The BJP’s man for the chief minister’s post in Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, gave the party its first elected government in the Northeast but the man of the match was Himanta Biswa Sarma, an influential former Congress minister.
Sarma joined the BJP six months before the April assembly polls but most Congress leaders feel he went the saffron way much before that.
They knew what he was capable of -- he was for the party what Amit Shah is to the BJP -- having seen the party through three consecutive elections and ensuring the loss of 22 senior Congressmen whom Gogoi allegedly did not want in the 2006 polls even if that put the party at risk.
Many BJP leaders were against Sarma’s induction because of his tainted image but party chief Amit Shah did not lose time in appointing the former Gogoi aide as the BJP poll strategist.
The 47-year-old Sarma did not disappoint. He helped the BJP win byelections in two Manipur assembly seats — Thongjou and Thangmeiband — in November, a month after he joined the party. He used his managerial skills to help the party wrest two Assam tribal councils as well.
While Sonowal was the BJP’s face this election, Sarma was the backroom worker who was highly visible and audible. He addressed 269 rallies across the 126 assembly seats but spent only three minutes in his own, Jalukbari, which he won for the fourth straight time by a margin of over 100,000 votes.
Sarma was instrumental in the BJP forging poll ties with the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland People’s Party, led by a former militant leader, that he had wooed in 2006 to be the Congress’s partner. That paid off too.
“They (Congress) thought I would use the same template that helped them win election after election,” Sarma, who began his political journey as an All Assam Students’ Union member in the 1980s, told Hindustan Times.
Did he have a point to prove to Gogoi, once his mentor? “I just did the job entrusted to me,” he said.
Sarma fell out with Gogoi in 2013 after he promoted son Gaurav as a possible successor. The protégé led a failed coup against Gogoi and eventually joined the BJP with nine Congress lawmakers.
Gogoi said Sarma’s exit was good riddance, that the party had been cleansed of tainted people. He was referring to his former minister’s corruption scandals and a murder case, though he has been absolved of these cases.
But Sarma had the best record among Gogoi’s ministers in most departments, including health, he was asked to handle.
The veteran Congress leader had even underplayed the threat from Sarma. “My contest is only with (Narendra) Modi, no one else,” he said.
The Congress, which found it hard to fill the void Sarma’s exit created, knew underestimating him would be perilous. Thursday’s result underlined its worst fear.