His name means universal happiness, and his surname is derived from his tribe – Sonowal Kachari, once known for extracting ‘son’ or gold from riverbeds.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi banked on Sarbananda Sonowal, 53, to strike gold for the BJP in the 2016 assembly elections in Assam and bring cheer for the party after successive electoral setbacks in Delhi and Bihar. Sonowal did, and in the process saved both Modi and the BJP chief Amit Shah some blushes.
Of the four states and a union territory that went to the polls simultaneously, Assam offered the best chances for the BJP. The party moved in for the kill after welcoming Congress dissidents led by Himant Biswa Sarma – a proven poll manager – but knew its limitations and forged alliances with the Bodo People’s Front (BPF) and the Asom Gana Parisad (AGP), the latter having been the Congress’ main rival since 1985.
But the masterstroke was in projecting Union minister for youth affairs and sports, Sonowal, as the chief ministerial candidate. Sonowal is a tribal who has connected with the mainstream Assamese and, after joining BJP, among non-Muslim settlers. This is crucial in a state where tribal aspirations have led to statehood movements and creation of autonomous tribal councils.
Like most non-Congress leaders in Assam, Sonowal’s political career was shaped in the All Assam Students’ Union that had led a six-year agitation against illegal migrants, mainly Bangladeshis. But his seven-year stint as the union’s president until 1999 – the year he joined AGP – was fairly uneventful.
He was elected the AGP’s legislator from eastern Assam’s Moran constituency in 2001. He then contested and won the Dibrugarh Lok Sabha seat in 2004. His biggest political victory came a year later when the Supreme Court, hearing his petition, scrapped the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act of 1983 that allegedly was loaded in favour of migrants.
Sonowal returned home a ‘jatiyanayak’ (national hero) but that did not make him rise in the AGP. In 2011, he joined the BJP and began expanding the party’s base. He broke into the big league after winning the Lakhimpur Lok Sabha seat in 2014 and becoming a minister in the Modi government. It marked the transformation of a regionalist into a nationalist.
Modi, while campaigning in Assam, called Sonowal a ‘diamond’. He glittered, winning the Majuli constituency – the epicentre of Vaishnavite Assamese culture – and much of the state for BJP.
When he is sworn in, Sonowal will be the second tribal chief minister after Jogen Hazarika, also a Sonowal Kachari who had a 94-day stint in 1979.
Agenda for Sonowal:
- Safeguard the interests of indigenous communities against ‘expansionist’ illegal migrants.
- Deliver on the BJP promise to deal with the Bangladeshi issue once and for all.
- Ensure development, better connectivity and job opportunities.
- Help BJP expand to other north-eastern states using Assam as base; Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland already have governments by regional allies.
- Keep allies in good humour and check leadership tussle from within.
- Weaken the Congress in Assam, in keeping with BJP’s pan-India objective.