In 2016, Tarun Gogoi, then chief minister of Assam, was fighting his last assembly election. On a cool April night in Titabor, the Upper Assam constituency that he had represented for a decade and a half, he held court among party workers. After more than 50 years in politics, Gogoi had the assurance of a reigning patriarch, an impression that was deepened by the stately grandeur that surrounded him. He had summoned party workers to a tea estate bungalow that had been turned into a heritage hotel, taking questions under a chandelier in the portico as darkness descended outside.

These would have been familiar surroundings for Gogoi, whose father had been a doctor on a tea estate in Jorhat district, where Titabor is located. Biographies and profiles describe how he grew up playing with his siblings and the children of tea garden workers on the lush green estate. He stayed close to his roots for most of his political life, representing constituencies in Upper and Middle Assam at the Centre and the state assembly.

That evening in Titabor, asked when election promises would be implemented, he replied with a familiar Assamese phrase. Change would come “lahe, lahe”, slowly, slowly. Through his 15 years as chief minister,...

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