Assam: The phenomenon called Himanta Biswa Sarma
As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) convincingly won a second term in Assam, one man has had a preponderant influence: Himanta Biswa Sarma, or “HBS” as he’s known. Never low key, the 52-year-old political star’s résumé seems to suggest he believes the meek shall not inherit the Earth.
HBS is the most high-profile minister in the incumbent Sarbananda Sonowal government, with meaty portfolios: finance, planning and development, health and family welfare, education and PWD. He’s perched atop the commanding heights of the state’s politics and policy.
But it goes back many years before that. As a student leader, HBS had a reputation of wading into local battles. He is a product of the sub-nationalist movement against Bangladeshi immigrants, having been a member of the All Assam Students’ Union.
When the Congress disastrously sidelined HBS after he fell out with his mentor, the late chief minister Tarun Gogoi in 2015, the BJP gave him a wild-card entry. The BJP was struggling to build a patchwork of alliance in the Northeast, with Assam as the staging point.
HBS outshone his Cabinet colleagues even as a Congress minister during Gogoi’s three-term stint. He soon got down to work, hatching an elaborate plan to defeat the Congress government, which he did.
Back as a BJP minister in 2016, HBS was also made the convener of the North East Development Alliance (NEDA), a BJP-led political front to bring regional northeastern parties into the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s fold.
HBS successfully plotted a BJP coup in Arunachal Pradesh, upstaging the Congress. He toppled the Congress, the single largest party in Manipur, stitching up a BJP-led alliance in 2017. He cut political deals leading to a non-Congress government in Meghalaya too. In Nagaland, HBS was instrumental in making rival fronts, the Naga People’s Front and the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, tie up with the BJP.
Mild-mannered, HBS has a way with subtle sarcasm. At times, he can explode.
When still in Congress in 2014, HBS had publicly attacked Modi, famously telling an election rally that the “blood of Muslims flows through water pipes of Gujarat” ( a reference to the 2002 riots).
HBS ensured the uprising against the Citizenship Amendment Act was effectively neutralised. A raft of welfare schemes, such as cash transfer for women, and a well-managed response to the Covid pandemic with HBS at the helm, played a big role in the BJP’s win.
His stamp on Assam’s improved public healthcare provisioning is unmistakable, having established a string of district-level medical colleges (Jorhat, Barpeta, Tezpur, Diphu, Nagaon, Dhubri, North Lakhimpur and Kokrajhar).
HBS took to a polarising discourse to counter the anti-CAA sentiment, asking voters to recognise who the “civilisational enemy was”, a reference to Muslim immigrants and the cleric politician, Badruddin Ajmal, who tied up with the Congress. “Do we need madrassas or do we need medical colleges?” HBS asked from the dais at a poll rally in March.
HBS went to great lengths explaining that Hindu Bengali immigrants being given citizenship were not a threat to Assam’s culture, but argued the Assamese would be swamped by Muslim immigrants.
HBS balances this divisive side with public work that has tended to benefit all communities. In the middle of the Covid-19 second wave, he jump-started an oxygen plant in one of Guwahati’s largest public hospitals in no time, something Delhi has failed to do so far.