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Himanta, the driving force behind BJP’s rise to power in Northeast

After long-drawn speculations on who would lead the new government in Assam, BJP’s legislature party on Sunday announced that Himanta Biswa Sarma would succeed Sarbananda Sonowal as the next chief minister of the state.

Himanta Biswa Sarma in Guwahati on Sunday. (Photo: Dasarath Deka)

After long-drawn speculations on who would lead the new government in Assam, BJP’s legislature party on Sunday announced that Himanta Biswa Sarma would succeed Sarbananda Sonowal as the next chief minister of the state.

The decision marked the end of a long wait for the 52-year-old, considered the driving force behind the BJP coming to power in Assam in 2016 and the Northeast at large.

Sarma has been actively involved in politics since his student life and had a 20-year association with the Congress. He had two former chief ministers as his mentors — Hiteswar Saikia and Tarun Gogoi – and served as an important minister in Gogoi’s cabinet.

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However, in 2013-14, Sarma rebelled against Gogoi and tried to overthrow him as the CM. The rebellion came at a time when Gogoi was introducing his son Gaurav — now a Lok Sabha MP — to politics.

After the failed rebellion, Sarma joined the BJP in 2015 and was the main architect behind the saffron party riding to power in the Assembly elections held in 2016. He was also named the convenor of NEDA (North East Democratic Alliance), a BJP-led alliance of regional parties in the Northeast. In the 2020 general elections, he played a crucial role in the BJP and its allies sweeping the seven states of the Northeast, with the alliance winning 17 out of 24 Lok Sabha seats in the region. Later that year, he helped the saffron party recover lost ground after it faced stiff opposition in Assam following the implementation of the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

Sarma also held key portfolios in the outgoing Sonowal government, including finance, health and education and has been behind some of the biggest development schemes introduced in this time. For instance, the Orunodoi scheme, which aims at benefitting women-headed households and specially-abled persons, gives a monthly assistance of Rs 830 which is transferred to women members of marginalised families through Direct Benefit Transfer procedure. The government says the scheme benefits around 22 lakh women.

After the pandemic hit, Sarma led Assam’s efforts and frequently made the headlines for personally overseeing hospitals and quarantine centres and often landing up for surprise checks late at night.

Sarma is no stranger to controversies. In the run-up to the elections, he was criticised for his polarising comments, in which he often targeted the Bengali-origin Muslim community of the state, especially perfume baron and MP Badruddin Ajmal, who leads the AIUDF, a party known for its strong base amongst minorities and which is allied to the Congress.

At that time, he had told The Indian Express, “In Assam, it’s not possible to fight an election only by focusing on development, because the issue of identity is real. Issue of identity is very, very crucial for socio-economic life.”

In April, the Election Commission had banned Sarma from campaigning for 48 hours for threatening to put Hagrama Mohilary, the chief of the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) — another Congress ally — behind bars through a case with the NIA.

Soon after the EC relaxed the ban, Sarma restarted his campaigning duties. At his constituency of Jalukbari, he said, “We don’t do communal politics. We have worked equally for the development of Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Christian, everyone over the last five years. We have been successful in upholding a new illustration of secularism in Assam.

“Assam doesn’t want communal politics. Assam wants that our language is protected. Assam is not against any person, Assam wants that our culture is protected. Assam wants that our community, land and hearth is protected. Assam wants that our civilisation and culture is protected,” Sarma had said.

There have also been allegations of corruption against Sarma in the Saradha and Louis Berger scams.

Sarma’s wife Riniki is a media entrepreneur and the owner of prominent news channel News Live. Together, they have two children aged 19 and 17, and Sarma routinely uploads photos of his family on social media, as well as pictures of his college days.

On a lighter note, Sarma is often dubbed ‘mama’ on social media and is the subject of several viral memes and jingles. He is also the author of four books, including one released in February.

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