For Sarbananda Sonowal, the nomination as the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate in Assam cuts his task out. The party has given him the responsibility of ensuring that it repeats — if not exceeds — the performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, this time in the assembly elections barely three months away.
He has set about his task by striving to consolidate the vote of Assam’s indigenous ethnic groups. But among his challenges are answering for the promises the BJP made before the Lok Sabha polls and hasn’t fulfilled.
Appointed state BJP president months earlier, Sonowal was named the CM candidate last week. When he arrived from Delhi Sunday, posters and banners greeted him in Guwahati with adjectives such as youthful, energetic, smart, fearless and dynamic. Sonowal is 52 and is yet to decide on getting married. Hugely popular, he has never been involved in a controversy or scam.
Sonowal’s community Sonowal Kachari is a Scheduled Tribe, and if he wins the election, he will be the second tribal chief minister of Assam after Jogen Hazarika, who was, however, in that office for only 94 days in 1979.
Sonowal, who has already launched the election campaign by getting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address a meeting organised by the Bodo People’s Front — which has recently forged an alliance with the BJP — is now looking at bringing closer more ethnic and indigenous groups. That is why he is speaking to the AGP, of which he was once a member, besides reaching out to leaders of the Rabha, Mising, Karbi, Dimasa, Deori, Koch-Rajbangshi, Tea tribes and other groups.
Tribal communities, along with six other communities waiting for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes list, together comprise more than 53 per cent of the state’s total population. Other indigenous Assamese-speaking communities together would be around 12 per cent.
While Sonowal is reaching out to all such indigenous communities, the Congress and All India United Democratic Front are each looking at the vote of the 34 per cent Muslims. Going by local media reports Sunday, however, 500 maulanas have pledged their support to Sonowal.
In 2014, it was Sonowal who was credited with gifting Modi with seven of Assam’s 14 Lok Sabha seats, with the Congress reduced to three. Yet he will not find it easy to repeat that performance. What was called the “Modi wave” then is no longer a dominant factor in these elections. And the promises Modi had made are still fresh in the minds of the common man.
Over these unfulfilled promises has led to the Congress mounting a massive campaign against Modi. The Congress has described Modi, who will be Sonowal’s most important campaigner, as a “vendor of sour mangoes”. There is an Assamese adage that sour mangoes can be sold only once.
The most important promise was about detecting and deporting the Bangladeshi infiltrators. In the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls, Modi had said the infiltrators would have to pack up once he assumed office, but not a single Bangladeshi has been pushed out. The BJP had said it would not give away even an inch of Assam’s land to Bangladesh; instead, the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh has been implemented, with several acres of Assam land handed over. Top BJP leaders like Rajnath Singh had said they stood by the people in the agitation against construction of the Lower Subansiri hydel project; work has since been resumed.
Assam is yet to see the BJP launching a campaign countering the long list of questions the Congress has posed in the last one month. Two of those are: What has Assam got out of 200-plus trips that central ministers including PM Modi have made to the state in 19 months? How many projects and how much funds has Sonowal brought to Assam as a minister?
As state party president, Sonowal also has to settle a couple of issues within his party. Among the most important of them is striking a balance between those leaders who had worked hard to defeat the Congress in 2014 and those Congress leaders who have recently joined the party. He also has to work out how to accommodate another set of leaders who had come to the BJP from the AGP.