IN AN interview to The Indian Express, Assam Finance Minister and the BJP’s Northeast face, Himanta Biswa Sarma, says he is not surprised at the support for the BJP despite the National Register of Citizens (NRC) controversy, but admits that the party has plateaued in the eight sisters and may not be able to push its tally much beyond the 18 seats it won this time. Sarma is credited with the BJP’s rise in the Northeast, ensuring that each state government there belongs either to the BJP or to one of its allies. He speaks to ABANTIKA GHOSH. Excerpts:
How did the BJP turn around the concerns around the NRC to register such a victory?
I had told you earlier also that this is a non-issue that is being made too much of. The Bengali Hindus had some concerns but we told them that we will accommodate them by passing the Citizenship Bill. However, this was a highly polarised election, 99.9% Muslims did not vote for the BJP and 90% Hindus did, the only exceptions being followers of some of the still strong opposition leaders and leftovers of the Left. Upper Assam though was not polarised because there are very few Muslims there.
Isn’t it worrying that Muslims so overwhelmingly voted against a party that came to power on a Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas promise?
We have done a lot of development in Muslim areas. Even at the last NDA meeting, the Prime Minister had made it clear that we will work for development of all, regardless of whether they vote for us or not. He told us that there cannot be any caste, creed or religion in development; we will work for the poor, that will be the only caste that we should concentrate on. But you see, they are still under the grip of their leaders, who are mostly from the Congress. When that grip breaks, the core will vote for Modi. It is my belief that by 2024 there will hardly be anybody left, including Muslims, who will not vote for Modi. In that meeting, he also told us that we have to work towards removing regional disparities in the country.
How did the BJP pull off such a massive performance in Bengal?
West Bengal had voted out the CPM because Mamata (Banerjee) promised to rid the state of criminalisation of politics, appeasement and to change the work culture. However, when she came to power, she continued the same culture… There are 10,000 recorded mafia in the state and all of them are with the Trinamool. People are very angry. She adopted the old Left strategy because it was the shortcut to power. People were also outraged when she dragged them to the police station for saying Jai Shri Ram. That was the proverbial last straw. She also did not realise how BJP president Amit Shah had built his organisation in the state.
There is also tremendous love for PM Modi. I was asked to organise a rally in Mathurapur (South 24 Parganas district). There the people told me that we will get just about 30,000 people with our own organisation, the rest will automatically come. I could not understand how that could work. But it did. There were 1,50,000 people at the rally addressed by the PM.
Where did the Congress go wrong?
The negative campaign, the way they targeted Prime Minister Modi, went completely against them. The repeated ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ jibes hurt them because there was no institution that had indicted him (Modi) and people associated corruption with the Congress party, not Prime Minister Modi. Also you have to understand that the people of India are inherently patriotic. To have questioned the Balakot strikes was something that did not go down well.
Look at Priyanka Gandhi. She did not talk issues, everywhere she saw the media, she would just stand and start abusing Modi. They (the Gandhis) hate him and thought they could transfer their hatred to the people of India. That did not work. Taking on Modi cost them dearly. They should have found opponents who were nearer to them in stature.
What next for you?
Elections have just been completed. It is for the Prime Minister and BJP president Amit Shah to decide where I am headed next. I was asked to oversee the party’s expansion in the NE. Now there is a BJP government or one by a BJP ally in the NEDA (North East Democratic Alliance) in every northeastern state. We won 18 out of 25 Lok Sabha seats. If you ask me, that is the best we can possibly go because other (seats) like Dhubri, Barpeta etc have an almost 100% minority population. We have plateaued now in the NE. After NE, I was asked to go to Bengal, which I did. I am now in Assam. It is for the party to decide where I am headed next.