Sonowal or Himanta? Big Dilemma Facing BJP Ahead of Assam Election

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

3 min read

Video Editor: Abhishek Sharma

If opinion polls are to be believed, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and partners are coming back to power in Assam. And if they do, 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 a Himanta Show

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

On 5 March, when 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.

What makes Sarma, an ‘outsider’ to BJP, so popular is the fact that he’s a mass leader. Many feel that his connect with the bottom-rung party workers has cemented his position as a strong contender for the CM’s post.

“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 pandemic further 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 COVID-19 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 Candidate?

Many say Sarma ensured BJP’s win in Assam in 2016. He joined the BJP from the Congress in late 2015, just months before the Assembly polls in 2016.

Before that, he had guided the Congress to wins in three consecutive elections.
But Sarma fell out with former CM Tarun Gogoi, who was keen to promote his son Gaurav as his political successor.

In 2016, BJP had announced Sonowal as its chief ministerial candidate, but 2021 is different. Sarma is just too important for the party, 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.

So, BJP is holding back from naming anyone. The choice will be tough. If the party wins a clear majority, perhaps Sonowal will have a chance.

If the BJP falls short, Sarma will play a crucial role in getting support from MLAs from other parties and independents. And then he can rightfully stake his claim to the CM’s seat.

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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