A change of guard in Assam
When Himanta Biswa Sarma joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the run-up to the 2016 assembly polls, the party knew it had pulled off a coup. The chief lieutenant of the then Congress chief minister (CM) Tarun Gogoi, Mr Sarma brought in his own network of followers from the Congress, and deployed his understanding of the state and personal resources to pull off a victory. But there was clarity in the party that Sarbananda Sonowal, one of the faces of the anti-immigrant movement, would be CM— while Mr Sarma would have to pay his dues. After all, he was not from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-BJP stable, and under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, this has been an important parameter when it comes to selecting CMs.
But Mr Sarma soon became indispensable in enabling the party’s expansion across states in the region through electoral victories in Manipur and Tripura or stitching together coalitions in Nagaland and Meghalaya. This was supplemented by his political-administrative skills in Assam. By the time it was time for the 2021 elections, frustrated at the party leadership’s unwillingness to move him to the Centre, Mr Sarma decided he had paid his dues — and it was time to compete for leadership.
The BJP did not announce any name before the elections — to preserve the internal factional balance and incentivise all leaders to work hard for a victory first. But, on Sunday, the party decided Mr Sarma will be Assam’s new CM. This may be a recognition of his political skills, but he will confront two serious challenges. The first is Covid-19 management. During the campaign, it was wrong and irresponsible of Mr Sarma, who held the portfolio of health, to claim that there was no virus in Assam and undermine the value of mask-wearing. Mr Sarma must invest all energy now in beating back the second wave, and ask Assam to mask up. The second is restoring communal harmony in the state. During the campaign, in a bid to polarise and perhaps to show his ideological commitment, Mr Sarma deployed aggressive rhetoric against minorities. It is time to step back and lend a healing touch. Himanta Biswa Sarma has got his prize. Assam is waiting for its own.