The passing away of Shri Tarun Gogoi, the first Chief Minister of Assam for three consecutive terms ( 2001- 2016) and a member of the Assam Legislative Assembly on Nov 23 last at Guwahati at the ripe old age of 86 marks the end of a generation of political class and one of its finest representative. He made his mark in public life soon after he joined the District bar at Jorhat espousing public cause and was elected to the Municipal Board Jorhat in 1968. Ever smiling, suave and always willing to stand for a right and just cause- private as well as public he quickly earned respect and confidence of all.
There was no looking back since then as he was elected to the Loksabha in 1971 from Jorhat Lok Sabha constituency on Congress ticket after having joined Indira Gandhi led Congress Group- a move that reflected his political foresight and acumen at a time of identity crisis within the Congress party sharply divided between the older and younger groups- the latter led by Indira Gandhi.
He served six terms as Member of Lok Sabha and also as the Union Minister of State ( independent charge) of the Ministry of Food Processing during 1991-96 of the PV Narasimha Rao cabinet. Earlier Shri Gogoi was General Secretary of the All India Congress Committee in 1985 and President of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee during 1985- 90 – a difficult period for Congress in Assam as following 1985 Assam Accord the leaders of the Assam movement against foreign Nationals replaced Congress and took over the reins of the state. Interestingly he became a member of the state Assembly only in 1996 from Margherita and from 2001 Kaliabor constituency in Upper Assam and was witness to the break down of governance which, given his experience of working as an Union Minister must have prepared him for the task ahead. In fact in the 1990’s, identity politics let lose forces – long suppressed which caused deep fissures in the diverse “political societies” of the north east states especially Assam – to use Aristotle’s term to define the basis of a state which continue to shape politics even now.
Given his standing in the national politics Tarun Gogoi was the natural choice for the post of the CM when Congress returned to power. He restored peace and provided good governance by engaging constructively with insurgent groups and tried to accommodate their legitimate demands within the framework of the Constitution while retaining the integrity of the state of Assam which has always been his prime concern. Here his Ahom heritage must be noted as the Ahom dynasty was world history’s longest dynasty that ruled over a vast empire for over 700 years. His deft handling of the Bodo insurgency leading to the 2002 Bodo Accord and grant of autonomy under the sixth schedule of the Constitution to Bodoland Territorial Administrative District, strong measures to deal with karbi and Dimasa militants’ separate statehood demands, stamping out of” secret killings “which made a mockery of the administration of law and order reflected his commitment to the integrity of Assam state. And this laid the foundation of Tarun Gogoi’s lasting legacy- restoration of growth momentum after two “lost decades”of 1980’s and 90’s.
How bad the econmic scene was in Assam before Shri Gogoi assumed office in 2001 was neatly summed in the Assam Development Report, August 20 ,2000 of the Planning Commission in the following sentence:
” Unless extortion by various insurgent groups which seems to have been the fastest growing activity is brought under control industrial growth is unlikely to accelerate.”. No wonder that the state finances were in a mess and the Govt was unable to pay staff salaries without taking overdraft from the RBI and in july 2002 Overdraft reached a staggering sum of Rs 500cr. With a number of bold steps such as issuance of State Bank of India Bonds, strict expenditure control financial discipline was restored, broken infrastructure rebuilt and augmented with remarkable speed ;and rural economy was accorded the due priority, development of industry, urban and social infrastructure was given a push as never before. Four Medical colleges, a Homeopathic college and a college of Physiotherapy and Medical sciences were set up. Agriculture, manufacturing and services sectors- long stagnant were revived with new investments; and as a result the economy bounced back enabling Assam to achieve 6% plus steady annual growth during the Tenth and Eleventh Plans (2002-3 to 2001-12) and beyond 2016 when he demitted office. Agriculture and rural economy received a huge boost as the rice output went up to 5.22 Million MT as against 3MMT for years according Assam presently 9 th rank among the major Rice producing states only after Tamil Nadu; and with a diversified agriculture, increasing use of modern inputs and farm technology backed up by an expanded shallow tube well based assured irrigation and agro horticultural Processing industry, agriculture was put on a growth path during 15 years of Administration under Shri Gogoi. It is this strong base that accounts for Assam’s estimated 8.5% growth in 2019-20 especially in industry and services. This was recognized as the Econmic Survey 2014-15 of Government of India placed Assam among the states with higher growth rate both in NSDP and growth of NSDP per capita for two consecutive years- 2013-14 and 2014-15. This was a indeed a break through unimaginable in the 1990’s which has put back Assam on the” growth track” in the 21st century and has secured for Tarun Gogoi a place in Assam’s econmic history as the Maker of the 21st century Assam.
The enduring legacy of Tarun is much more than ” development” even in a broad sense: It is his idea of Assam as a confluence of many faiths, cultures and languages like the way Tagore viewed India and not as a venue for ” clash of cultures ” or civilisations as Huntington perceived the world today. A golf enthusiast and multilingual Tarun Gogoi had an abiding faith in Assam’s role as” pivot” of the north east and yet never compromised Assam’s interest . It is this faith which enabled him to carry every one to set up Six Autonomous Councils under State laws for self rule and development of areas largely inhabited by Six Plains Tribes- Rabha, Hasong,Mising, Tiwa, Deori, Sonowal Kachari, Thengal Kachari.
The spectacle of recital of prayers, first in Tai -Ai Chang lo, the original language of Gogoi’s community, the Ahoms and ending with ‘ Tarun Gogoi pe eng lai’ meaning Tarun Gogoi will be immortal before the funeral pyres were lit with chanting of Sanskrit mantras will remain alive in the minds of the people of Assam. And the fact that his mortal remains were taken to Mandir, Namghar, Church and the Mosque signified catholicity of Tarun Gogoi’s mind, his work and his vision of Assam and India.