British and Australians about insurance and cellphones. In his journalistic capacity, Kunal has worked at 3 publications and headed 2 online teams. The '3' includes Images Multimedia, Tehelka and DNA. The '2' includes Tehelka and DNA. Catch is Kunal's 6th workplace, where he will head his 3rd team as speed news editor. As a reporter, he won 2 awards - Statesman Award for Rural Reporting and UNFPA-Laadli Award for Gender Sensitivity. That's his story in Prime Numbers (a section on this site from which he's taken inspiration).