Who will be the chief minister is now the big question after the BJP-led alliance wrapped up a clear victory in Assam on Sunday to rule the state for a second successive term. The BJP had projected the incumbent chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, for the post in 2016, but stayed away from naming anybody this time around, thus setting off speculations. The BJP’s initial stock reply was that it doesn’t necessarily name anyone for the post in states where it is already in power, like in Assam. But that did not end the speculations and now that the BJP-led alliance is set to assume power, the question has returned.
The race, if there is any, will clearly be between Sonowal and health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who, undoubtedly, is now the face of the BJP in the North East—the man to go to when there is any trouble in any of the BJP-ruled states in the country’s frontier region; he was all over the place when the Congress government in Arunachal Pradesh turned saffron almost overnight and, he was there in Manipur to ensure that MLAs changed sides to install a BJP government in that state. Himanta had earlier announced he was not going to contest this year, but relented after meetings with the party’s central leadership. It was then that loud whispers began to be heard, of Himanta having struck a deal where he would be the chief minister if the BJP were to retain power.
The Brand Himanta
Himanta had quit the Congress, the party that had actually catapulted him to the ‘brand’ that he is today, soon after Lok Sabha MP and the son of then chief minister Tarun Gogoi, Gaurav Gogoi, entered the party. He, as reports go, was afraid that Gaurav would be positioned to take over from his father, something he could not accept. “He was the party’s crisis manager being the number 2 in the Gogoi-led Congress government and could not see himself being sidelined by Gaurav,” said a Congress veteran without wishing to be named.
The Congress lost in 2016 and Himanta’s stock in the BJP soared; he also floated the North East Democratic Alliance and assumed the guardianship of the region for the BJP. Guardedly rooting for him for the post of CM, Himanta’s supporters say that the state is facing a twin crisis of COVID and finance and a strong and decisive leader is the need of the hour. Such discussions, however, do not delve into where Sarbananda has failed in these areas; Himanta is both the health and finance minister.
Top Leadership and Himanta
The BJP has maintained that its parliamentary board would eventually decide on who should be the chief minister. It is here that Himanta may face some opposition. If sources in the party are to be believed, not everyone is comfortable with “over-ambitious” Himanta. “The top leadership is too preoccupied with COVID management and could leave it to others to take the call that it might just endorse,” a source said, adding that the West Bengal debacle would also play heavy on everyone’s mind. “And that it can allow for Himanta’s case to be pushed through in the parliamentary board,” the source said.
As for the BJP legislature party in Assam, Himanta has already ensured that most are on his side and would back him for the CM post. He had a bigger say in selection of candidates and ensured that his loyalists got preference for tickets even over some veteran party leaders with close ties with the RSS.
What Works for Sarbananda
However, what the BJP leadership has to also take into account is the fact that the elections have after all been won under Sarbananda and they have to have some rational explanation to replace him without stepping on toes. “He has a clean image and the government has performed well under him which fetched the party the votes. How can you just discard such a person… that would amount to succumbing to blackmailing of sorts,” said another BJP functionary, adding it might trigger some disgruntlement within the party. He has a greater connect with Assamese sub-nationalism having been conferred the title of ‘jatiya nayak’ after he successfully fought a legal battle to get the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act scrapped. The law was perceived more as a facilitator than impediment to infiltration from Bangladesh.
Besides, come to think of it, the party’s performance has not improved in these elections and fell far short of its initial claim of being able to cross even the 100-mark. “So who should take responsibility for that if Himanta is the strategist?” the source asked.
But does Sarbananda wield the clout within the party that Himanta does?
In 2016, the BJP had won 60 seats and the NDA alliance 86; this time, while the BJP’s seat tally remains unchanged, the NDA alliance has secured 75 seats. In fact, the opposition has only grown stronger from 39 seats (Congress and AIUDF) to 51—the Congress, AIDUF, Bodoland People’s Front and the Left alliance secured 50 seats and the nascent Raijor Dal 1.
The BJP’s achievement is attributed to beneficiary politics, religious polarisation and development. The results also show that the electorate has not bought the opposition to Citizenship Amendment Act, the plank on which the Asom Jatiya Parishad, the Raijor Dal and the Congress-AIUDF contested.
The protests against CAA had resulted in the death of five protesters in 2019 and it was felt that the issue could damage the BJP’s prospects, but that was not to be so. But all this is in the past. What’s ahead is the brewing contest between Sarbananda and Himanta for the chief minister’s chair.