By now it is well known that Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi has picked up a huge fight with Pranab Mukherjee over the proposed alliance between the Congress and the AUDF. Mukherjee was supported by people like Santosh Mohan Deb whose narrow interest of ensuring his victory in Silchar clouded his political perspective. But Tarun Gogoi did the right thing by opposing the alliance. He did not make the mistake that the Congress made in Tripura by withdrawing itself from the tribal areas after they first entered into an electoral alliance with the Tripura Upajati Juba Samity in 1983. Santosh Mohan Deb, who was involved in the Tripura Congress politics in a big way, was very much responsible for that strategy - leave the hills to the Juba Samity (and later to its successor tribal party, the INPT). But it's now proved to be short term strategy, wrong in all possible ways. The Congress can not fight the CPI(M) without an alliance with the INPT but the INPT's aggresive tribalism makes the alliance a liability for the Congress in Bengali-dominated areas where the Congress is traditionally strong. The CPI(M) benefit both ways and can not be effectively challenged by the Congress. And in West Bengal, the Congress has been reduced under Pranab Mukherjee's leadership (he is Pradesh Congress president) to the junior partner of Trinamul Congress. That may help Pranab Mukherjee win his seat at Jangipur but that will never help Congress become the major Opposition party in Bengal - that position has been lost to the Trinamul in a matter of five years and perhaps for a long time to come.
If the Congress comes to power at the Centre, I have argued before in this column, Pranab Mukerjee will be fittest candidate to be primeminister. I reiterate my position and I dont say this because I am carried away by Bengali sentiments. The country has seen how efficient and tireless Mukherjee is when he runs the government. He heads nearly fifty ministerial committees, he is the driving force behind the Indian diplomatic offensive against Pakistan, he is a very capable administrator and a policy planner with a sharp political mind and memory that Manmohan Singh totally lacks. To top it, Pranab Mukherjee can be very aggresive when required. Manmohan is avoiding to pick the challenge of an open debate with LK Advani and openly admits he is nota good speaker - Pranab Mukherjee would have destroyed Advani in an open debate, despite lacking an Oxbridge accent like some of his ministerial colleagues. I will insist again that Pranab Mukherjee is a much better prime ministerial candidate than Manmohan or the western educated types. His early humble beginnings and his keeness to remember his roots (what with his going to teach in the college in his constituency) makes him a much better politician than the Harvard, Oxbridge types.
But Pranab Mukherjee's understanding of Assam is wrong. And he should trust Tarun Gogoi for his understanding of Brahmaputra valley - and not Santosh Mohan Deb, who never made an effort to understand the Brahmaputra valley and whose influence in Barak is also going down like sunset. An alliance with the AUDF would mean the Congress will slowly withdraw from the minority areas - like their withdrawal from tribal areas in Tripura. Tommorow if you have a strong Adivasi party in Assam and you strike a deal with it, the Congress will withdraw from the tea gardens. This is a dangerous line that would mean ultimate political suicide for a party like the Congress which seeks to represent all ethnic groups of Assam, as opposed to the limited ethnic or religious appeal of many other parties. And if one were to argue that the Congres's traditional winning strategy in Assam was the "Ali-Coolie" formula, how can the Congress allow the AUDF to hijack that platform by signing a deal with it. In India, elections keeps party organisation alive - so if the Congress withdraws from an area during election and leave the seats to parties like AUDF, their political organisation in those areas will wither away.
So Tarun Gogoi is absolutely right when he says that he is willing to give a very important position to Badruddin Ajmal if he returns to the Congress but he can't deal with Ajmal as the chief of a separate party like the AUDF. The Congress has always wanted the minorities on its own platform, like a big banyan tree - to accept that they belong to a separate platform like the AUDF will be the end of the Congress in the minority dominated areas. And if as a result the Congress looses a few seats in this parliament elections and Sonia Gandhi punishes Gogoi, the Congress will cease to exist in Assamese-dominated areas. Because Gogoi will be seen as a fallen Assamese hero, punished for not accepting to deal with the party of the infiltrators (that's the AUDF's perception amongst the Asomiya people). So if the Congress looses a few seats in Assam this time - and that may happen - Sonia Gandhi should continue with Gogoi's political line. The Congress should try to win back the minorities to its own fold by protecting them but should never surrender the minority areas to the AUDF. But if Soniaji punishes Gogoi for the loss of a few seats in Assam and blames it on his refusal to deal with the AUDF, she could as well forget about Assam and leave it to its fate. She would do well to consider Pranab Mukherjee as a future prime minister and not Manmohan Singh, but she should not accept Mukherjee's line on Assam. That will be suicidal for Assam.
And she could consider a new leadership for the Barak Valley. Santosh Mohan Deb is a lost force. His brand of muscle and money politics, his projection of the need for a strong Hindu leader to check Muslim influence has actually prompted a Muslim backlash against the Congress in the Barak valley. He has gone about naming every public place after his father, totally ignoring Moinul Haq Choudhury. Ajmal has stepped into that vacuum and won over a huge section of Muslims by projecting he is a 21st century Moinul Haque Choudhury. On the other hand, Deb's so-called "strong Hindu leader" platform has been hijacked by the BJP with its more direct religious politics. His one-time follower and now sworn critic Gautam Roy follow the same line but by doing that, they excite religious sentiments that will hijacked by the BJP and the AUDF. The Congress in Barak valley has seen enough of so called strong leaders like Santosh Mohan and Gautam Roy. The people are sick of their dadagiri. They now need a leader with both vision and organisational skills and someone who can create a new yardstick of political performance and communal harmony, and not play the cheap game of political strongmen. They need a leader who can bring the two valleys together, who can bring Hindus and Muslims, the tea garden communities and the Manipuris in Barak together, who can stop the politics of rampant corruption and muscle power and ensure the development of its physical infrastructure for future economic growth. Above all, they need a leader who will resort to cheap and provocative slogans like "Hindu betir hai, Nurul Hudar vote nai" (husband of a Hindu woman, no vote for Nurul Huda).
The Congress is a party of inclusion, not exclusion. It will not survive in India, if it starts dealing with parties who survive on the political philosophy of exclusion. It made the first mistake in 1947 when, in a hurry to take over power, it allowed the Muslim League to run away with Pakistan. And everytime it has come to a deal with a party which stands for one community, it has lost. Gogoi is pushing apolitical line which is not different from Hiteswar Saikia who did not deal with the UMF but actually broke it up. Gogoi is not as shrewd and ruthless as Hiteswar Saikia and Badruddin Ajmal is a much more difficult customer than Gholam Osmani. But the Congress should try to win the AUDF back to its fold and work towards a merger rather than deal with it a separate party in an alliance.
The Bengal commisars don't understand the Northeast. In 1978, when the CPI(M) came to power in Tripura, the great and redoubtable Promod Dasgupta was sent as the politburo representative to decide on who should be the chief minister. The legendary party builder Biren Dutta, a local Bengali leader of immense personal popularity, argued that the Tripura CPI(M) and the state's Communist movement has grown from thetribal areas and so the great tribal leader Dasarath Deb should be the chief minister just to assuage the tribal sentiments that though they have been reduced to a minority by ceaseless influx from the across the border, the party was still willing to be led by a tribal. That would have taken the sting out of tribal regionalism in Tripura but Promode Dasgupta - though none doubts his great party building efforts in West Bengal - put his foot down. He backed Nripen Chakrabarty as chief minister. Nripen Chakrabarty was a great leader but he should have himself preferred to be deputy chief minister with important portfolios and left the top seat to his trusted colleague Dasarath Deb. In hindsight, Dasgupta's was clearly a wrong decision. Because the Bengali communists - and perhaps Congress leaders - don't realise the power of ethnicity in northeastern politics - perhaps in their own hill region as well - and think it is what Karl Marx described as "false conscisouness."
Manik Sarkar's position as chief minister is unassailable but he wants to entrench his party firmly in the tribal areas, he should promote a top tribal leader in a big way. That will only reinforce his position as a great leader and not undermine it.
(Subir Bhaumik is the BBC's East India Correspondent and a known Northeast India specialist)