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Sonowal or Himanta? Who’ll be the Next Chief Minister of Assam

Unlike 2016, BJP hasn’t announced its CM candidate in 2021 – a clear indication of a Sarbananda vs Himanta face-off.

3 min read

The Quint DAILY

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(This story was originally published on 15 March 2021. It has been reworked in light of the selection of the next Chief Minister of Assam)

The BJP-led NDA has won 75 seats in the Assam Assembly Elections 2021. On its own the BJP has bagged 60 seats.

The party will have to walk a fine line while choosing the next chief minister of the state.

They will have to make a tough choice between the incumbent CM Sarbananda Sonowal and his colleague and, perhaps, the more popular leader Himanta Biswa Sarma.

If optics and perceptions on the streets of Guwahati over the last five years are to be believed, it is Sarma who has been hogging the limelight.

“Sarbananda Sonowal is the CM. But it seems Sarma is playing the actual role of the CM. Be it administration, finance or the party – he plays a critical role.”
Nirmal Sharma, businessman

“In the media, you see Himanta Biswa Sarma more frequently than Sarbananda Sonowal. That’s why the people are confused,” Debashish Deka, a student, said.


It’s Himanta All The Way

Though the BJP doesn’t want to acknowledge it, there seems to be a power tussle in Assam between Sonowal and Sarma, who was Minister of Finance, Planning and Development, Health and Family Welfare, Education and PWD.

On 5 March, when the BJP announced its first list of 70 candidates, tickets were mostly given to Sarma loyalists or those recommended by him.

Sarma is said to be so influential in the Assam BJP that many aspirants who were backed by the RSS and some new faces that Sonowal had recommended, were denied tickets.

But the BJP hasn't been able to cross the half way mark in the Assembly on its own. It's tally of 60 seats implies it's advantage Sonowal for now.

“He’s popular because he has done a lot of good work. The young generation of Assam calls him ‘Mama’ (uncle). It is trending. He can attract people.”
Pompy Das, working professional

Who Gained Ground During the Pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic strengthened Sarma’s position. As the health minister of the state, he was at the forefront.

Some well-calculated media and social media strategy ensured the message went out that Sarma almost single-handedly managed the pandemic in Assam.

The number of those infected and fatalities never went out of hand, and as a small state, Assam managed to contain the outbreak.


What’s Holding BJP Back From Announcing The CM?

Sarma is too important for the BJP. He’s also the convenor of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) and has played a key role in establishing the saffron party in the northeast.

But since BJP's tally is almost similar to what it was in 2016, it's a clear indication that the Sarma factor didn't work they way the BJP expected it to. If the BJP had fallen short, Sarma would have played a crucial role in getting support from MLAs from other parties and independents. And then he could have staked his claim to the CM’s seat. But that hasn't happened.

Though Sarma is popular, voters like Sonowal as well. He's low key but efficient and the perception is that as a CM he has delivered in the last five years.

Under these circumstances, the BJP may play it safe and choose Sarbananda Sonowal as the next chief minister of Assam.

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