Three days after resigning from the Congress, Assam MLA Rupjyoti Kurmi formally joined the Bharatiya Janata Party on Monday 21 June.
He joined the BJP at a Yoga Day function in Gerukamukh in the presence of Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Kurmi, a four-time legislator from Mariani in Jorhat district, quit the Congress on 18 June saying that only older leaders are being promoted and that Rahul Gandhi is unable to shoulder the responsibilities of the party. He also criticised the party leadership for aligning with Badruddin Ajmal's All India United Democratic Front in the Assam elections.
Though Kurmi's exit hasn't received the kind of national media attention as that of another recent exit from the Congress – that of former Union minister Jitin Prasada – it is in fact a bigger blow for the Congress given that he has a much stronger base than the latter.
Here are three reasons why Rupjyoti Kurmi's exit is a very important development.
The Strongest Tea Tribe Leader in Congress
Rupjyoti Kurmi was the strongest tea-tribe leader in Congress. He was the only leader from this important demographic in Assam, who managed to win his seat in the Assembly elections earlier this year. All others like Roselina Tirkey, Durga Bhumij and Pranjal Ghatowar lost their respective seats.
Their defeats were the result of a broader shift of tea tribe votes in Assam – from being a strong Congress vote bank to an equally solid one for BJP now.
Kurmi won from Mariani despite this shift, though, it did impact his margin. But his exit now means that Congress' prospects of winning back this crucial section have become even more remote.
A few days ago, Kurmi said that he hadn’t get his due in Congress because he is from a tea-tribe background.
“I know that they won’t give me as I am dark in colour and come from the tea gardens. Maybe, because I talk too openly on issues. Also, they won’t make Abdul Khaleque (Barpeta MP) as he represents the minority community. If they are going to select someone, it will be either Pradyut Bordoloi or Bhupen Bora," he had said.
Congress' Decline in Upper Assam
Kurmi was one among only five Congress MLAs in the politically crucial upper Assam region. The other MLAs who won are Sushanta Buragohain in Thowra, Leader of Opposition Debabrata Saikia in Nazira, Bhaskar Jyoti Baruah in former CM Tarun Gogoi's seat Titabar and Bharat Narah in Naoboicha.
Among these, Narah won largely due to the Congress' alliance with AIUDF, which had held the seat in the previous Assembly but conceded it during the seat-sharing arrangement.
In comparison, the party has 24 MLAs in central Assam, lower Assam and Barak Valley.
This means there is a very big vacuum in the Opposition space in upper Assam, which has traditionally dominated Assam politics.
If the Congress continues to decline in this region, it could potentially open up space for leaders like Akhil Gogoi, who won from Sibsagar, the seat of the erstwhile Ahom kingdom.
Interestingly, even within BJP, the centre of power has shifted from Sarbananda Sonowal, who hails from upper Assam to Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is from lower Assam.
Himanta Biswa Sarma's Style of Functioning
Barely a month into his tenure, Chief Minister Sarma has made it quite clear that he has a very different style of functioning from his predecessor Sonowal.
Kurmi's exit from the Congress has Sarma's imprint all over it.
The Mariani MLA is known to have been close to Sarma from the time when the latter was in Congress. In fact, during the recent elections, it was rumoured that Sarma ensured a relatively weak candidate against Kurmi to help him win so that he could switch sides and help Sarma in the eventuality of a power struggle within BJP.
Interestingly, Akhil Gogoi had also withdrawn from the contest in Mariani, which is his home seat, for the sake of defeating the BJP and in support of Kurmi, who is popular in the area.
The sequence of events after the elections is also important.
First was the BJP's decision to pick Sarma over Sonowal, despite the latter being a reasonably popular CM. Had Sonowal been the CM, it is quite likely that Kurmi may have remained in the Congress.
Then, on 27 May, Kurmi was attacked by land encroachers from Nagaland during his visit to Dessoi village, close to the border between the two states. He and his entourage came under bullet fire from encroachers.
Soon after the incident, CM Sarma expressed his concern and ordered Special DGP (law and order) Gyanendra Pratap Singh to rush to the spot and carry out a detailed investigation.
A week later Kurmi went to meet Sarma, ostensibly to discuss the attack and submit a memorandum to act against encroachers from Nagaland.
That was on 4 June. Now, he is all set to join the BJP.
What is now happening in the BJP is that Sarma is consolidating power and bringing in a loyalist like Kurmi from the Congress is part of this process. It won't be surprising if more leaders from Congress shift to the BJP in the days to come. In particular, Sarma may be looking for faces from upper Assam, who would help him reduce the BJP's dependence on Sonowal in the area.
The Congress may have to go into a serious introspection on its handling of Assam. It is paying the price for not projecting a clear leadership in the Assembly elections or providing a sense of direction after the electoral defeat.