New Assam CM: Why Did BJP Pick Himanta Biswa Sarma Over Sonowal?

Reward for performance or result of arm-twisting: Why did BJP give in to Himanta’s demand of being made CM?

6 min read

The Bharatiya Janata Party high command has opted for a change of guard in Assam, picking Himanta Biswa Sarma over incumbent Sarbananda Sonowal as the new chief minister.

This announcement was made on Sunday 9 May after a week-long deadlock. On Saturday, the BJP top brass met both Sonowal and Sarma to resolve the impasse.

The decision is a curious one as Sonowal wasn't an unpopular CM like Trivendra Singh Rawat of Uttarakhand, who was replaced a few months back, or even CMs like Manohar Lal Khattar and Vijay Rupani who continue in office despite criticism. In fact, in terms of both governance and popularity, Sonowal was rated better than most other BJP CMs.

This story will try to answer two questions:

  • Why did BJP choose to replace Sonowal with Sarma?
  • What does this change mean for BJP at the Centre and in Assam?

There are three factors which contributed to Himanta's appointment.


1. Himanta Biswa Sarma's Clout

A few months before the Assembly polls in Assam, it seemed obvious that the BJP would go into the elections under Sonowal's leadership as projecting the incumbent has been a consistent practise for the party.

But during the campaign, state BJP chief Ranjit Dass announced that the party won't be projecting a CM face. This was the first indication that Himanta was flexing his muscle and making it clear that he wanted the top job.

BJP’s decision not to project incumbent CM Sonowal during the campaign was a clear indication that Himanta was flexing muscle.

Even during ticket selection, Sarma's supporters got the lion's share of tickets, much more than Sonowal's.

Naturally, when the results came in, a larger number of victorious MLAs were Sarma supporters.

After the results, Sarma made it clear to the central leadership that a majority of BJP MLAs supported him.

Reward for performance or result of arm-twisting: Why did BJP give in to Himanta’s demand of being made CM?
Himanta Biswa Sarma was a key lieutenant of three-term Congress CM Tarun Gogoi.

Himanta's ambition for the top job was well known. He is said to have wanted to become CM way back in 2014 when he was still in the Congress and was considered CM Tarun Gogoi's right hand man. He decided to quit the party in 2015 after his ambitions were thwarted in the Congress, with Tarun reportedly trying to promote his son Gaurav.

So the BJP's central leadership knew that if Himanta isn't humoured, he wouldn't hesitate to split the party in the state. Sarma's status as the North East Democratic Alliance convener also meant that he had the power to harm the party in other northeastern states as well.

The Assam deadlock happened at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah were in a weak spot due to criticism over their COVID management as well as the Bengal defeat. This helped Sarma.

Besides MLAs, both the state and national media had been pushing for Sarma. Sonowal neither had the MLAs not a media buzz around him.

Fortuitously for Himanta, all this happened at a time when the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah were in a weak spot due to criticism of their handling of the Coronavirus second wave as well as the underwhelming performance in West Bengal.

Last thing the BJP would have wanted is a rebellion in the only state it has won. Therefore, it had little option but to concede to Himanta's 'arm-twisting'.

2. Reward for Performance

To some extent, Sarma has also been rewarded for his performance, both as a minister in the previous government as well as during the elections.

He held several important portfolios such as finance, health, PWD and education among others. He was also credited for efficiently handling the COVID-19 crisis last year.

Reward for performance or result of arm-twisting: Why did BJP give in to Himanta’s demand of being made CM?
Himanta Biswa Sarma’s wife Rinki Bhuyan Sarma owns a news channel
(Photo: PTI)

In Assam's power circles, many considered Sarma the real driving force of the government. The media, both state and national, also kept highlighting his role, often downplaying Sonowal. Incidentally, Sarma’s wife owns a news channel – News Live.

Even during the elections, Sarma held over 250 rallies in the state's 126 constituencies and led the campaign from the front.

His gamble in Bodoland – of dumping the Bodoland People's Front and aligning with the UPPL – also paid off as the NDA won two-thirds of the seats in the region.


3. Himanta Ideologically More in Line With BJP’s Priorities

Neither Sonowal nor Himanta come from a BJP or RSS background. Sonowal was president of the All Assam Students' Union and then joined the Ason Gana Parishad. His legal battle that led to scrapping of the IMDT Act gave him the title of Jatiya Nayak "Hero of the Assamese People".

He joined the BJP in 2011.

Reward for performance or result of arm-twisting: Why did BJP give in to Himanta’s demand of being made CM?
Sarbananda Sonowal helped BJP gain legitimacy among Assamese voters.  
(Photo: PTI)

Sonowal's popularity among Assamese nationalists helped give BJP’s acceptability in this section and enabled it to present itself as a party representing indigenous Assamese, contrary to its earlier reputation of being a party dominated by Bengalis, Marwaris and Hindi-speaking migrants.

Neither Sonowal nor Himanta are from a BJP-RSS background. But ideologically, Himanta has been more successful in appeasing the Hindutva lobby. 

Himanta is also from an AASU background, but he fell out with the organisation and became close to its main antagonist, former Congress CM Hiteshwar Saikia. He grew rapidly within the ranks in the Congress and became Tarun Gogoi's de-factor number two in his third term.

He joined the BJP in 2015, four years after Sonowal.

However, ideologically, Sarma adapted better than Sonowal. Sarma is known to frequently make dog-whistle communal remarks against Muslims. Even during the elections, he said that "we don't need support of 34%", clearly referring to Assam's Muslim minority.

Sonowal, on the other hand, is said to have been more accommodative in his approach and isn't known for making polarising remarks.

There's another crucial difference – regarding the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Sarma has been extremely open about his support for the need rehabilitate Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants. Sonowal, on the other hand, has remained mostly silent on the issue, supposedly to keep Assamese nationalists in good humour.

Himanta has openly spoken about the need to rehabilitate Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants in Assam.

As CM, Sonowal held the portfolio for the implementation of the Assam Accord and regarding the crucial Clause 6, he had said that its implementation is in process. Clause 6 provides certain safeguards to the "indigenous people of Assam". Even though it fell under Sonowal's department, Sarma made a statement that implementing this clause is "legally difficult".

Among Hindutva organisations, Sarma is seen to be more amenable to their worldview compared to Sonowal, who is seen to be essentially from the AASU stable.


What does this mean for BJP?

BJP insiders say that ideally the party leadership would have wanted a more low profile CM from a RSS background or with a longer association with BJP, someone like say Mangaldoi MP Dilip Saikia. Most of BJP's other CMs, like Manohar Lal Khattar, Tirath Singh Rawat, Pramod Sawant, Shivraj Chouhan, are of this variety. But there's also an acknowledgement that Assam isn't ready for this kind of a purely organisation-driven leadership.

In the run up to 2016 and after coming to power, BJP was dependent on Sonowal and its ally AGP to gain legitimacy among Assamese voters.

By appointing Sarma, the party in Assam will be dependent largely on his personal clout to maintain its hold on the state.

Reward for performance or result of arm-twisting: Why did BJP give in to Himanta’s demand of being made CM?
Some in BJP are afraid that Himanta Biswa Sarma could become another BS Yediyurappa and assert himself vis-a-vis the central leadership. 
(Photo: AP)

There are some within the BJP who aren't comfortable with this and warn that Himanta could become another BS Yediyurappa. Though from an RSS background, the Karnataka CM is seen as more as a Lingayat leader and has on occasions asserted himself vis-a-vis the central leadership.

It is likely that Sarma could continue, even possibly intensify his dog-whiste targeting of Muslims, to appease the BJP and RSS bosses.

One direct consequence of this could be a modified National Register of Citizens, something that Sarma had been talking about in the past.

Nationally, the change of guard in Assam raises a bigger question – if Sarma did indeed arm-twist the BJP high command into making him the CM, does it mean that the Centre has truly begun weakening in the party?

If this is a stable trend, it could have significant long-term consequences for the polity.

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