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Assam minister and North-East Democratic Alliance convenor Himanta Biswa Sarma
Assam minister and North-East Democratic Alliance convenor Himanta Biswa Sarma|File image
OPINION

Is the BJP panicking in Assam?

Never before in Indian political history, a ruling party has replaced 70% of its sitting MPs with new ones to contest the elections

Mrinal Talukdar

Mrinal Talukdar

With a membership that is supposed to be over 25 lakh, with 70% Panchayat seats under them and nearly 90 members in the 126-strong Assam Assembly, besides the election juggernaut that has promised to wipe out and uproot everyone on the way, the BJP is supposed to be a rock-solid powerful party in Assam.

But as the ticket distribution process is well underway, it is quite apparent for every ordinary voter that the BJP is panicking.

Otherwise, the party top bosses do not change five of the seven MPs of Assam. Never before in Indian political history, in any part of the country, a ruling party has changed 70% of their sitting MPs. No one actually expected the BJP to panic during ticket distribution as everything was looking very rosy for them. But in the end, they were the shakiest.

Even the state party bosses think the poll will be a cakewalk. But the problem is that the Central leadership does not agree and as per the internal surveys conducted discreetly by the party bosses, every report suggested a tough fight and suggested an alliance with the AGP.

Everybody expected a corporate-style ticket distribution, smooth unrolling of BJP election machine and then the romp back home with greater arrogance.

But the BJP panicked in such a way and changed their generals in such absurdity that it stunned. Nowhere in India, 70% of the sittings MPs have been dumped, raising eyebrows about the BJP's tall claims about the strength of the party.

During the ticket distribution process, the hollowness of the BJP was quite evident that in six out of ten seats they are contesting they could not come on any unanimity. There was so much of chaos that BJP kept changing names till the last moment and in fact tried to give tickets to wives and proxies, which were shot down by the party bosses.

The internal strife came out in open when one senior MLA was manhandled by another senior BJP leader in front of a powerful minister inside the Assam House.

Himanta humiliated

But the man who took the maximum hit is Himanta Biswa Sarma, the go-to man for the BJP in the entire Northeast. With one swift strike, the BJP threw the long rope, exploited him and his deep pocket beside the network, but did not allow him to go to Delhi.

Sarma, on the other hand, bade farewell from Assam unofficially, self-nominated him in Tezpur Lok Sabha constituency and sent his name to the Central Election Committee (CEC) as the single contender only to be shot down, which assigned him the Northeast in charge of the Lok Sabha election.

Sarma’s great plan was to go to New Delhi and then get a plum ministry, work in national-level politics for two years and then come back as the chief minister of the state for 2021.

But the CEC did not give two hoots to bring down the high-flying Sarma, much to his humiliation and his supporters.

Ram Madhav proximity hit Himanta hard

The proximity of Ram Madhav has hit Himanta Biswa Sarma hard in the ticket selection process, as the former does not enjoy pink of the relationship with the top duo of the BJP.

The BJP high command was not happy to see Sarma’s name as a sole candidate for Tezpur and, after snubbing him mildly, put him as an in-charge of Northeast.

But everyone was asking the question of how come this could happen? Why did Sarma’s name come before the CEC without getting the green signal of the party’s high command?

The cat was let out of the bag by the BJP state president when he announced that it was done at the instruction of Ram Madhav who in turn informed the state party bosses that the Central Election Committee had given the green signal.

Actually, the CEC was in complete darkness about Sarma’s game plan through Ram Madhav.

This is well known in the BJP inner circles that Ram Madhav maintains a frosty relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Ram Madhav is not even an MP, although he is in charge of Jammu & Kashmir and Northeast India.

But within the state BJP, Sarma’s exclusion has stirred up a hornet’s nest as the majority of his supporters are demoralised as none of his core supporters got Lok Sabha tickets, as his boss Sarbananda Sonowal coolly snatched majority of the tickets for his supporters.

But that was not the end. There is more bad news for him in store.

Sonowal out-manoeuvres Himanta in ticket distribution

As the BJP's ticket distribution process has taken a shape in the entire Northeast, it has slowly emerged that chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal has outmanoeuvred Himanta Biswa Sarma completely and pocketed nine out of the 10 seats making Sarma a fool of himself.

Such was the masterstroke, long after the selection was over and put in the file of Amit Shah for the final signature, it dawned on everyone's mind on what is the actual power centre of Assam.

Unlike the popular perception, Sarma could not manage any of his choices in the ticket distribution. In almost all the seats, his choices were denied.

In Diphu, he wanted the wife of Tuli Ram Ronghang but it was given to Haren Singh Bey. In Mangaldoi, he wanted Jayanta Malla Barua but was given to Dilip Saikia. He himself was denied ticket in Tezpur. In Guwahati, although he openly did not back anyone, Queen Ojha is known to belong to the Sarbananda Sonowal camp from the AASU days.

Things are not going as Sarma has been planning. Here is a full list of candidates announced by the BJP in Assam along with the camp that they belong to:

1. Lakhimpur: Pradan Barua (Himanta Biswa Sarma)

2. Dibrugarh: Rameshwar Teli (Sarbananda Sonowal)

3. Jorhat: Tapan Gogoi (Sarbananda Sonowal)

4. Tezpur: Pallab Lochan Das (Himanta Biswa Sarma)

5. Nagaon: To be announced

6. Guwahati: Queen Ojha (Sarbananda Sonowal)

7. Diphu: Haren Singh Bey (Sarbananda Sonowal)

8. Mangaldoi: Dilip Ranjan Saikia (Sarbananda Sonowal)

9. Karimganj: Kripanath Mallah (Sarbananda Sonowal)

10. Silchar: Rajdeep Roy (Sarbananda Sonowal)

The complete sidelining of Himanta Biswa Sarma in the Lok Sabha ticket distribution system and still making him the head of the party for elections in the Northeast has only reassured the strong belief that the BJP is out to exploit Sarma’s vulnerability.

"I know this party for so long. This party will take everything from you and then cut you in size. It took everything from Himanta Biswa Sarma and then he was humiliated at the time of ticket distribution. This is not the way one should treat a person of his stature who had given so much to the party in the last 36 months. What is BJP today in the Northeast is only for his untiring and solitary effort," said Meera Barthakur, a Himanta confidante who has been having long run-ins with the state BJP bosses.

Vacuum of leadership

The central leadership has rightly understood that although the BJP came to power in 2016 with the borrowed leadership doctrine, when the AGP and the Congress leadership was taken in, in the last 28 months, the BJP did not develop leadership and brought the party to the domains of a few individuals.

The high command was shocked as the same name of Jayanta Malla Barua, Tapan Gogoi and even Pallab Lochan Das came for reckoning both as MLAs and MPs exposing that either the BJP had no bench strength or the state leadership is under the grip of a few individuals.

But the man of the moment is CM Sarbananda Sonowal. Call it luck or his suave politics, the Lok Sabha election has made him stronger for the moment, making Himanta Biswa Sarma the loser.

But not all agree. While Himanta loyalists are frustrated, some in the Congress camp feels that post-election, Sarma will be made the chief minister of Assam, while Sonowal shall be rehabilitated.

But for Sarma, it is a catch-22 position. Post humiliation, he cannot go slow as he has been entrusted to give 21 of the 25 seats from the Northeast. "You can take it in writing from me," he used to tell all of us in casual conversations. But post the ticket distribution mess, will Sarma maintain the same statement?

No doubt the BJP is going to get a maximum number of seats. But the unusual ticket distribution in Assam may give some anxious moments to the BJP and unexpectedly the Congress-AIUDF are back in the game as angry staunch AGP supporters are going to "honour killing" to end the AGP in Lok Sabha poll and in the process making collateral damage to the BJP also.

NEDA is in a shambles

The BJP’s much vaunted North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) is in a shambles as almost all of its constituents, barring Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), are fighting on their own in their home turf.

Led by the National People’s Party (NPP), Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) and Mizo National Front (MNF), the three dominant ruling powers of Meghalaya, Sikkim and Mizoram, respectively, various constituents are going on their own.

This has cost Sarma’s dream of going to Parliament and becoming a Union minister as he has now been entrusted by the BJP’s top leadership to take care of the NEDA as its convenor.

Almost every constituent does not want to be seen very close to the BJP. In Meghalaya, Donkupar Roy's United Democratic Party (UDP) and the IPTF in Tripura have decided to put up their own candidates.

The biggest blow came from the NPP and Meghalaya chief minister Conrad K Sangma. He has been working with a vengeance to expand the party’s base outside of his own state of Meghalaya.

This has created further panic for the BJP, as they would like to present NEDA as a pre-election ally rather than post-poll. Especially for this, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav and Himanta Biswa Sarma have been given the responsibility to stitch together the NEDA.

Accordingly, a meeting was convened in Guwahati on March 12, but the majority of the constituents have already opened their shops to taste the water instead of coming together and fighting as NEDA.

(The author is a senior journalist and writer. Views expressed are his own)