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BJP’s Mission Assam: Popular leader at helm, difficult demographics

Sarbananda Sonowal has the advantage of popularity and familiarity but it will be still an uphill task given Assam’s demographic profile with a 30 per cent Muslim population.

Written by Samudra Gupta Kashyap | Coochbehar, Guwahati |
November 23, 2015 3:30:51 am

sonowal-759Having lost a big battle in Bihar, the BJP’s next target is Assam, where it hopes to oust the Congress and capture power. It has bestowed the responsibility for accomplishing this upon Union Minister of State for Sports and Youth Affairs Sarbananda Sonowal, whom it has made state unit president. He has the advantage of popularity and familiarity but it will be still an uphill task given Assam’s demographic profile with a 30 per cent Muslim population.

A large section in the state BJP was already waiting for the national leadership to appoint a new president, with outgoing president Siddhartha Bhattacharyya’s term having been ad hoc, and party workers across the state have greeted the choice. “I was waiting for this moment. We will sweep the elections under Sonowal,” said Tezpur MP Ram Prasad Sarma, who had openly engaged in a war of words with Bhattacharyya a few weeks ago.

“My immediate task is to take along all levels of party workers and all sections of people towards an election victory,” said Sonowal, who is credited with having ensured, almost singularly, the BJP’s seven Lok Sabha victories in the state’s 14 seats, which restricted the Congress to an all-time low of three. Shortly after those elections, Sonowal was appointed Union minister and resigned as state unit chief.

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Now that he is back, he has inherited something from Bhattacharyya — nine Congress MLAs led by Tarun Gogoi’s once aide Himanta Biswa Sarma who have accompanied the latter to the BJP, followed by two AGP MLAs. The entry of the Congress MLAs has caused some resentment among a section of the old guard in the respective constituencies. “The party membership has increased from 2.5 lakh to 27 lakh in one year. We have won elections in 38 of the 74 civic bodies,” said Bhattacharyya.

Political commentators do not foresee smooth sailing for Sonowal. “It is true that he is the most popular leader in Assam today. With his AASU and AGP background, he is the most widely acceptable leader from any party,” said veteran journalist Haider Hussain, former Asomiya Pratidin editor. “But the BJP has the immediate baggage of the Bihar defeat, and taking the party’s tally in Assam from five in 2011 to even the halfway mark in the 126-member House will be a huge challenge. Moreover, the BJP, like the Congress, is a divided house.”

Noni Gopal Mahanta, who teaches political science at Gauhati University, feels Sonowal has the ability to lead the BJP to victory. “Sonowal has a strong appeal and a following that cuts across caste and religion, especially in upper Assam that used to be a Congress bastion. With Himanta Biswa Sarma, formerly the most influential Congress leader, now appointed convener of the BJP’s state election committee, the party has the best possible combination for the election,” said Mahanta.

But while Sonowal has wide acceptance across the state — he is hardly considered as a tribal despite being from the Sonowal Kachari tribe — he faces a potential hurdle in the promises made during the 2014 elections that the BJP has failed to fulfil, besides the demographic arithmetic of the state.

“In 2014, the BJP had the full backing of six communities who have been pressing for Scheduled Tribe status which the party promised them. Eighteen months later, the communities are still crying for their status. Will people of these six communities really come out for the BJP again?” said Akhil Ranjan Dutta, who too teaches political science at Gauhati University. “With the Modi wave over, the voter turnout will also go down, which might benefit the Congress.”

With Muslims comprising more than 30 per cent of Assam’s population, the All India United Democratic Front is certain of retaining the support of many of them. “Muslims hold sway over 30 seats, and there is every possibility of tea plantation labourers — who decide votes in 20-odd seats — swinging back towards the Congress,” Haider Hussain said.

“I don’t believe in divisive politics,” Sonowal waved away such calculations. “My mission is to take all sections of people along, as we had done in 2014. The people of Assam want a change. They want to get rid of 15 years of Congress misrule. And ours is a party where there are no internal bickering,” Sonowal said.

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