New Delhi: Assam Finance Minister and BJP’s Man Friday in the Northeast, Himanta Biswa Sarma had announced at a press conference earlier this year that he would move out of state politics by 2021, when the current term of the BJP government in the state ends.
When asked in public, he never denied his wish to contest the Lok Sabha elections. The corridors of Assam BJP offices were abuzz with speculation on what ministry Prime Minister Narendra Modi would allot him. Lok Sabha ticket and subsequent win was a foregone conclusion.
The BJP state unit recommended only one name for Tezpur constituency to the central election committee. Sitting MP Ram Prasad Sarmah was dropped and Himanta was brought in. But it turned out to be a classic case of state proposes, Delhi disposes.
Amit Shah put out a tweet after the CEC meeting, saying that the Assam election selection committee and state BJP leaders had recommended the name of Himanta Biswa Sarma for the Lok Sabha elections. But the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), in consultation with the central leadership of the party, had decided to let Himanta continue as a minister in Assam and as chairman of NEDA. Shah went on to say that he hoped the party would accept this decision.
Though the decision to not field him for Lok Sabha is a clear snub for the man who is considered to be the key in turning around the party’s fortune in the Northeast, a tweet from party president explaining the decision is important here. It is not every day that Amit Shah publicly explains his stance on a particular leader. It shows how critical Himanta Biswa Sarma is to the party.
The reason why he has not been fielded could be more aligned to BJP’s ‘Mission 20’ and the fate of NEDA. The North East alliance has broken down for all practical purposes. Ram Madhav held a high-powered meeting with all the key stakeholders of NEDA on March 12 and declared that BJP, NPP, NDPP, AGP and BPF will fight together in Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh with the mission of defeating Congress party at the hustings.
But things fell apart soon. Conrad Sangma, the rising star of the Northeast, who became the rallying point of the opposition parties during the Citizenship Bill protests, decided to contest from all 25 Lok Sabha seats in the Northeast. Sangma’s NPP also inducted over 20 party leaders in Arunachal Pradesh after they were denied ticket by the BJP.
BJP’s alliance partner in Tripura, the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT), has decided to fight the BJP in both seats in Tripura. MNF, the ruling party in Mizoram, and SKM, the opposition party in Sikkim, have decided to field their own candidates from their respective states.
Many insiders say the party wants Himanta to take care of this mess first before securing a ticket for himself. After the Citizenship Amendment Bill conundrum, the BJP needs to get its act together in the region to offset the loss expected in the Hindi heartland. In Assam, which has 14 of the 25 seats, Congress appears to be upbeat after the AGP-BJP patch-up.
Tarun Gogoi, three-time Assam CM and Congress’s tallest leader from the Northeast, said, “The AGP rejoining the BJP shows a kind of opportunistic politics which is very rare in Assamese history. It proves that the three AGP ministers cannot live without power. They have got the taste of power and money… Now people believe that only the Congress can save jati-mati-bheti (community, land, homeland).”
The Congress has decided to field former additional chief secretary to Gogoi, MGVK Bhanu, from the Tezpur seat. Gogoi was worried when Himanta’s name was recommended from the seat, but the old warhorse chuffed enough to hold a celebratory press conference the moment reports of Himanta being denied a ticket surfaced.
Albeit ticketless, Himanta has a lot on his plate this election. The team that he had built across Northeast seems to be bursting at the seams. The smaller parties are failing to follow the diktats of the big brother, the Citizenship Bill factor, which the party thought would be on the backburner by the elections, has refused to die down. The Congress has refused to go with the AIUDF, a party which speaks up for the Bengali Muslim immigrants, in order to cash in on the sentiments of the ‘original inhabitants’ of Upper Assam.
To be fair to Himanta, the possibility of him being inducted in the cabinet, if BJP wins the elections, isn’t completely ruled out. But he will have to work hard for it. Between him and a central role is the BJP’s ‘Mission 20’. For him to succeed, it is not enough for BJP to come back to power; it has to come back with a very strong performance from Northeast.