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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Assam elections: A party for Mr Himanta Biswa Sarma

Can the party that he almost single-handedly hauled to power in 2016 in Assam deny Himanta Biswa Sarma the prize he has long sought, in case of a win?

Written by Abhishek Saha | Guwahati |
Updated: March 10, 2021 3:01:48 pm
Amit Shah with Himanta Biswa Sarma in Guwahati in 2019 (Express Photo by Dasarath Deka)

In a party with few stars beyond the Centre, he holds his own. In a government that he doesn’t lead, he is sometimes credited with commanding more power than the Chief Minister. In a region that Delhi only infrequently remembers, he is a name with the most recall.

And, Himanta Biswa Sarma is just starting. Having got a ticket from the BJP to contest from his constituency Jalukbari, despite protestations otherwise, the 52-year-old is back in the CM sweepstakes. Can the party that he almost single-handedly hauled to power in 2016 in Assam deny him the prize he has long sought, in case of a win?

Tussle for power is what saw Sarma defect from the Congress in 2015 after 20 years, starting out as a student leader. Mentored by Congress stalwarts Hiteswar Saikia and Tarun Gogoi, he had seen to his dismay Gogoi promoting son Gaurav. Sarma decided to leave after famously kept hanging by Rahul Gandhi in Delhi when he went to discuss state matters — once, according to Sarma, as the then Congress president fed his dog.

Sarma may enjoy the irony that, with Gogoi dead, Gaurav, 38, is now fighting for control among several Congress CM hopefuls in Assam. (Incidentally, Sarma had made it a point to supervise Gogoi senior’s treatment when hospitalised following Covid.) The Congress itself is banking on a Mahajot (grand alliance), with the AIUDF, three Left parties, a new regional front called the Anchalik Gana Morcha and the Bodoland People’s Front.

Sarma, meanwhile, has come a long distance. The man who in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections attacked the BJP’s prime minister candidate Narendra Modi over the 2002 riots, saying that in Gujarat “blood of Muslims” flows through pipes, is now among the most vicious in attacking “Miya” (or Bengali-origin) Muslims of Assam, the most vulnerable to the citizenship determination process in Assam.

Sarma has called AIUDF leader and MP Badruddin Ajmal “enemy” of Assam, said the BJP does not need votes of the Bengali-origin Muslims and accused the community of “openly challenging Assamese culture and composite Indian culture”. Last month, he said he would be very happy if described as the “extreme” of polarisation politics.

As the Finance, Health, Education and Public Works Minister of Assam, plus the convenor of the BJP-led NEDA (North East Democratic Alliance), Sarma is the face of the BJP’s Assam campaign along with CM Sarbananda Sonowal. His name is associated with some of the biggest development schemes in Assam, and at the height of the Covid pandemic, he frequently made news for personally overseeing hospitals and quarantine centres and often landing up for surprise checks late into night. Sarma had also courted controversy by releasing names of Assam residents linked to the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi that had emerged as a superspreader, but had brushed it off as being “in public interest”.

There have been allegations of corruption, particularly in the Saradha and Louis Berger scams, but not enough to slow Sarma’s rise.

Earlier, before to the 2019 general election, there had been speculation that Sarma would contest, but he did not get a ticket. Underlining his significance though, then BJP president Amit Shah had in an unprecedented move released a statement explaining that they needed Sarma in the Northeast to help the party grow.

Ahead of current elections, talk has again started on whether Sarma would be CM or be accommodated in Delhi. Sarma said multiple times that he would not contest, but he was present on the dais in Delhi as the BJP announced his name in its first list of 70 candidates.

On Monday, the BJP said it won’t announce a CM candidate, unlike 2016, when Sonowal’s name had been declared. “When there is no government, then the CM name is projected. When we are in government, then we do not project any name,” BJP state chief Ranjeet Kumar Dass told PTI.

Sarma told reporters, “It is the prerogative of the parliamentary board to announce a candidate… I think we should patiently wait for an announcement from Delhi.” Asked why he is contesting after earlier stating he would not, Sarma said it’s because the party asked him to.

It’s not like Sarma to play shy. An author of four books (including one released in February), he routinely uploads photos with family and of his college days. The doting father was unsparing recently when a photograph of him with his daughter was misinterpreted on social media.

Sarma’s wife Riniki, with whom he has two children — 19 and 17 — is a media entrepreneur and the owner of prominent news channel News Live.

There is another quality that makes Sarma different from the usual politician. In a party not known to appreciate humour, particularly at its leaders’ expense, the 52-year-old dubbed ‘mama’ on social media encourages the many viral memes and jingles featuring him — sharing the more viral ones himself.

Asked about the memes recently, Sarma said, “If someone loves being creative and making memes… I have a lot of respect for the young generation… I am ready, let them make more memes on me.”

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