Himanta Biswa Sarma: From BJP’s key strategist in northeast to Assam CM

As a seasoned politician, Himanta Biswa Sarma never made his ambitions for the top post public.
The 52-year-old Himanta Biswa Sarma has been a key figure in Assam’s politics for two decades now.(PTI)
The 52-year-old Himanta Biswa Sarma has been a key figure in Assam’s politics for two decades now.(PTI)
Updated on May 10, 2021 06:08 AM IST
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ByUtpal Parashar, Hindustan Times, Guwahati

Ever since he joined the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government in 2001 as a minister after his first electoral victory, Himanta Biswa Sarma was always seen by many as someone who would reach the chief minister’s chair in due course.

On Sunday, that expectation came true as Sarma pipped incumbent Sarbananda Sonowal to be unanimously selected as the legislature party leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which secured 60 seats in the recently concluded assembly polls to return to power in Assam for a second consecutive term.

As a seasoned politician, Sarma never made his ambitions for the top post public. But ever since he quit the Congress cabinet of Gogoi in 2015 after differences with the CM over purportedly promoting his son Gaurav, the perception was strong that he joined the BJP in order to fulfil his political goals.

Sonowal led the BJP to an electoral victory, but the BJP high command had to give the CM’s chair to Sarma as he was the one who galvanised mass support for the party and also had the support of two-third of the new BJP legislators, people in the party with knowledge of the matter said.

The 52-year-old has been a key figure in Assam’s politics for two decades now. But Sarma, who joined the BJP six years ago, has had a meteoric rise in the saffron party and his influence is not restricted to Assam but seen across the region.

Also read | Himanta Biswa Sarma to take over as next Assam chief minister

Sarma’s political acumen and oratorical skills played a key role in the BJP winning 60 of the total 126 seats in 2016 and forming the party’s first government in Assam with alliance partners Asom Gana Parishad and Bodoland Peoples’ Front. Despite being new to the party, Sarma was given four crucial departments -- health, education, finance and public works -- in the Sonowal cabinet.

As convener of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), a BJP-led front of anti-Congress parties in the North-east, Sarma shares a close rapport with senior politicians in all seven states of the region. His role was crucial in the BJP forming governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura and becoming part of the ruling coalition in Nagaland and Meghalaya.

Sarma hasn’t had a clean slate and there were accusations about his involvement in the Louis Berger scam and the Saradha Group fraud scheme. But he has been able to override them and play a key role in the BJP, a party that once targeted him on these accusations.

Over the past five years, Sarma has made a mark beyond the region and become a known face across the country -- a traditional rarity for politicians from the North-east. He is consulted by the BJP leadership for any issue concerning Assam and the region and more often than not, his suggestions are accepted.

Due to his position in the Assam cabinet and in NEDA, Sarma’s stature grew to such extent that he was sometimes mistaken by some from outside the region as the CM instead of Sonowal. An astute politician, Sarma never tried to compete with Sonowal for the top post and there is a cordial relationship between the two, at least in public.

In 2019, ahead of the general elections, Sarma had indicated his intentions to leave state politics and shift base to New Delhi, where he could play a bigger role. But the BJP leadership decided against it. However, in a rare gesture, then BJP president Amit Shah issued a statement that the party needed Sarma’s services in the poll campaign in the North-east and could not afford to have him restricted to just one seat.

Sarma has been representing the Jalukbari seat continuously since 2001 and this time, too, the party gave him the ticket from the seat. With the BJP high command not projecting a CM face for this election, rumours were abound that Sarma could be given that role.

Sarma has been the brain behind most of the social welfare schemes of the Sonowal government such as 830 per month to 2.2 million households and cash incentives and grants to various sections of society. But his role as health minister in the past year, when he supervised setting up of large Covid care centres, boosting infrastructure at hospitals and personally visiting quarantine centres to keep tabs on care being provided to those infected have earned him headlines as well as admiration even from his critics.

For this election, Sarma specifically targeted the Congress and its alliance partner All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the two main opposition parties in Assam which formed a grand alliance along with former BJP ally Bodoland Peoples Front.

Terming the AIUDF as an important factor in this election, Sarma accused its chief, perfume baron and Lok Sabha MP Badruddin Ajmal, as being the enemy of Assam and Assamese culture. He has openly stated that the BJP doesn’t need votes of ‘miyas’ (Bengali-speaking Muslims from erstwhile East Pakistan).

Besides politics and governance, Sarma is interested in sports and is an author. He has penned four books till date, the latest released in February ahead of the assembly polls. He is also the president of the Badminton Association of India (BAI).

Sarma’s wife Riniki Bhuyan Sarma is the chairperson and managing director of Pride East Entertainment that owns several TV channels, a daily newspaper and a magazine. The couple has a son and daughter.

“Sarma’s elevation to the CM’s post was coming for some time and he was working towards it by delivering the goods for the party time and again. He already had a stronghold in the BJP and over time, managed to become a brand himself that cuts across party and community lines,” Kaustubh Deka, professor of political science in Dibrugarh University, said.

“After the poll debacle in West Bengal, the BJP leadership realized the importance of having strong regional leaders and also listen to local voices. That’s the reason why instead of imposing a leader, it decided to go with ground realities and even override the so-called opposition by RSS to Sarma’s elevation to the top post,” he added.

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Thursday, December 02, 2021