BJP to win more seats in 2019 with Rahul Gandhi as opponent: Himanta Biswa Sarma
Himanta Biswa Sarma also says the BJP will win 19-20 of the 25 seats on offer in the northeast in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.india Updated: Mar 24, 2018 08:54 IST
Himanta Biswa Sarma, 49, is the face of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the north-east and widely credited with expanding the party’s footprint in the region, where it formed governments in Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya this month after winning the February assembly elections. In an interview with R Sukumar and Shishir Gupta, Sarma, who quit the Congress in 2015, discussed his party’s performance in recent elections and its strategy for the region, prospects in 2019, and the difference between the Congress and the BJP. Edited excerpts:
Mizoram goes to polls later this year and the BJP’s prospects do not seem very strong there. What are your plans for these polls?
In Mizoram also, there is a strong chance of an anti-Congress government and BJP will contribute towards the formation of that government, but as of now, we are consolidating our own organisation. But I can tell you that there will be a non-Congress government.
So the Congress will be left with no presence in the north-east?
See, out of eight states, as of now, Congress is holding just the one, only Mizoram. I am confident that will also go by November.
Normally, it is very difficult for someone who comes from the Congress to adjust and find space in a cadre-based party such as the BJP. How have you managed it?
I don’t think Congress people join the BJP out of ideological reasons. They do because they have issues with the party, or they have been humiliated, or they feel that they are not recognised. Or if there are some serious issues that are not resolved by the party high command. So they join the BJP or other parties hoping that their issues, both individual and organisational, can be resolved. Before I joined BJP, I took a year off. I analysed the issues. Then I joined (BJP) — without any conditions, or any bargaining. So, in my case it was not that I didn’t get a ticket (to contest elections) or that I wasn’t in a good position and therefore joined the BJP.
When I realised that I could not work with Rahul Gandhi, I opened my mind, started talking to BJP, and when I was convinced that my way of working and thinking found a match in the BJP, then I joined.
How difficult was it, for someone who was then the heart and soul of the Congress in the region, to deal with Ram Madhav (the BJP’s overall strategist for the region then) who came from the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh)?
I knew Ram Madhav from 2014. I joined the BJP in 2015 August. In this period we spent many hours together discussing various issues.
Because of my position in the Congress, I had all along, in my state and region, worked with the Sangh, and also people from the BJP because most of them were my colleagues from my AASU (All Assam Students Union) days. So it was not a big thing for me. But I do understand why some Congress leaders find it difficult — because the Congress culture and the BJP culture are very different.
But in the north-east, in general, whoever has joined the BJP from the Congress, has done well and are in the mainstream.
Why is that? Is it that it is easier for strong regional leaders to survive in the BJP than the Congress?
Let me be honest. In Delhi, BJP has a full-fledged organisation. No vacuum exists. In the north-east, BJP is a growing party and there is a lot of space. Me and my colleagues who joined (BJP) found space immediately. Another thing is that (party president) Amit Shah takes great care. He keeps telling me “Himanta, you should give respect to those you have got into the party.”
If you are joining with the blessings of Amit Shah, or he is somehow involved, you are sure to be respected, to find space. In Tripura also, he ensured that.
Can you elaborate on how the Congress culture is different from the BJP one?
As Mrs Sonia Gandhi strengthened her hold over the Congress over the past 20 years, the culture changed. Loyalty to party was replaced by loyalty to family. Now Rahul Gandhi has created another system — he seems to believe and listen to only those people whose father or grandfather worked with his father or grandmother. Even in Manipur, they are promoting a young man because his father was a minister under Rajiv Gandhi. The first generation leader has no importance.
In BJP, they respect state leadership. For instance, there has to be an Election Committee meeting and at least two names have to be discussed (for choice of candidates). There are clearly defined powers for the president of the party. Or the general secretary.
My interface with Prime Minister Modi is limited because he does not get involved in party affairs, but even after all these victories, I have seen Amit Shah only wants to strengthen these democratic structures. For instance, most of the senior leaders of the party were consulted before we finalised the partnership in Tripura.
Then there are small differences. For instance, even senior leaders like Tarun Gogoi couldn’t go beyond the visitors room of the Congress president. I joined the BJP and was straightaway dining with Amit Shah in his dining room.
If there is a family function or personal bereavement, you always hear from BJP leaders. I recently lost my brother — the Prime Minister spoke to me; sent a letter to my mother; Amit Shah spoke to me; visited me on his next visit to Assam. There is a lot of personal warmth.
I think the Congress still believes in feudalism but one or two more election defeats and they will open up.
BJP has done well in the north-east. Does this impact the elections in West Bengal or Orissa?
To crack the north-east — many are Christian states; there are a lot of Muslims in some — is more difficult than other states given the ideology of the BJP. But our wins in the north-east are a huge lesson for any political party. Previously, the BJP’s thinking was to say, “In Assam, the AGP (Asom Gana Parishad) and we share a common vote bank so we should fight AGP.”
Similarly, in Tripura, it was, “TMC (Trinamool Congress) and us share a vote bank so let us fight TMC.” That changed when Amit Shah took over, and subsequently Ram Madhav got involved, and I joined the party, we clearly demarcated who our enemy was. “Is the regional party our enemy?” The answer is “No”.
So we decided to leave regional parties with their vote banks. We have an unofficial code of conduct — for instance, we don’t take senior leaders from these parties into the BJP. Then, we took their help, and with them, our organisation worked overtime to ensure that the Congress vote bank came to the BJP. So, today, in the north-east, the regional parties are holding their own but we have decimated the Congress.
Will this work in West Bengal also?
I think the party president will follow the same approach in West Bengal also. In West Bengal, the TMC is there, but there are also a lot of Congress leaders who are not happy. They are holding onto a good number of votes in their own constituency. Then there are also many other parties and interested groups that you can bring under the overall umbrella of the BJP in that state. In the north-east, there was no ideological expansion. But there was a clear political decision involving regional parties — “You hold onto your own vote and we will take on the Congress.” That worked for the regional parties. We are replacing the Congress in the north-east without affecting regional parties. Since I joined BJP, and since Amit Shah and Ram Madhav started focusing on the region, not one regional party leader has joined BJP.
This is working now, but if you build your party without ideological expansion in the region, what is the glue that will hold everyone together a few years later?
Actually, what is BJP’s ideology? Nation building, development. So local parties aren’t opposed to this. But they want the region to get priority. You see what RSS is doing. It said in its recent resolution that regional language should get priority in schools. And the BJP also respects regional feelings. So I don’t see any issue.
So, there needn’t be a 100% ideological fit?
That should never be forced because India is a diverse country. For instance, in Nagaland, you must give the local partner enough political space to say something to the Naga. Similarly in Assam, or Manipur. So in Manipur your local interests are Manipuri but your larger national agenda is the same. There has to be blending. In the north-east this is working.
Well, in truth, you have to do this everywhere, not just the north-east, don’t you?
That’s right. I think the north-east can be a good template. Wherever there is a strong regional feeling, like in the southern states, don’t attack these.
There are 25 Lok Sabha seats in the North-East. How many are you targeting in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?
We will have 19-20 seats. This isn’t a target — but a done deal. We have eight of these now. Eight will go to 19-20 easily. Twenty-one is the cut -off. But of course, for this, our governments in the region will have to perform in the next one year.
Are you doing well, in terms of governance, in Assam?
Yes, although I wouldn’t say that people are 100% satisfied. We have a lot to do, but things are going on in right earnest. Central government has signed off on most of the developmental projects. The Indo-Bangladesh border fencing is on. A good environment has been created.
The registry in Assam (of citizens to separate genuine residents of the state and illegal Bangladeshi immigrants) has gone off well until now?
As of now, but the second list will come by June 30, and we are expecting that it won’t be as smooth as the first one, which everyone knew was a draft. In the second list, there may be some whose names are not there. But a repeated opportunity is being given to everyone. And if their name is not there are forums for redressal.
How do you see 2019?
In a national election, the fight has to be between the Congress and the BJP. In a by-election, sure, regional parties are important; in state elections, regional parties matter. But in a national election, the people will choose between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. It can’t be anybody else. And I think Narendra Modi will get more seats than in 2014, because the contest now is not between Narendra Modi and Manmohan Singh. It is between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi.