A DAY after Prafulla Kumar Mahanta was chosen leader of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) Legislature Party close to midnight on 4 September 2010, party legislator Liaquat Ali said there was more to AGP than Mahanta.
Ali was both right and wrong. AGP did manage 10 years without Mahanta at the helm, but the party didn’t go anywhere. Nor could it convey to its supporters that it didn’t miss its founder-president Mahanta who came to be regarded as the face of regional politics not only in Assam but of the entire Northeast.
“My job now would be to deliver and ensure the AGP becomes the force it was to end years of misrule by the Congress,” said Mahanta. That, as the cliché goes, is easier said than done. There’s still a lot of opposition to Mahanta’s comeback, within the party and from the influential All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) from which the AGP partially evolved in 1985.
But for the AGP’s present – and expected future – one has to go back to a past prior to its birth.
THE 1971 war with Pakistan dislocated lakhs of Bengalis, Hindus and Muslims, from East Pakistan. Many had taken shelter in Assam and Tripura. After the creation of Bangladesh that year, many refugees returned but a sizeable population decided to live in India. It was the beginning of the demographic change in Assam.
In 1978, Lok Sabha member Hiralal Patwari died necessitating a by-election in north-central Assam’s Mangaldoi constituency. During the electoral process, it was noticed that the electorate had grown phenomenally. The AASU demanded that the elections be postponed till the names of foreign nationals are deleted from the electoral rolls.
On 10 March 1979, a firebrand university student named Prafulla Kumar Mahanta was elected AASU president. He pursued the voters’ list issue, and launched a drive against illegal immigrants – Bangladeshis to be precise – that gave birth to the Assam Agitation on 10 October that year.
Regarded as one of the most vibrant democratic mass movements in independent India, the Agitation opened the country’s eyes to the menace of influx. But it gradually lost steam before the signing of the Assam Accord between Mahanta-led AASU and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on 15 August 1985 brought the curtains down on it.
The demise of the Assam Agitation led to the birth of the AGP on 14 October 1985. Apart from leaders of AASU, it was formed by other allegedly parochial regional socio-political and students organizations. Two months later, in December, the AGP swept the Assembly elections and Mahanta – he could do nothing wrong then – became India’s youngest CM. He held on to the record until the tainted Madhu Koda of Jharkhand snatched it.
AFTER THE initial euphoria, the people of Assam realized they had given power to political novices. And Mahanta soon learnt running a state where the Assamese were a minority – the last census puts their population at 29 per cent, lower than Muslims (mostly Bengali-speaking) at 32 per cent – was not the same as running a given-to-emotional-outbursts students’ body.
Suddenly, Mahanta lost his Midas’ touch. Scams including one in the veterinary department worth Rs 400 crore popped up. So did a greater threat to what New Delhi felt was to the country’s security – the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which was born seven months before the Assam Agitation. As law and order broke down, an army operation was launched against the ULFA in November 1990 and President’s Rule imposed days before Mahanta’s government could complete its term.
Power had led to a war of ego between Mahanta and other AGP leaders. PR widened the cracks within, and the party split in March 1991. The Congress, considered “enemy of the indigenous peoples”, returned to power. Fortunately for the regional party, good sense prevailed and the faction reunited with the parent party to win the 1996 polls. Mahanta became CM again and came across as a more mature leader.
But Mahanta’s second inning was marked by a three-year phase of countering the very ULFA that he allegedly gave a long rope to during his first term. The anti-ULFA measure involved pitting surrendered rebels against their former comrades. At least 120 people – mostly kin of ULFA rebels – were killed during what came to be known as “secret killings”. The Congress played on this gory episode to gain momentum.
The AGP also suffered from dissension; many top ranking leaders fell out with Mahanta and formed at least three factions. Mahanta’s alleged extra-marital affair with a government employee followed. Everything combined to signal the AGP’s doom in the May 2001 elections. Even a last-minute pre-poll alliance with BJP didn’t help.
CHURNING WITHIN the AGP saw the party blaming Mahanta for all the ills. On 5 September 2001, he was virtually forced to quit as president of the party he had founded 16 years ago. The anti-Mahanta camp gained ground under successor Brindaban Goswami, but his tenure did nothing to revive the fortunes of the fragmented AGP. The party was so busy setting its house in order that it failed to cash in on several issues under Tarun Gogoi’s Congress – from Vitamin A vaccination deaths to scams in recruitments and tribal councils.
Since September 2001, Mahanta almost did not exist for the AGP until he made a vain attempt to be back as party president in 2005 after he won a case against the extra-marital slur. The party, annoyed by his “machinations”, subsequently expelled him. Mahanta formed the AGP (Progressive). He was the only one in the faction to win the 2006 Assembly elections, but it spoiled the AGP’s electoral party. The Congress returned to power, albeit riding the tribe-specific Bodoland People’s Party that switched over from the NDA.
The loss made the AGP leaders realize that it could not afford to keep Mahanta out, particularly after a Congress-formed panel probing the “extra killings” failed to pin the blame on him. The winds of change blew when Goswami, under pressure for the party’s loss in the 2006 elections, gave way to Mahanta loyalist Chandra Mohan Patowary. He launched an exercise to reunite all the factions of AGP including Mahanta’s, and on 14 October 2008 made that possible. But in order to pacify the anti-Mahanta camp, the merger came with a rider – the leaders of the factions could not assume any top post in the parent party until after three years from the date of reunion.
But everything is possible in politics, and Patowary’s decision to step down as AGP Legislature Party chief signaled the start of a process to let the party get back its regional face – Mahanta. “The party just cannot do without him,” said a Mahanta adherent turned enemy turned loyalist.
“Whether I remain president of the party is immaterial; what matters is a strong AGP that can deny the Congress another shot at power,” said Patowary, after giving up his “House responsibilities” to “concentrate” on rejuvenating the party. His masterstroke – of making Mahanta count again – apparently made the Congress jittery; it has been on overdrive targeting Mahanta more than the AGP in general.
But only Mandate 2011 will tell if Mahanta can work magic for the AGP.