August 03, 2020
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A Storm Passes

The chief minister and his bete noire make peace—for now

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A Storm Passes

ASSAM Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta should have seen it coming. Six months into his second term, Mahanta was barely prepared for the spurt of missiles from the Opposition camp, aimed at disturbing the five-party alliance ministry.

One crisis was triggered by Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda himself when, on his maiden visit to the North-east, he announced that the contentious illegal Migrants’ (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983, would be scrapped. He later backtracked, under pressure from the Congress and the minorities, but the issue opened up an old, acrimonious debate in the state and nearly split the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) for the second time in six years. Then, to add to Mahanta’s woes, leading newspapers dug out documents in the Rs 200-crore letter of credit (LoC) scam in trying to implicate him as one of the key beneficiaries of the slush funds.

Says Mahanta: "The concerted campaign against me in some Delhi-based newspapers over the LoC issue is an effort to destroy my image at the national level." The AGP is a partner in the United Front coalition and a smear campaign against Mahanta didn’t augur well for the party. Initially, he refused to say who was behind the vilification but later relented: "Two or three Congress leaders are responsible for this slander drive in association with some former bureaucrats from the state." Although Mahanta declined to name the leaders, sources close to him point fingers at Matang Singh, former minister of state for parliamentary affairs and a Rajya Sabha MP from Assam. They blame Singh and a couple of senior bureaucrats, suspended by Mahanta after he came to power in May, for the sustained reports on the LoC scam. Says a Mahanta supporter: "These bureaucrats were very close to former chief minister Hiteswar Saikia who had also tried to implicate Mahanta on the same grounds three years ago." The chief minister’s vigilance cell under Saikia had collected all the "evidences" that are being published now. One of the key persons who is supposed to have spoken against Mahanta is Dhiren Barkakati, then treasurer of the AGP’s Nagaon district committee. Barkakati confessed to the officers of the chief minister’s vigilance cell that he had used the money collected from selling corrugated iron sheets worth Rs 45 lakh sent to him by the prime accused in the LoC scam, Rajen Bora. Mahanta points out that Barkakati has subsequently retracted the statement and has gone to court. "In any case, how am I involved if someone distributes money and materials in my constituency?" asks Mahanta.

The AGP office-bearers admit that Bora was a party member between 1985 and 1990. But he later joined the Congress. Bora, who shot into prominence in the late Eighties (see box) is currently out on bail although a substantial part of his property has been attached by the courts.

The LoC scam may have resurfaced in the media in a big way, but it has hardly affected Mahanta’s standing in the party. Even arch rival Bhrigu Kumar Phukan has refrained from attacking him on this score. Instead, the former home minister has chosen to concentrate his criticism on the more emotive issue for the Assamese people: repeal of the IMDT Act.

Gowda’s somersault has given a convenient handle to Mahanta’s opponents like Phukan to mount an attack on the chief minister who has been noncommittal on the issue so far.

Phukan and his associate Brindaban Goswami made a trip to New Delhi last week to demand scrapping of the Act. The duo even met Congress President Sitaram Kesri to convince him of the need to repeal the Act. Back in Assam, Phukan’s moves did not amuse the party, which promptly slapped showcause notices on him and Goswami. Chief Minister Mahanta, who is also the AGP president, defended the disciplinary action. "Today two of them have gone to Delhi without proper authorization. Tomorrow others will follow and there will be no end to it, so we had to crack down on Phukan and his aide," he told Outlook.

ON the IMDT Act, Mahanta’s stand is simple: "We want to implement all the provisions of the Assam accord. And whether the IMDT stays or not, we are determined to protect the lives and properties of the minorities." Mahanta's-anta’s statement reflects the confusion in the state over the fate of the minorities in case the IMDT Act is scrapped. The Congress and the minority parties fear that the minorities, especially the Muslim migrants, will face harassment if the Act is repealed. Phukan, however, maintains that the AGP cannot have a stand similar to the Congress because it first came to power on the promise of detecting and deporting foreigners from the state. Phukan may have turned the heat on Mahanta but he is firm on one thing: he will not wreck the party as he did in 1991. "I will be the first one to defend this government’s survival if attempts are made to destabilise it," he said. Having said that, however, he defended his action in going to Delhi and even meeting Congress leaders. "If the AGP can be part of the United Front Government supported by the Congress, I do not see any harm in meeting the Congress president to make him see reason on an important issue in the state," Phukan said.

Perhaps realising that Phukan’s stand is morally correct, Mahanta invited his former confidant-turned-rival to a one-to-one meeting. During a two-hour tete-a-tete, the two leaders are understood to have agreed not to make things difficult for the alliance government and work together on important issues. The result of the talk was an uneventful meeting of the AGP legislature party. Its one-point agenda: to take on the expected onslaught from the Opposition in the winter assembly session. As of now, the AGP government seems to have weathered a mini-storm unleashed by twin attacks from Phukan and the reports about Mahanta’s involvement in the LoC scam.


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