Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi believes only Prime Minister Narendra Modi stands in the way of his fourth straight term in power.
But even other leaders of the ruling Congress hint that winning the imminent assembly elections depends upon how Gogoi outwits former secondin-command Himanta Biswa Sarma, now the BJP’s main poll strategist.
This has made the two-phase mandate 2016, scheduled on April 4 and 11, more of a battle of brains between Gogoi and Sarma than a fight between two major parties – Congress and BJP, the latter in alliance with the regional Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF).
The Congress is determined not to let go of one of its last bastions and the BJP wants to erase the electoral humiliation in Delhi and Bihar by forming its first coalition government in Assam.
Last year, state Congress president Anjan Dutta thanked the BJP for taking in Sarma and nine other legislators. “The BJP has cleansed the Congress of impurities and inherited a bag of dirty tricks,” he said.
But senior Congress leaders knew what they could be up against; Sarma, after all, piloted three elections and ensured a 15-year run since 2001.
Gogoi depended heavily on Sarma, who allegedly helped him finish competition within by ensuring 22 senior Congress leaders lose in the 2006 polls. The Congress won 53 seats – 11 short of simple majority in the 126-member assembly – that year, but Sarma stitched up an alliance with BPF to enable Gogoi to rule.
Dutta was one of them, as was former Bihar governor and Gogoi-baiter Devananda Konwar, now a leader of perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF).
Gogoi, 80, underplayed the threat from Sarma. “I don’t care what Himanta will or won’t do, because my fight is with Modi,” he told Hindustan Times.
But the chief minister admitted he let Sarma call the shots when they were part of the same team. “He was my number two, but ambition made him lose his way. Everyone knows what he has done, how honest he is.”
Sarma, who quit the Congress after a two-year rebellion against Gogoi’s alleged bid to project son and MP Gaurav Gogoi as his successor, is dismissive of his “former boss” too.
“They (Gogoi and his loyalists) think I will use the same template that helped Congress win election after election. Let them amuse themselves,” he said.