The people of Assam on Tuesday were treated to a sight shot through and through with irony. A protest march was taken out to the Governor’s residence by the ruling Congress, with the Chief Minister himself in the lead. This is the same Chief Minister who on better days had poured scorn on protestors marching to Dispur, vainly trying to make it lend half an ear to their various demands. But time is a great leveller and Tarun Gogoi is now reaping the bitter harvest of what he has sown in his fourteen years at the State’s helm. The Fince department was in his hands throughout and he has nothing to show for it. Content to lay all blame at the Central government’s door, the Assam Chief Minister now loses no opportunity to loudly complain how the Centre’s ‘stinginess’ is hurting the State’s development. He also ascribes dark political motives to the rendra Modi government for tightening its purse strings. Even if we take Gogoi for his word, how come his State is in such a parlous situation with the Modi government yet to complete one year in office?
In the ten years before 2014, it was the Congress-led UPA which was in power at the Centre. Had Gogoi made hay while the sun shone brightly from New Delhi then, Assam should have been a forward-looking State by now, its economic fortunes less tied to the political climate at the Centre. But the Chief Minister had no overarching vision of leading the State on the road to self-reliance, no viable strategy to mobilise resources and identify more and newer avenues of revenue generation. And so nearly all government schemes and programmes in the State continue to remain linked to Central grants. It was the Planning Commission’s largesse that propped up Gogoi’s budgets year after year. The result is that to this day, Assam hardly contributes one-fourth of the total funds budgeted annually. In the ten years of UPA’s rule, rendra Modi was leading Gujarat and by all accounts, having a very tough time. But the litany of defeatism now heard in Dispur was never heard from Gandhigar in all those years, even if we make allowance for the fact that Gujarat is much more an advanced State. A leader has to win the battle in people’s minds to make them work to be self-dependent and help them contribute to development. But Tarun Gogoi continues to instigate a victim mindset in the State, demanding continued easier finces because of the State’s special category status and militancy-afflicted law and order problem.
Chief Minister Gogoi is now in such a tight situation that he may have to table a second budget this year, much curtailed than the first one. In a recent memorandum to the Union Fince Minister pleading urgent release of Central funds, Gogoi had to point out that he had made ‘historical assumptions’ about receiving Central funds in his first budget this year, based upon how the Planning Commission had released funds to the State in the previous years. But the Planning Commission is dead now; its replacement NITI Ayog is putting in place a different paradigm for fincing states’ welfare, which Dispur can ill-afford to ignore any longer. Other States are already learning to be leaner and meaner, so as to adapt to hard times and compete. The Assam Chief Minister cannot allow any more the fatal policy of drift that made it possible for departments to keep developmental funds in their current accounts meant for disbursing salaries, a practice the CAG recently criticised in no uncertain terms. Neither can Gogoi put up with the practice of non-submission of utilisation certificates of Central funds to the tune of Rs 14,000 crores by various departments, for which failure the State could not qualify for over Rs 7,300 crore Central funds last fiscal. State government employees are now having sleepless nights, fearing a return of the dark days of AGP rule, when they had to agitate in Dispur for salaries. That provided Tarun Gogoi ample ammunition to mock the AGP regime ever since, but now the joke (however cruel) may be upon him.