"Sarbananda Sonowal is a good man. But the problem is that he comes from a Jatiyabadi (Assamese nationalist) AASU (All Assam Students' Union) background so he's unable to completely embrace Hindutva particularly an emotive issue like helping Bangladeshi Hindu refugees," says a high-ranking functionary associated with the Bharat Sevashram Sangha.
The Sangha is a Hindu charitable organisation founded in 1917 and among other things, it works closely with Bangladeshi Hindu refugees in Assam.
“Himanta Biswa Sarma is far more empathetic to our concerns. We hope he becomes the CM. Many things will become easier for us, especially regarding Hindu refugees,” the Sangha functionary told The Quint.
The Sonowal-Himanta equation is an interesting one and there's speculation of a power tussle between the two.
The intensity of the ‘tussle’ isn't known but it is clear that there is something wrong.
This is evident from the fact that Bharatiya Janata Party's state president Ranjit Dass declared that the party will not be declaring a CM face, a break from the BJP's established practice of projecting incumbent CMs in the state it is in power in.
Apparently, this was done to appease Sarma, who had earlier said that he didn’t want to contest the Assembly election.
So, what lies at the root of this complicated Sonowal versus Sarma equation – ideology, personality, political interest, or something else?
‘Jatiyabadi’ Sonowal vs Himanta’s Hindutva?
A small but important glimpse of Sonowal and Sarma's contrasting political posturing could be seen in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rally in Sivasagar in January this year.
The two Assam leaders were the last speakers before PM Modi at the rally and while Sarma made the crowd chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai” several times, Sonowal made them chant “Narendra Modi Zindabad.”
Sarma delivered his entire speech in Assamese and his main focus was on the achievements of the state government in which he holds several key portfolios such as finance, health, education, and public works.
Sonowal, on the other hand, switched to Hindi for about 90 seconds in the middle of the speech and another 30 seconds later on.
In this Hindi portion, Sonowal praised PM Modi for giving Bharat Ratna to Dr Bhupen Hazarika and termed the PM a "well-wisher of the Assamese people".
These differences are in line with their different political approaches – Sarma projecting an image of standing for “development plus Hindutva” and Sonowal “showcasing his loyalty towards Modi while also playing on Assamese pride”.
During the speech, Sonowal also made it a point to claim that his government has taken along every community – "Assamese, Bengali, Marwari, Bihar, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and Jain".
This is in contrast to Sarma's statement that the BJP doesn't want the votes of "Miya Muslims" the term used for Bengali speaking Muslims of migrant origin. He later said that "35 percent people are trying to divide the remaining 65 percent", indicating that he isn't just targeting Bengali-speaking Muslims, but all Muslims who form 34 percent of Assam's population.
The differences go beyond rhetoric, to even policy issues. The most prominent example of this was the different comments by the two leaders on the recommendations of a committee calling for implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord that talks of providing safeguards to the Assamese people.
While Sarma has categorically said that the inputs can’t be implemented and called them “far from legal reality”, Sonowal says that the government will look into the recommendations.
"They have given us two years’ time… So, it’s positively there," he told The Indian Express.
In this context, it is important to note that officially, the implementation of Assam Accord falls under Sonowal’s domain and not Sarma’s.
Sonowal revels in the role of acting as a bridge between Assamese ethnic nationalism and the BJP. He was the president of the All Assam Students' Union from 1992 to 1997, after which he joined the Asom Gana Parishad in 1999, at a time when the party was in power in the state.
Some in the AGP privately say that Sonowal has been an extremely lucky politician. He won his first election from Moran in 2001, even though the AGP was trounced in that election by the Congress.
What brought Sonowal into prominence was his role in getting the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983 struck down at the Supreme Court in 2005. The Act placed the burden of proving someone as an illegal migrant, on the complainant and not the alleged illegal migrant.
Some say that Sonowal wasn't the only person in the legal battle but for many in Assam, the striking down of the IMDT Act made Sonowal a "Jatiya Nayak" or a hero of the Assamese people.
As someone with credibility among the Assamese and known to have stood against illegal immigration, Sonowal was an important catch for the BJP.
"Sonowal's biggest political asset is that he never comes across as a political threat. This makes people around him comfortable about giving him important positions," said a senior BJP leader.
Himanta Biswa Sarma's case has been the opposite – he has always been seen as a "threat", as "too ambitious" by those above him in the hierarchy.
Consider this: In both the 2011 and 2016 elections, pre-poll surveys showed Sarma as the second most popular in the Congress and BJP respectively. Parties changed but Sarma’s status remained the same.
Even today, Sarma is said to be the most powerful politician in the Northeast. In Assam, his loyalists aren't there just in the BJP but in the Congress as well.
The 180 degree changes in Sarma’s political positions haven’t helped – from talking about “blood of Muslims flowing through water pipes in Gujarat” to saying that the BJP doesn’t need Muslim votes or from being associated with AASU to becoming the protege of Congress CM Hiteswar Saikia, a known antagonist for AASU.
What This 'Tussle' Means for BJP in Assam
In some ways, the different approaches of Sonowal and Sarma have been beneficial to the BJP as it helped appease two different social bases – with Sonowal cultivating Jatiyabadi Assamese voters in Upper Assam and Sarma projecting a pro-development image to appeal to urban voters while keeping the BJP's Hindutva and Bengali Hindu base happy through pro-CAA statements.
This has worked well for the BJP for the past five years but the contradictions have begun to crop up – the Sonowal-Himanta doublespeak on Clause 6 being a prime example.
The problem for the BJP is not just these contradictions but the fact that they have now begun to having real political consequences.
1. The CAA sparked protests and led to the formation of organisations like the Assam Jatiya Parishad, backed by AASU and Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad, Akhil Gogoi's Raijor Dal and Anchalik Gana Morcha, which is now an ally of the Congress.
As someone backing the settlement of Bangladeshi Hindu refugees, Himanta Biswa Sarma has emerged as an important antagonist for these outfits.
2. The BJP's anti-Muslim image nationally and Sarma's constant attacks on Miya Muslims in Assam, compelled the primary outfit representing this section's concerns – Badruddin Ajmal's All India United Democratic Front – to form a pre-poll alliance with the Congress, even if it meant settling for lesser seats than it deserves. This has paved the way for near complete consolidation of Muslim votes against the NDA.
3. The BJP's effort to prop up the UPPL against the Bodoland People's Front (BPF) in the Bodoland Territorial Council compelled the BPF to join the Congress alliance. BPF chief Hagrama Mohilary has publicly said that he was punished by Sarma for praising Sonowal.
It is interesting that the ire of all three sections is focused much more on Sarma than Sonowal.
There's also speculation that it would be in Sarma's interest if the BJP wins a slender majority or falls a bit short of the halfway mark as it may give Sarma a chance to leverage his loyalists in the Congress.
So, where does this leave the BJP?
Both Sonowal and Sarma aren't from a BJP or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) background, their rise is a rarity in the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.
This may have been a necessary compromise for the BJP in its efforts to capture power in the state. But it is likely that in the long run, the BJP and RSS would want a future in Assam that isn't so deeply dependent on Himanta Biswa Sarma's personal clout or Sarbananda Sonowal's ethno-nationalist support base.