Its mission to turn Assam saffron achieved with help from regional partners, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now faces a teamwork challenge to run its alliance government smoothly.
Assam is a complex state with a difficult terrain, four official languages – Assamese, Bengali, Bodo and English – and pockets of diverse ethnic, religious and linguistic groups that have had a history of conflicts.
Some commentators have said BJP’s main hurdle would be to unite disparate indigenous and Indian settler groups in its avowed fight against illegal migrants aka Bangladeshis.
But party insiders feel Sarbananda Sonowal, as chief minister, would have to be on his toes dealing with allies Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), and Himanta Biswa Sarma, an import from Congress who delivered as BJP’s poll manager.
Sonowal, 53, and Sarma, 47, began their socio-political career with the influential All Assam Students’ Union (AASU). But while Sonowal led the students’ body, Sarma was more of an errand boy before former Congress CM Hiteswar Saikia brought him to the party ahead of the 1996 polls. Both Sonowal and Sarma are law graduates.
Sarma took eight years to rise in the Congress, becoming CM Tarun Gogoi’s second-in-command after the party’s first of three consecutive electoral wins in 2001. His climb in the BJP has been phenomenally faster – nine months since joining the party in August 2015 after falling out with Gogoi over a leadership tussle.
Addressing the media after the BJP-led alliance bagged 86 seats on Thursday, Sonowal thanked Sarma almost as an afterthought. “You should not read much into it,” a senior party leader said, admitting one could not expect the former Gogoi protégé, more experienced in state politics than the older Sonowal, to be content with the number two slot for long.
“If the BJP is thinking long-term, it should be sincere in addressing the issues that matter most to the people of Assam and implementing its vision document. Everything else will fall in place,” political commentator Dileep Chandan told HT.
The BJP leadership has indicated it wants Sarma to focus on a bigger agenda – use Assam as the base to give the party a firm foothold in seven other north-eastern states.
Sonowal also has management of allies to think of.
AGP’s founder-president and former CM Prafulla Kumar Mahanta had, before the results, reminded Sonowal he was the BJP’s CM candidate, not of the alliance. And the BPF, interested more in a package for Bodoland Territorial Council, comprising four western and north-central districts, has a better equation with Sarma than Sonowal.
While in Congress, Sarma was instrumental in forging the Congress-BPF alliance government in 2006. The Congress that year had won 53 seats, 11 short of the majority mark.
“This (Sonowal-Sarma gelling) is in the domain of speculations. We trust our central leadership to handle any situation,” a BJP leader said, declining to be quoted.
Sarbananda Sonowal, 54
- Was president of All Assam Students’ Union from 1992-1999
- Joined Asom Gana Parishad in 1999 and was party MP from 2004-2009
- Was anointed ‘jatiya nayak’ (national hero) after the Supreme Court, hearing his petition, scrapped a contentious pro-migrants act in July 2005
- Joined BJP in 2011 and made state president a year later. Helped party win seven of 14 Lok Sabha seats in 2014
- Led BJP to an unprecedented victory in the just-concluded assembly elections
Himanta Biswa Sarma, 47
- Was a member of AASU and general secretary of an affiliate
- Joined Congress before the 1996 assembly polls
- Won first assembly contest in 2001 and rose through the ranks to be an influential minister in Tarun Gogoi’s cabinet
- Steered Congress’ poll campaign till 2011 but fell out with Gogoi and quit after a failed rebellion
- Joined BJP in August 2015 and piloted the poll strategy to help party sweep Mandate-2016 with help from two regional allies