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Why Himanta Biswa Sarma as CM Can Hugely Change Assam Politics

Besides a revised NRC, Himanta’s appointment could change equations with the Opposition and even within BJP.

Updated
Politics
7 min read
Himanta Biswa Sarma
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Himanta Biswa Sarma on Monday, 10 May, became the 10th Chief Minister of Assam and second from the Bharatiya Janata Party. Sarma got the post after the NDA's win in the recent Assembly elections, which was followed by a leadership struggle within the BJP between him and Sarbananda Sonowal, who was CM from 2016 to 2021.

There are several factors that made the BJP top brass choose Sarma over Sonowal:

  1. Arm-twisting by Sarma, who enjoyed the support of a majority of MLAs besides his clout as the NDA's North East convenor
  2. Sarma's greater pro-Hindutva credentials compared to Sonowal
  3. A reward for his hard work, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and the elections

Here are more details on what led to this decision.

But the real story begins now. Sarma as CM is likely to change Assam's political landscape, for good or bad is a different matter entirely. This article will try to look at what the possible changes could be.

NRC and CAA

Himanta Biswa Sarma has been consistent in his view against the current National Register of Citizens (NRC) list. Though it isn't said in as many words, many in the BJP camp were angry with the NRC list because of the comparatively higher number of Hindus and lower number of Muslims than they expected.

In his first press conference, Sarma said that his government will re-verify the NRC.

It is possible that the criteria might be tweaked and a partially revised NRC exercise initiated, now that Himanta is at the helm.

A related issue is the Citizenship Amendment Act. Himanta has openly spoken about the need to "rehabilitate Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh" in Assam, inviting the ire of anti-CAA activists.

Sonowal has consistently been much more diplomatic on the issue and tried to keep Assamese nationalists opposed to the CAA, in good humour.

Therefore, Himanta could expedite this process of rehabilitation of Bangladeshi Hindus, even if it means greater confrontation with Assamese civil society.

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Personality and Style of Working

In terms of personality and political methods, Himanta is very different from Sonowal.

Sonowal had a largely non-confrontational approach and was known as someone who could build consensus and maintain diverse coalitions.

"His biggest asset is his ability to not appear as a threat to people around him. This helped him rise," a senior BJP leader told this reporter about Sonowal during the Assam elections.

"Himanta on the other hand is ruthless. If he's against you, he makes it extremely clear. 'Don't mess with me' is his clear message," the leader continued.

Himanta Biswa Sarma has a very different style of functioning from his predecessor Sarbananda Sonowal. 
Himanta Biswa Sarma has a very different style of functioning from his predecessor Sarbananda Sonowal. 
(Photo: Anjana Dutta)

Two things add to this "ruthless" image — the clout Himanta wields and his image of being a extremely efficient.

Himanta’s clout became clear when he forced the BJP leadership not to declare a CM candidate during the elections, despite Sonowal being a reasonably popular incumbent.

Then in ticket selection, he is known to have completely bulldozed his way through. As a result, a majority of BJP MLAs were in his support and Sonowal could barely manage a dozen.

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But what is also significant is the clout Himanta enjoys outside of the BJP — in Opposition parties, the media, and among business houses operating in Assam.

It wouldn’t be surprising if a personality cult emerges in Assam around Himanta Biswa Sarma.

The media, both national and regional, played a major role in promoting Himanta even when Sonowal was CM. His wife being a media baron is of course one aspect. But even in many other media outlets, Himanta commands a great deal of support.

Now with Himanta becoming the undisputed leader of the BJP in Assam, it wouldn't be surprising if this moves towards the creation of a personality cult around him, not very different from what happened with Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Rules of Engagement With the Opposition

The rules of engagement with other political parties and even within the BJP are likely to change with Himanta in charge.

1. Congress

The Congress in particular would need to be careful as Himanta is known to have a fair share of loyalists within its ranks, given his long association with the party.

During the elections, there was speculation that Himanta could split the Congress after the elections if the NDA fell short of the halfway mark.

Some also alleged that Sarma had fielded weak candidates against some Congress leaders with whom he shares a good equation.

Himanta has a fair share of loyalists within the Congress. This could make the party vulnerable to defections.

Being out of power for yet another term is difficult for any party and the Congress in Assam would be no exception. This would make it vulnerable to poach from the BJP. Even in the BJP's first term, Congress lost a number of MLAs to defections, many of them supposedly at Sarma's behest.

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2. Regional Parties and AASU

Sarma is a known antagonist for the newly-formed regional parties like Assam Jatiya Parishad, Raijor Dal, and Anchalik Gana Morcha, which came into being in the aftermath of the anti-CAA protests in Assam.

Jailed Raijor Dal president Akhil Gogoi, the sole non-NDA, non-UPA candidate to win in the elections, is known to harbour a deep dislike for Sarma.

Despite being from an AASU background, in the 90s Sarma fell out with the organisation and joined hands with Hiteshwar Saika, the then Congress Chief Minister of Assam and a major antagonist in the eyes of AASU.

Sarma's style of functioning is to a great extent in the Hiteshwar Saikia mould. Saikia too had the reputation of being an efficient, 24-hour politician, and one who could eliminate political threats by any means necessary.

This is likely to put Sarma in collision course with the regional organisations, especially those who were part of the anti-CAA protests.

Anti-CAA activists Akhil Gogoi, Pranab Doley, and Lurinjyoti Gogoi contested in the upcoming Assembly elections in Assam. Akhil Gogoi won from Sibsagar. 
Anti-CAA activists Akhil Gogoi, Pranab Doley, and Lurinjyoti Gogoi contested in the upcoming Assembly elections in Assam. Akhil Gogoi won from Sibsagar. 
(Kamran Akhter/The Quint)

Sarma's desire to politically eliminate this threat can be seen from the fact that during the elections, he deployed his closest aide Taranga Gogoi to contest against Assam Jatiya Parishad chief Lurinjyoti Gogoi from Naharkatia. Taranga won, Lurinjyoti came third.

3. Bodoland People's Front

The results showed that Himanta's gamble in Bodoland has paid off. The first step was to contest independent of ally BPF in the 2020 Bodoland Territorial Council elections and capture the lion's share of non-Bodo votes. Then, despite BPF winning more seats, BJP backed UPPL to take control of the council, breaking BPF's monopoly.

Then, the BJP dropped BPF as an ally in the Assembly polls, opting to go with the UPPL instead. The alliance has won close to two thirds of the seats in Bodoland, reducing BPF to just four.

During the elections, BPF chief Hagrama Mohilary complained that Himanta wanted to destroy him because he said Sonowal should be CM again.

Mohilary targetted much of his campaign towards Himanta so the latter's ascension is a personal defeat for him.

Himanta managed to secure the defection of a contesting BPF candidate from Tamulpur even after the last day of filing the nominations.

This process could intensify and it is possible that Himanta could try to marginalise BPF even further.

4. AIUDF

AIUDF and its chief Badruddin Ajmal have been a major target of Himanta Biswa Sarma in the last few years and this intensified during the elections. With AIUDF emerging stronger in the elections, Sarma's verbal attacks against Ajmal could increase.

However, despite the acrimony, Himanta and Ajmal do share a personal equation. During the last year's COVID-19 crisis, Ajmal had praised Himanta for "working very hard".

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What Himanta as CM Could Mean for BJP

The possible impact of Himanta as CM needs to be seen at two levels — in Assam and at the national level.

In Assam, Himanta's appointment reflects a clear strategic choice on the part of the BJP. It indicates that Sonowal was in many was a transition leader for the BJP, one who would help it expand and gain legitimacy among indigenous Assamese. By dropping him, the BJP has taken a calculated risk — it seems that after the results, the party now feels that it doesn't need to appease the Assamese nationalist section anymore and that it can now pursue its own ideoligical goals more clealy.

The result of this could be a stronger pro-Hindutva tilt and greater marganisalisation of Muslims and increase in dog-whistle attacks on them.

However, it may also mean that the party would have to be prepared for having a one-man show in Assam.

Nationally, this puts the BJP leadership in a curious position. Though few in Delhi would acknowledge it, Himanta has been among the top five most powerful leaders in the BJP by virtue of being the convenor of the Northeast Democratic Alliance.

It seems that the BJP top brass gave in to Himanta's arm twisting as it feared a rebellion in Assam and other northeast states. This would have been disastrous for the party, which is already facing flak due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Bengal defeat.

As Assam CM, this power and clout is only going to increase. Himanta is unarguably the most powerful BJP leader not to be from a BJP-RSS background.

As of now, he will be extremely grateful to PM Modi and Amit Shah for rewarding him with the CM post. But if the Central leadership weakens and its popularity begins plummeting, Himanta could very well start asserting his autonomy more and more.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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