ENDING a week of speculation following the BJP’s victory in Assam, the party on Sunday chose its most influential leader and its face in the Northeast, Himanta Biswa Sarma, as the 15th Chief Minister of the state. He will take the oath at noon on Monday.
Sarma, 52, who held key portfolios in the outgoing Assam government, including finance, health and education — succeeds Sarbananda Sonowal as the Chief Minister, garnering an overwhelming support from the 75 MLAs of the BJP-led alliance.
“As the National Democratic Alliance had a clear majority in the Assam Legislative Assembly, he also staked claim to form the government. The Governor accepted his claim and asked him to form the government,” an official statement from Governor Jagdish Mukhi’s office said.
Offering gratitude to the people of Assam, Sarma tweeted, “I would not have been what I am had it not been for your pious faith in me. On this Day, I vow to work with & for each one of you with greater passion Assam.”
In another tweet, the chief minister designate thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “How enormously blessed I feel Hon PM Sri @narendramodi for your faith in me. This is the biggest day in my life, and I so fondly cherish your generous affection. I assure you we shall leave no stone unturned to carry forward your vision of taking Assam, & NE to greater heights.”
In the last five years, Sarma has implemented some of the biggest development schemes in Assam. He has been the public face of the state government battling opposition on every contentious issue. As health and finance minister, he has been leading the state’s efforts in fighting the Covid pandemic.
After his brief stint as a student political activist and leader with the All Assam Students Union (AASU), Sarma had been with the Congress for over 20 years till 2015. He was mentored by former Congress Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia and then served as a minister in Tarun Gogoi’s cabinet.
In 2013-14, Sarma rebelled against Gogoi and tried to overthrow him as the CM. There have been allegations of corruption in the Saradha and Louis Berger water supply scams against Sarma. In 2014, in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections, he attacked the BJP over the 2002 riots and infamously said that in Gujarat, “blood of Muslims” flows through pipes.
In August 2015, Sarma joined the BJP, barely a month after the BJP accused him of being a key suspect in the Louis Berger scam. He had quit the Congress because he did not want to be the Number 2 in the party; Tarun Gogoi then was trying to promote his son, current Lok Sabha MP Gaurav Gogoi.
In 2016, the BJP rode to power with Sonowal — who belongs to the small indigenous Sonowal-Kachari community, and was a two-time MP and an MoS in the Centre — as the CM face, with Sarma, then newly inducted into the BJP, scripting the party’s success story in Northeast.
Although Sarma does not acknowledge it publicly, BJP leaders say he was promised the Chief Minister’s post if the party won the election. This time, the BJP did not announce incumbent Sonowal as its CM candidate during the election campaign. Sarma had bided his time patiently and this time the BJP leadership could not reject his “rightful claim” for the top post. Sources said Sarma, who has the support of majority of the MLAs, reminded the BJP leadership about the promise.
The BJP leaders involved with Assam affairs were “conscious of the troubles Sarma could trigger” if he is denied the post again. “At a time when the government and the BJP leadership is under severe criticism and pressure over the Covid pandemic, the last thing the party wants is to deal with a political crisis due to internal issues to a government that won a majority,” said a party leader.
In Sonowal too, Sarma did not fear a fierce challenger. On Sunday, Sonowal congratulated Sarma and wished him the best. In a tweet, Sonowal said, “Congratulations to Shri @himantabiswa on being elected the leader of
@BJP4Assam Legislative Party. I believe that you will carry forward the development journey of Assam that we together began as #TeamAssam under the leadership of PM Shri @narendramodi ji.”
It is not clear how the BJP plans to accommodate Sonowal.
At the party legislative meet after being chosen as the unanimous leader of the alliance on Sunday, Sarma said “Even the moon has spots. But the Sarbananda Sonowal-led government worked without any blemish for the last five years.” He praised Sonowal’s leadership qualities and farsightedness. “We assure him that we will go forward on the path he has shown. As the chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal was our leader. He will continue to be a leader of ours in the coming times and show us the path,” he said.
During the run-up to the general elections in 2019, there was considerable speculation that Sarma would contest, but he did not get a ticket. The then BJP president Amit Shah had released a statement saying that despite the state BJP unit recommending his name, Sarma has been asked to contribute towards developing the state and strengthening the party’s base in the North East.
Sarma always enjoyed the strong support of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who utilised his clout and influence in the Northeast to mitigate political crises in the NE states. He played a key role in BJP gaining power in almost all the NE states. “He was the go-to-man for Amit Shah during his days as party president and then as Home Minister,” said a party leader.
Sarma’s influence in politics in the entire Northeastern region has been unparalleled in the last five years. As the convenor of the NEDA (North East Democratic Alliance), a BJP-led alliance of the regional parties in the Northeast, Sarma has played a key role in formation of BJP governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura while ensuring BJP-being in the alliance in governments in Nagaland and Meghalaya. He has been briefly and indirectly involved in the ongoing Centre’s peace talks with Naga insurgent groups.
Sarma has been criticised for his often repeated polarising comments, attacking the Bengali-origin Muslim community of the state.
Inside Assam too, Shah and the BJP leadership relied on Sarma for trouble shooting and salvage the face of the government in crises – be it the one that was created after the first NRC list stripped around 19 lakh people of citizenship and when protests erupted in parts of Assam after the passage of CAA.
During the election campaign, Sarma had launched a tirade against MP and perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal, who leads the AIUDF, an ally of the Congress known for its strong base amongst minorities. On Sunday, Ajmal congratulated Sarma. “In past I quoted several times that Dr. Sarma would be the best suited politician for Assam’s Chief Minister. It is good that he is going to be elevated to that chair. I hope Dr. Sarma with his experience and dedication will pull out Assam from the critical juncture it is at. I wish him a successful tenure,” he wrote on Facebook Sunday evening.
In his last election campaign speech in April, however, Sarma had 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.” —(With inputs from Liz Mathew in New Delhi)