Issue 4

How a Jailed Activist Continues to Influence Assam’s Politics: Conversations Regarding Akhil Gogoi

Akhil Gogoi continues to languish in jail. He was arrested on December 12 last year from Assam’s Jorhat district amid protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Even though the year 2019 witnessed the state boiling, the leader of the peasant organization Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) continues to remain one of the most relevant figures in Assam’s politics till today. In a state where emotions rise fast and fall faster, the public reaction to Gogoi’s incarceration is no exception. With the Legislative Assembly elections scheduled for April 2021, discussions about an alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led state government and Gogoi’s role in it, are gaining momentum.

On October 2, 2020, KMSS, led by its president Bhasco De Saikia, announced a new political party. Raijor Dol (meaning People’s Party), launched at a hotel in Guwahati in the presence of leaders from civil society, youth organizations and dignitaries like Jahnu Barua, Zerifa Wahid and Arup Borbora, is the second political party launched in the state in less than a month. On September 14, leaders from the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) came together to form the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP). Like Raijor Dol, AJP is also hoping to turn the anti-CAA sentiments into votes in the upcoming elections.

As these developments were unfolding, Akhil Gogoi remained fairly silent. I spoke to a few academics and political commentators working on Assam, intending to understand the continued importance of the man in the scheme of things. “Akhil Gogoi, through the KMSS, brought about a substantive change to the politics that we are used to. He brought the people at the margins, i.e., the peasantry and the forest dwellers, to the centre-stage of politics. We did not see it either during the Assam Agitation or in the armed movements in the region. He did it through popular mobilization. Thereby, he provided a critic of the system from the perspective of structural inequalities. He keeps on trying to use all available means within a liberal democratic system to expose the limitations of the system itself,” says Akhil Ranjan Dutta, professor and head of the Department of Political Science at Gauhati University and a well-known political pundit from the region. 

Kaustubh Deka, who teaches the same discipline in eastern Assam’s Dibrugarh University noted that it is because of Gogoi’s multiple roles that he has assumed a unique importance in Assam’s politics. “AG’s importance in Assam politics needs to be understood in a threefold manner: as an efficient mobiliser of masses, as an ideological anchor to many and as a polarising force for some,” opines Deka, who was associated with The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy in Chennai and the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, before moving home to Assam. 

Admitting that Akhil Gogoi is “certainly and undeniably a pivotal figure in Assam’s politics today”, Angshuman Choudhury, a Senior Researcher and Coordinator of the South East Asia Research Programme at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, also alludes to the “peculiar” space in Assamese politics that Gogoi occupies. Choudhury, who also holds an MSc in Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding from the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, calls this space “both primordially progressive and conservative at the same time”.

“He offers a template of resistance that appears radically modern and unrelenting at the outset, but is ultimately couched in the divisive orthodoxy of jati-mati-bheti. Let me state this in somewhat different terms. Akhil’s politics has a compelling duality to it – he reminds people of the agitational, deeply romanticised Assam Movement tradition, and also refracts the post-movement popular disenchantment with mainstream politics (think AGP, Congress) and civil society (think AASU, AJYCP). Perhaps many others have occupied that space, but Akhil brought it out into the streets through both grassroots-level and performative activism. Sadly, however, he remains locked in that duality, which prevents him from being a full-throated progressive. Akhil has constantly anchored his activism in the khilonjiya political vocabulary of insider-vs-outsider, which sustains his popular appeal amongst the dominant Assamese-speaking groups but also renders him no different from past political figures in Assam. Sure, he has persistently led movements that speak to both hyper-local issues (like displacement, farmer rights, bus fares, etc.) and larger structural ailments (like ecological destruction through centralised development), but largely within the ambit of the traditional indigeneity framework that foregrounds a certain ethno-territorial identity over others. By doing so, Akhil has consistently thwarted the possibility of a truly plural and anti-fascist Assamese society. I see his support to BJP candidates in the 2014 national election, NRC and the detention process in that context. So in more ways than one, Akhil, to me, represents the immovability of Assamese politics and civil society. He reflects the uncontested dominance of the anti-immigrant discourse in the politics of Brahmaputra Valley. Yet, at a time when a culturally supremacist regime in New Delhi is steamrolling controversial policies in Assam without broader consultations and cracking down on dissenters, he fulfills an in-built need within the Assamese nationalist paradigm to resist the politics of New Delhi and Dispur.”

When I was writing a profile of Akhil Gogoi soon after his arrest, one of the people I spoke to had asked, rhetorically, why people would side with the KMSS and not with the AASU if they wanted to support Assamese nationalism, since the latter has unapologetically and staunchly represented jatiyotabaad – the Assamese word for (sub)nationalism. The balancing act that the peasant leader has been trying to perform after realizing that the middle-class was treating him as a troublemaker has seen him aligning more with jatiyotabaadi causes in recent years. 

“As far as his political journeys goes, in his long stint, AG has achieved something without much parallel in Assam. From the days of his Dayang Tengani ‘long march’, AG has been an ardent practitioner of mass politics and to his credit, he has not only retained his mass base but also expanded it over the years. He has done it without holding any important office (winning elections) or deviating from his core ideological positions (maintaining a level of consistency). This makes his case comparatively unique. Another feature of his journey is his own growth as a writer-ideologue cum ‘activist’. For the middle class, the image has been that of a ‘professional agitationist’, which seems to have begun to change as he is seen to have moved closer to the cause of ‘Axomiya jatiyotabaad’,” says Deka, when asked about Gogoi’s political journey. 

Prof Dutta believes that journey has been “full of meaningful engagements”. “The issue of environment in the development projects of the state came to the forefront through the popular mobilizations against the Lower Subansiri hydroelectric power project. The notion of ‘cumulative impact assessment on the environment’ was something that Akhil Gogoi made very popular. He has the capacity to read and understand the issues in minute details. He also provided an alternative understanding of land relations and land ownership in the state. On the water issue too, he brought to the forefront quite a number of significant and relevant issues. Most importantly, Akhil Gogoi understood the economy at the grassroots very well. It was not something based only on academic research. He definitely studied them, but he penetrated into the dynamics through direct contact with the people. His other important contribution is about understanding the economy of lower Assam. This has not been discussed by any other political leader at length. During the anti-CAA movement he played an important role towards making it inclusive by bridging the gap between Upper Assam and Lower Assam,” says the chairperson of the Brahmaputra Institute of Research and Development (BIRD) in Guwahati.

Choudhury too feels that the hope that Gogoi would forge a new left-progressive discourse did not last long and, he did not “depart from the ethnonationalist ecosystem”. “For instance, by lending support to candidates belonging to a right-wing, Hindu supremacist party like the BJP in 2014 just to defeat the Congress, Akhil revealed his ideological dubiousness. Then, by not speaking up for the rights and dignity of Bengal-origin Muslims in Assam during the NRC process, Akhil made it clear that he would keep one foot in the Assamese nationalist hearth. But the CAB protests proved to be the peak of his political career. It gave him the opportunity to gain greater visibility in Assam’s core urban spaces while fulfilling a two-fold objective: placating Assamese nationalists who oppose the CAB because it’s seemingly ‘anti-indigenous’ in nature, while also appealing to mainland progressives who oppose the CAB because its un-secular,” adds Choudhury who was recently a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

The forming of the student wing of the KMSS, Satra Mukti Sangram Samiti (SMSS) is a decision that “unleashed a new chapter in youth politics in Assam – something with deep consequences for later years, as we witnessed in the times of anti-CAA protests”, feels Dr Deka. A lot of SMSS cadres now find themselves in leadership roles in Raijor Dol.

None of the scholars I spoke to, however, was gung-ho about Akhil’s immediate electoral possibilities. “I am very skeptical about it. Electoral politics is a different game plan altogether. In a situation like Assam’s, the middle class is an important component in deciding the electoral dynamics and outcomes. Akhil Gogoi has not been careful enough to make them a part of his movement. In the initial phases, Gogoi and the KMSS were supported by a larger section of the middle class. However, his antagonistic approach towards the middle class has gradually drifted them away to a great extent. Therefore, he became more vulnerable to the state machinery. Besides, his approach to electoral politics has been both casual and at times very difficult for the common masses to understand. If Akhil Gogoi seriously wants to be in electoral politics, he must be in a position to ally with the mainstream left political and the progressive regional forces. He has been very critical of the mainstream left political forces. My understanding is that without a broad federal unity among the left-regional and progressive liberal democratic forces, it will be very difficult to be in electoral politics,” observes Akhil Ranjan Dutta.

“This buzz around Akhil Gogoi joining the electoral fray is very interesting as it centres around a lot of expectations and estimations”, responds Kaustubh Deka to the same question, before adding, “Personally speaking, I don’t share an equally zestful outlook on this matter. Akhil Gogoi as a mass mobiliser and Akhil Gogoi as an electoral force are two different scenarios. Voters in India are adept at donning multiple hats and there’s every possibility that the same people who have been filling the KMSS rallies are also joining another one by the BJP on the next day. AG knows this too perhaps and therefore, he knows the challenges he faces in entering a politics based on entitlements and dole-outs, without having anything similar to offer. Yes, he has powerful critique and a stellar track record. Because of these, I, however, wish to see him enter electoral politics. It will add a vibrancy to the debates. However, there is a paradox here which AG and his organisation faces, which is what in social science literature called as ‘social movement organisations’ (SMO), organisations built and sustained primarily around protests and social mobilisations. Their network chains and sub-culture thus fundamentally differ from a traditional political party. Yet, if they approach the election, the challenge will be to turn their disadvantages into advantages.”

Choudhury feels that Akhil Gogoi will lose his popular appeal if he enters mainstream politics in Assam. “Such is the nature of electoral politics that it mediates and moderates radicalism. So he might ultimately go the AGP (Asom Gana Parishad) way, and we all know what way that went in Assam. But to me, it doesn’t make much of a difference if he stays in or out of the electoral political structure. His core political ideologies (or non-ideologies) will remain the same. In fact, once he enters the vote game, he will only dig his feet deeper into the jati-mati-bheti ecosystem and speak a stronger ethnonationalist tongue. Right now, he still has some space to extend limited support to certain historically marginalised groups, like the Bengal-origin Muslims, but once he becomes a politician, that space will disappear rapidly. So my best guess is Akhil will only become a more orthodox version of himself once he enters electoral politics, if he isn’t dabbling in outright political opportunism, that is,” remarks Choudhury.

This lack of ideology that Choudhury suggests is, in fact, well-thought ‘tactical moves’, believes Deka. When asked to evaluate Akhil Gogoi’s recent comments to the media that all ‘anchalik‘ (regional) forces should be united, Deka told me, “Interestingly, Akhil Gogoi himself is the missing link here, with the chorus of the need to anyhow bring him to the ‘ancholikotabaadi’ fold increasing by the day. His is almost being considered by many as the Midas touch in Assam politics now. His comment is a sure indication that he wouldn’t mind joining forces with others including the AJP. The ball is in their court. Gogoi believes in tactical moves and for that, he sees it fine to take positions which might seem contrary to his ideological positions. This explains his call to support the BJP (as against the ruling Congress) in previous elections. I believe if he can somehow take everyone onboard in his tactical moves and all the ‘anchalik’ forces do unite, it might be a force to reckon with, given the collective organisational prowess. But the larger challenge would still, however, remain in my opinion, to convert the emotional/ideological support to votes.”

In other words, “the challenge will be to change the terms of politics itself”, the political scientist signs off.

Jyotirmoy Talukdar is a Senior Writing Fellow (English Language Teaching) at the Centre for Writing and Communication, Ashoka University. He is also a freelance journalist regularly contributing to HuffPost India, The Wire and various Assamese dailies.

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COVID or Not, The Campaign Must Go On

By Neelanjan Sircar

The upcoming polls, in Assam, Bihar, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, pose unprecedented challenges in election management. Even in the best of times, regulating the behaviour of political actors during elections is nearly impossible. Anecdotally, candidates regularly spend over the farcically low spending limits for candidates (although the official data show otherwise) and all manner of distribution of alcohol and cash occur in the days leading up to the polls. But this year has brought forth even more challenges. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, parties will be heavily restricted in hosting rallies or other large public events that are so crucial to a standard political campaign.

But the campaign must go on. I imagine that two campaign activities will be used as substitutes for the traditional campaign. First, in the absence of large public gatherings convened by high profile politicians, parties will have to rely much more on “within village” activities like door-to-door canvassing. Second, outreach to voters — especially from the party elite — will be far more dependent upon social media and other digital media. 

This will likely generate advantages for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), by far the most well-funded party that has invested the most in its social media campaign strategies. For instance, data from the fiscal year 2017-2018 provided from Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) shows that the BJP received 210 crores out of the total of 222 crores from the controversial “electoral bond scheme” ushered in by the BJP, a staggering 95% of all electoral financing through the electoral bond method. This infusion of money has been crucial to maintaining electoral machinery that swells to impressive proportions during election time. For instance, in the 2019 national election, the BJP fielded an army of panna pramukhs (literally page chiefs), who were assigned to keep track of 30-60 voters each. While panna pramukhs were not fielded everywhere, the very fact that they can be fielded over a large swathe of the country indicates both the scale of funding available to the BJP and its commitment to building dense ground-level machinery during election time.

The existing investment in ground-level campaigning will be a huge asset for the BJP. In a time when movement is restricted due to the COVID pandemic, the ability of ground-level workers to mobilize and bring people to the polls is likely to have a greater impact. Furthermore, these same restrictions will make bureaucratic monitoring of elections and campaign behaviour more difficult, perhaps emboldening ground-level actors to use quasi-legal means to mobilize voters.

The BJP also has consistently demonstrated its proficiency in reaching voters through social media. The BJP of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah may not have been unique in their political appeals with respect to religion and caste, but it has been an innovator in campaign methods. Outside of the Congress, the (regional) parties that grew out of the 1990s built their campaigns in a particular manner that was labour-intensive and dependent upon the control of ground-level leaders that often had caste credentials. The BJP realized that if it had to spread beyond its traditional bases of support, it would have to develop a method of directly reaching the voter in places where it did not carry favours with local elites. The development of a strong social media campaign has created a direct channel between the central leadership, and Prime Minister Modi in particular, with the voter. This was a strategy that was effective, for instance, in the 2019 national elections in West Bengal.

Google search data provides a suggestive data point for BJP’s dominance in social media campaigning. While it is true that users of Google are likely to be younger, wealthier, and more educated than the general population, the recent spread of cheap smartphones in the countryside has significantly broadened access to the platform across India. In Google searches about politicians over the 2019 election period, an extraordinary 75% of searches were about Narendra Modi, compared to just 12% about Rahul Gandhi. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The BJP purportedly has extraordinary advantages in most social media and peer-to-peer campaigning through platforms like Whatsapp. 

Here too, the challenges of monitoring and auditing party behaviour are likely to be significant. During the elections, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has significant policing powers, regulating the content of campaigns and policy promises. As communication with the voter decidedly shifts towards social and digital media, where the content is less visible to third parties, the ECI is compromised in being able to regulate campaigns.

The 2019 national election exposed concerns about the impartiality of the ECI. A number of observers felt that, in the process of regulating content, the ECI showed biases towards the ruling BJP. This was in stark contrast to the narrative of the ECI that had started in the 1990s under TN Seshan and continued by subsequent heads of the ECI — which was seen as aggressively maintaining a level playing field for candidates and parties. The consequence of a level playing field was the democratization of the electoral space with new parties and new kinds of electoral appeals entering the system. 

The real threat to democratic norms today is not a momentary shift in campaign tactics due to the COVID pandemic. Rather, it is the fear that new forms of campaigning that are effective in skirting regulatory norms will get locked in, particularly when the ECI has shown little interest in innovating to meet these challenges. For all of its pathologies, the Indian electoral system showed that simply allowing parties to compete on equal footing generating high turnover in ruling parties at both the state and national levels.

Today, as the very basis of equal political competition is being challenged, we must wonder if brute force and money are all that is required to win elections.

Neelanjan Sircar is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and Assistant Professor at Ashoka University. His research interests include Indian political economy and comparative political behavior .

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