Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi believes only Prime Minister Narendra Modi stands in the way of his fourth straight term in power.
But even ruling Congress leaders hint that winning the imminent assembly elections depends upon how Gogoi outwits former second-in-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, pradesh 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 for the party since 2001.
Gogoi depended heavily on Sarma, who allegedly helped the former finish competition within by ensuring the loss of 22 senior Congress leaders in the 2006 polls. The Congress won 53 seats – 11 short of simple majority in the 126-member assembly – that year, but Sarma had stitched up an alliance with BPF to enable Gogoi to rule again.
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 the machinations the Congress fears Sarma could be up to. “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.
The BJP lost no time in appointing Sarma the convener of its election management committee, though it did not go down well with many senior leaders. From the party point of view, it paid dividends: Sarma helped BJP win two Manipur assembly seats in the bye-election last year and wrest two tribal councils in Assam.
“The Congress reclaimed the Dima Hasao Autonomous Council after three months, but we prevented the party from siphoning off Rs 150-200crore from tribal funds for covering election expenses,” a state BJP general secretary said.
Sarma also played a key role in getting BPF aboard the BJP poll ship.
The BJP knows Sarma needs to be handled with care, “but fighting this election with him is better than fighting him by anticipating his moves”.
But Congress says Sarma is more dangerous as a friend than an enemy. “We will prove sceptics wrong by winning once again. I won’t be surprised if we form the government without help from others,” Gogoi said.