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Monday, May 4, 1998

Brewing up a storm

Sandeep Bamzai  
It is a brew which has often spelt tumult for politicians in Assam. In particular for state Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, the cup that is popularly believed to cheer has always been a deadly brew. Tea has visited untold suffering upon him. And not just once but twice! But more on this aspect of the issue later.

The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) won an overwhelming mandate in the winter of 1985, riding on the elephant symbol. I was in Assam in those days, a tea planter on the north bank of the Brahmaputra in a garden called Nonaipara. One saw the All Assam Students Union (AASU) displaying its muscle and making promises to the electorate at the same time. This strategic mix enabled it to successfully storm the Congress bastion of Assam. The names of Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, Bhrigu Phukan and Atul Bora were bandied about by workers of the AGP during the polls. Incidentally, I assisted in the polling proper in a supervisory capacity. The aforementioned troika were the young turks who were going to lead Asom(pronounced Ahom) to a new dawn.

But unfortunately, things haven't exactly gone according to plan. Which is only to be expected for according to the old dictum, the best-laid plans of men and mice often go awry. The problems began when there was dissension within the ranks, with Bhirgu Phukan and Mahanta quibbling over certain sensitive issues. And then the brew upset everybody's applecart, grabbing contrestage. Assam Frontier Tea chairman Surrendra Paul was assassinated by extremists and a long, cold shiver ran down the spine of the planters in Assam. Then the Doom Dooma Tea Estate (part of Brooke Bond Lipton) executives started running for cover under a threat perception from the militants, and Rajiv Gandhi dropped in with an offer to airlift the whole lot of them in an operation in conjunction with RAW. Soon after, he had the President of India dismiss the Mahanta government, promulgating Article 356 in the state.

However, to get back on track, while I was in Assam, companies including mine --Goodricke's -- were already feeling appreciably threatened by the `Asom for the Assamese' movement, which was gaining ground. My garden did not have a single Assamese in the managerial cadre. Quite possibly, that is why former Chief Minister Gopinath Bordoloi's grandson was transferred in my place from the Dooars. In 1986 I moved out of the tea industry, opting for journalism. But I have kept tabs on the happenings in Assam.

Extortion gave way to killings. The ULFA and the Bodos became household names in the rest of the country. In turn, Mahanta gave way to a resurgent Congress under the leadership of Hiteshwar Saikia. But just prior to the 1996 polls, after Saikia's death, there was once again a political void in Assam, and the anti-incumbency factor probably gave the AGP a toe in the door. Mahanta was back, this time without Phukan, who had moved away from him. But his troubles began all over again soon after he came to power. And tea, once again, was the prime mover. Ransom, kidnappings and death threatsby the ULFA left the state of Assam in complete turmoil, till the alleged ULFA-Tata Tea nexus made headlines.

An ULFA conspiracy to kill Mahanta was uncovered but the ULFA-Tata Tea imbroglio had done immense damage to his credibility. The recent elections saw the AGP being trounced, failing to win a single seat in the state. Moreover, Mahanta's wife, who had contested, was vanquished.

All this only goes to prove that while a truce has obviously been worked out between the tea companies and Mahanta, who wanted to prosecute Tata Tea officials for being anti-national, tea is the brew that drives not just the economy of Assam, but more importantly influences the fortunes of its politicians. It may not be brewing up a storm just at present, but it'll be back.

Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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