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Friday, June 18, 2021

Sarma’s task

New Assam chief minister needs to carry everyone along, as state fights new scourge, while healing old divides.

By: Editorial |
Updated: May 11, 2021 7:33:14 am
Six years after he left the Congress, Himanta Biswa Sarma was sworn in as the 15th CM of Assam on Monday.

Six years after he left the Congress, Himanta Biswa Sarma was sworn in as the 15th CM of Assam on Monday. In this short span of time, Sarma made himself indispensable to the BJP’s political expansion in the Northeast. He played a key role in the BJP winning Assam in 2016 and piloted the party’s success in states including Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura.

For most of his political career, Sarma has been more a behind-the-scenes crisis manager and strategist for the party — first the Congress, and then the BJP — apart from being minister of crucial departments such as health and education in the Tarun Gogoi and Sonowal governments. As CM, he will be expected to lead from the front. His will also be the responsibility of healing a state riven by numerous faultlines — some of which have been deepened by his party’s politics. As a border state, Assam bears the scars of an exploitative colonial settlement policy and the Partition. It remains a restive society and is still not at peace with issues of identity and resource distribution. The BJP saw these through a communal prism and amended the citizenship act, reviving old fears and insecurities. The CAA and the National Register of Citizens polarised Assam on ethnic, linguistic and religious lines and Sarma was in the forefront of a campaign that stoked minority insecurities. Though the CAA and NRC took a backseat during the elections, the BJP targeted the AIUDF and its leader Badruddin Ajmal. Sarma, on one occasion, framed the election as a battle between 65 per cent (Hindus) and 35 per cent (Muslims). Before that, as minister, he had denied social and cultural agency to Muslims of Bengali origin by labelling them as outsiders. As CM, Sarma will need to win the trust and confidence of the whole electorate, not just those who had voted for the BJP.

Sarma has promised to turn Assam into an economic powerhouse. This is possible if he can ensure social peace and turn Assam’s geography and location — particularly, its border with Bangladesh and the Brahmaputra — into an advantage to further trade, commerce, and tourism. However, the immediate task for Sarma, who has held the health portfolio for many years, would be to lead the administration’s charge in the uphill battle against the pandemic.

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