Laying all speculations, debates and discussions to rest, the apparent tug of war between Sarbananda Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma came to a climax when the party high command with the support of the MLAs chose the latter to lead the state, allowing him to plant his flag of persistent perseverance in an overtly amicable political ambience on May 9, 2021.
The BJP-led Mitrajot returned to power for the second consecutive term in Assam, with a total of 75 seats, among which the BJP alone won 60 constituencies, making it the first non-Congress government to retain power, and one man shone above all – cycle rallies, foot rallies, car rallies, meeting after meeting, campaigning, sloganeering, shouting “Bharat Mata ki Jai” and revering the principal national leaders, wherever he went – Himanta Biswa Sarma galvanised the populace like a magnet promising development and progress. He became the ‘Mama’ promising youth empowerment and jobs on one hand and the flag bearer of work culture, his charisma being echoed by the song, “Ahise ahise Himanta ahise”, which became extremely popular among all sections of the state.
The campaign in Assam was no less than a one-man show. Two elderly gentlemen told us in Nalbari town, “When Dr Sarma came here for campaigning, people emptied the villages, taking gamosa and flowers to welcome him, all voluntarily”. Similarly, a group of ladies near Pobitora in the Jagiroad constituency told us that the incumbent MLA would come to power because of his own work but more so because of Himanta, who is like Lord Krishna, and everything happens according to his wishes.
In another incident, a group of youngsters in Rangia told us in a candid claim that the Congress could bounce back only if it could take Himanta back into their fold, or else it would die down. This speaks about the immense popularity of the people and his inevitability in the political scenario of Assam.
The BJP coming back to power and Himanta Biswa Sarma finally realising his dream of being the Chief Minister, both in name as well as responsibility, speaks of the realisation of the man’s ability to muster both people and MLAs, by the supreme leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party. This is something the Congress chose to ignore and ended up losing its very base in the North Eastern Region of India.
While the Congress party chose to ignore the demands and claims of the man, they started losing from both ends – on one hand, they lost the 2016 elections which led them into a dark well, as well as the support base of the magician called Himanta, who has a magic wand to turn any election in his favour.
The dissident force led by Himanta, consisting of 38 more MLAs who tendered their resignation along with him to the governor in July 2014 led to a situation where the Congress found itself bereft of a bandwagon of powerful, and energetic young leaders, who gradually shifted towards the Bharatiya Janata Party as Sarma led them. The main advantage of Sarma, even over Sarbananda Sonowal was that he had the support of most of the MLAs, and in fact, most of the MLA-elects belong to his band, who would support him at any cost, so as the decision to choose the Chief Minister fell over to the hands of the MLAs, it only became evident that he would emerge as the successful candidate!
The Congress accordingly performed poorly in the 2016 Assembly Elections while the BJP led alliance came to power in the state for the first time. Meanwhile, Sarma had joined the BJP in August 2015 and championed the cause of the party to victory.
While the Congress failed to realise that Sarma had become a formidable figure in the politics of Assam, the BJP took great advantage of the situation and banked on the mastery of Sarma to win elections and thereby emerged successful in establishing their base over the North East.
The selection of Sarma as the Chief Minister has revealed a strategically apt decision on the part of the BJP as this would both ensure the satisfaction of Sarma, the MLAs who are in his support and the public sentiment that undoubtedly wanted to see him at the topmost position in the state. The significance of Sarma increased manifold with the defeat of the BJP in West Bengal, where they had invested heavily in terms of all resources, but the show displayed by Mamata Bannerjee-led TMC probably made the BJP more conscious about maintaining their position in the North East, for which Sarma is both the game-maker and game-changer.
The political scene in Assam perhaps could have been different had the Congress leadership paid ear to what Himanta was demanding, back in 2014, as the party was in a safe position, coming back to power for a third consecutive term, and practically with no opposition. While 2014 saw the rise of the ‘Modi wave’ in the Indian context, in Assam perhaps the advent of the BJP could have been delayed, and the ‘wave’ could have been stalled, had the Congress acted then, as the BJP has acted now.
The author works as an Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Royal Global University.