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After Himanta and Sonowal’s day in Delhi, CM call likely today

BJP president JP Nadda had said in Kolkata that the saffron party’s leadership was pre-occupied with the post-poll violence in Bengal because of which a decision couldn’t be taken regarding Assam.

Written by Liz Mathew | New Delhi |
Updated: May 9, 2021 7:41:30 am
The primary contenders for the chief minister's post are Sarbananda Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma. (File Photos)

As the wait for the Assam Chief Minister announcement continued nearly a week after election results, a series of meetings involving the state BJP legislature party, the parliamentary board and the Prime Minister himself—scheduled for Sunday—is expected to end the suspense.

On one side of the long-drawn logjam, which comes amid the severe second wave of Covid-19, is the incumbent Sarbananda Sonowal; on the other is the BJP’s pointsman in the North-East, Himanta Biswa Sarma.

Both were summoned to the national capital late on Friday. On Saturday, BJP president J P Nadda, Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP General Secretary (Organisation) B L Santosh held separate meetings with them.

Himanta Biswa Sarma leaves BJP national president J P Nadda’s residence in Delhi. (Photo: ANI)

Nadda is also believed to have held a more than hour-long meeting with both together at his residence.

On Sunday, after the legislative party meeting in Guwahati, the leadership is expected to have a final consultation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sources said. This will be followed by a meeting of the parliamentary board in the national capital. The announcement is expected to be made after this, said the sources.

BJP has appointed Union Agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar and General Secretary Arun Singh as the central observers for the election of the leader of the party in the assembly on Sunday

“Don’t ask questions. In short, a meeting of the BJP legislature party is likely to be held in Guwahati tomorrow. You will get your answers then,” Sarma told reporters after a meeting on Saturday.

Sources said one formula suggested by the BJP leadership is to let Sonowal continue as Chief Minister while accomodating Sarma as his deputy. It’s not clear if Sarma has agreed to this.

Sarma, the most powerful minister in the Assam cabinet, is seen as a strong contender owing to his crucial role in leading the BJP-led alliance to a victory in 75 seats in the 126-member Assam Assembly.

The BJP leadership seems to be in a dilemma on whom to pick to lead the Assam government at a critical time— when the party has to deal with a worsening pandemic and implement the unpopular citizenship law.

While Sonowal has the record of returning the BJP to power after leading the government for five years with a clean image, Sarma has been managing the BJP’s alliance, the pandemic, and its welfare schemes. Sarma, who has been the crisis manager for the party and curated its agenda for the North-East, has also made a “rightful” claim, said a party leader.

While the leadership has always managed to balance its equations with both, it is generally believed that Shah prefers Sarma to Sonowal. According to party sources, Prime Minister Modi would have to choose as Nadda would prefer to go by what he decides.

Sonowal, however, is said to have earned the backing of the RSS, the ideological parent of the BJP.

According to party sources, the Sangh prefers Sonowal to Sarma, who joined the BJP from the Congress in 2015. The Prime Minister would also like to have a person with a clean image as the chief minister, a person familiar with the developments added.
Sonowal also may get the support of other senior leaders in the BJP parliamentary board.
Sources said Sarma has the support of almost 40 MLAs in the Assembly.

In the Assam election, the BJP won 60 seats while its allies AGP and UPPL bagged nine and six, respectively. The speculation over the top post was present during the election campaign as well.

With Sarma, who was believed to have been promised the chief minister’s post earlier, becoming a strong contender, the BJP leadership refused to announce Sonowal as the leader of the BJP campaign in the run-up to the elections.

This was in contrast to the normal practice in the party in which the incumbent naturally becomes the chief ministerial candidate. In states like Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand—which went to polls after the 2019 Lok Sabha election—the party’s campaign was led by the incumbent Chief Minister. The BJP stuck to this practice even in Bihar, where JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar was the Chief Minister of the coalition government.

“The parliamentary board (the apex decision-making body of the party) will take a decision after the elections,” was the line party leaders maintained whenever they were asked about the chief ministerial candidate in Assam.

In an interview with The Indian Express after the BJP’s victory in Assam, Sarma denied being given any promise. He said: “No, absolutely not. My mission was that I should contribute as much as possible for the BJP to return to power in Assam. We have not discussed anything on that line. I have contributed my bit. I am satisfied that, somewhere in the BJP’s victory, there is a small contribution from my side also.”

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