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Himanta Biswa Sarma, the BJP’s 100% Strike Rate Man in North-East

Himanta managed to break the entire top leadership of the Trinamool Congress and the Congress to bring them into the BJP fold. He then went on to build an Assam-style alliance with IPFT (Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura).

News18.com

Updated:March 3, 2018, 1:59 PM IST
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Himanta Biswa Sarma, the BJP’s 100% Strike Rate Man in North-East
File photo of Himanta Biswa Sarma, BJP's election in-charge of Tripura.
New Delhi: With the BJP striking gold in the North-eastern states of Tripura and Nagaland along with making massive gains in vote share in Meghalaya, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the party’s Tripura in-charge, has maintained a 100% strike rate in NE elections.

Himanta managed to break the entire top leadership of the Trinamool Congress and the Congress to bring them into the BJP fold. He then went on to build an Assam-style alliance with IPFT (Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura). With this alliance, the vote in the hills polarised in favour of the BJP.

While talking to News18, he said, “Look, we formed governments in Assam and Manipur coming from nowhere. Question is, who is occupying the opposition space? Our workers have worked tremendously on the ground. Party President Amit Shah’s decision to allow a merger of TMC with BJP has worked in our favour. There were a lot of party members who were against the prospects. Alliance with IPFT has worked in our favour and Amit Shah had a pivotal role to play in that.”

At the age of 49, Assam’s minister of health, education and finance, Himanta Biswa Sarma, has certainly established his political footprint in the neighbouring poll-bound state of Tripura. Biswa Sarma had quit the Congress and joined the BJP in August 2015.

Despite being labelled an “outsider” in Tripura, Biswa Sarma (along with his colleagues Ram Madhav, Sunil Deodhar and Biplab Deb) is credited with turning the political fortunes of the BJP from a state of virtual non-existence five years ago to being the foremost challenger to the Manik Sarkar-led Left Front government.

THE BACKDROP

It was March 2010. The UPA had just returned to power. The Congress wanted to shore up as many Rajya Sabha seats as possible. Two in Assam were up for grabs, but the numbers did not add up. That was the time when Ahmed Patel had Amit Shah-isque awe. A call was made to a senior leader in Assam Congress; the recipient said the job would be done. On the appointed day, amid high drama, four BJP MLAs entered the Assembly complex in a car driven by one Himanta Biswa Sarma and the Opposition knew the game was up.

Congress candidates Nazneen Faruque and Silvius Condpan won the poll by securing 43 and 42 votes, respectively, while Jayanta Baruah, the candidate of the combined Opposition, could manage only 40 votes. In the evening, the then BJP general secretary Ravi Shankar Prasad told the media , "I don’t have the slightest hesitation to say that in a state (Assam), which has elected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the Rajya Sabha, democracy has been murdered by the Congress party, its leaders, chief minister and ministers."

The man behind the entire engineering is today the BJP's weapon for the North East, the man who has promised to win at least 19 of the 24 seats for the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Himanta Biswa Sarma joined the BJP in August 2015, but he is already the face of the party for the entire North East and the convener of the North East Democratic Alliance, the BJP-led alliance of non-Congress parties of the North East. He is widely credited with the party's victory in Assam and Manipur elections.

On the day the BJP staked claim to form the government in Manipur, Himanta was trending on Twitter. In spite of winning just 21 seats as opposed to Congress’ 28, the party managed to cobble together a majority. The same skills which Himanta had mastered for the Congress were now put to perfect use against them. He not only managed to get the support of almost all non-Congress candidates but also managed to get a Congress MLA to switch sides. But ask him about this horse-trading and he says it's friendship. Speaking to News18, Himanta Biswa Sarma says he is in regular touch with most of the 27 MLAs the Congress has in Manipur, hinting probably at the fact that some more could defect to the BJP in the near future.

AN EARLY START

He started early enough to claim over 35 years of public life at the age of 48 — he joined the All Assam Students Union (AASU) in Class 6. Those were the heady days of the Assam agitation. By 1981, when the crackdown on AASU began, he was in Class 7 and was tasked with carrying the press releases and materials for the press every evening. That was also his first brush with the media. He later grew to own the biggest TV network of Assam, with the flagship channel NewsLive, which has taken his voice to almost every household in the state.

By 1984, he had become the General Secretary of AASU's Guwahati unit. He was camped at the Guwahati Medical College. There was an almost all-out crackdown on the AASU and ULFA. This was the year after the Nellie massacre and the controversial Assam elections. Himanta was tasked with procuring blood and arranging for medical aid for the cadre admitted there.

LINKS WITH ULFA?

In 1990, the ULFA was banned. That was also the time when a number of AASU cadre were hand-in-glove with the ULFA, the militant organisation which demanded the 'freedom' of Assam from India. Many say Himanta, too, got involved with the ground activities of the ULFA. There were two cases registered against him in Guwahati in 1991. As per a report in The Telegraph, the two cases were registered at Chandmari police station (case number 77/1991) and Panbazar police station (case number 15/1991).The Chandmari police station case was related to an alleged extortion bid by the minister on behalf of ULFA when he was “caught red-handed” while collecting Rs 10 lakh as extortion money. For this offence, he was booked under TADA on March 28, 1991.

The Panbazar police station case was again related to extortion for ULFA where Himanta allegedly collected several lakhs of rupees for the outfit from city-based businessmen. For the offence, he was booked under TADA on January 12, 1991, at Panbazar police station under Section 3, 4 of TADA, read with Section 25 (i) (a) of the Arms Act and was also remanded in police custody for 15 days. The Panbazar police station case was also registered against him under Arms Act because the police allegedly recovered a revolver and 25 rounds of ammunition, reportedly hidden by Himanta behind a kitchen at a Cotton College hostel.

But no chargesheet was ever filed. Speaking to News18, Himanta Biswa Sarma says his friends and he were involved only in providing legal aid to those arrested in the "police and Army witch-hunt". He says he was arrested for taking on the alleged human rights violations by the Indian Army. He would file habeas corpus petitions and organise dharnas, and that according to him led to "the government having serious grievances against me and thus arrested me for fabricated cases. Later, the court found no evidence against me."

'CONGRESS MADE ME NATIONALIST'

This was the turning point in his career. Around this time, he came in contact with Hiteshwar Saikia, the then chief minister of Assam. Saikia impressed upon him to quit AASU and join the Congress. That was the time when ULFA was banned and AASU was rudderless. Himanta calls Saikia his political guru and says it was he and the Congress party that made him "try to be a good Indian from being just a good Assamese". He says that was when he shed his "Assamese chauvinism" for a more inclusive politics. Saikia, old-timers suggest, spotted the greatest talent of Himanta, his network on the ground and a strong cadre base which is loyal only to him and not any party.

The Congress also fuelled his ambition. In 1993, he joined the party and since 1996 has been contesting elections from the Jalukbari constituency. The testimony of his popularity lies in the fact that with every election, his victory margin increases. By 2006, he became the right hand of Tarun Gogoi, managing the election, taking of the opposition and even answering for the ministers in the Assembly. This was the time when the Opposition, led by Praful Mahanta, was belligerent. It was often seen in the Assembly that when the concerned ministers failed to answer a particular query of the Opposition, Himanta took charge.

People talked about how school teachers began being appointed without bribes only when he became the education minister. He was not just doing an efficient job, but, more importantly, was seen doing so. By 2011, it was clear that Himanta was the heir apparent of Tarun Gogoi.

But then things fell apart.

HIMANTA vs CONGRESS

Tarun Gogoi suddenly started to feel the heat. An ageing Gogoi could see the rising popularity of Himanta Biswa Sarma. He felt Himanta was growing too big for his boots. Himanta, on the other hand, alleges that "Tarun Gogoi got a complex from me (sic)". The friction started in 2012 when Himanta's candidate would win organisational elections in the party against Gogoi's candidate. He was slowly growing more popular than the Chief Minister. His channel, NewsLive, which is the most watched Assamese news channel, would be taking his message to the last man in Assam. And it was now becoming clear that he wanted his pound of flesh.

Soon the moniker 'super CM' started gaining currency. Tarun Gogoi, too, would often take a dig at him in press conferences and he would return the honour. Things came to a head when he claimed that he had the support of 55 Congress MLAs as opposed to 11 who backed Gogoi. Central leaders had to intervene and a meeting was called at Rahul Gandhi's residence where the then CM Tarun Gogoi, APCC president Anjan Dutta, senior leader CP Joshi, and Himanta Biswa Sarma were present. All that could go wrong, went wrong in the meeting.

THE FAMOUS STORY OF RAHUL'S DOG

In an interview with senior journalist Shekhar Gupta, Himanta recounted the meeting. “He was not conducting the meeting. He was busy with the dog, a small dog. When you have a discussion with a Chief Minister (Tarun Gogoi), you can have a lot of affection for your dog, but you don’t bring your dog to such a meeting. Suddenly, the dog started eating biscuits from our table. So while leaving, I told Tarun Gogoi ‘sir, it is goodbye for me’. You can have affection for the dog, but this is a serious discussion. You need to participate in it. You need to show that you are giving attention to people you have called to your home. Then you cannot show a king’s style' (sic)."

Talking to News18, he clarified that he has no problem with Rahul Gandhi's affection for his pet, but was dismayed by the lack of seriousness in a meeting which was called to iron out the differences in the Assam unit. And soon, he called it quits.

THE BJP STINT

Veteran journalists in Guwahati say Himanta joining the BJP was the watershed moment for the party not just in Assam, but the entire North East. There was hardly a leader who knew the Congress better in the North East. After switching over, Himanta took the oath of 'Congress-mukt North East'. Most say that without him, a victory in Assam would not have been possible. He held the maximum number of rallies and roadshows, addressed over 250 rallies and was the only party leader who was accepted across Upper Assam, Lower Assam and Barak valley. But ask him about it and he is quick to credit Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah. "Only because of the Act East policy of the Prime Minister did we manage to win both Assam and Manipur." Probably the old Congress art of passing on the credit to the high command is doing him good even here.

When asked how the BJP is different from the Congress, he is clear that he feels more valued here. "The leaders in the BJP are approachable. We get the phone numbers and they return our calls and emails. When you talk to the leaders, you don't feel that you are talking to the leaders. Their behaviour is like yours and mine, very middle-class. In the Congress, you would often not manage to get even a chair to sit. After serving the party for 20 years, I did get a chair to sit, but could only manage to get the numbers of some of the second-rung leaders. The high command was always inaccessible."

BJP'S GAIN IS CONGRESS'S LOSS?

In hindsight, the Congress's decision to let go of Himanta Biswa Sarma cost them dearly in the region. Leaders from across North East agree in private that if he were there, things could have been different for the Congress. Some in the party also speak of the possible Bengal model which could have saved the party in 2016. In the 2001 West Bengal elections, after 23 years of Jyoti Basu, the Left Front did a smooth transition to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and came up with the slogan, 'the alternative to the Left Front can only be a better or improved Left Front'.

In one move, they gave voters a fresh face within the same government. In spite of a spirited challenge from the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress, the Left was home. If the Congress could have given an alternative from within the fold, things probably wouldn’t have gone this bad.

But succession is a difficult game; a bloodless transition is even more difficult. When Himanta Biswa Sarma attempted a coup, he failed. Once he failed, the party decided to back the octogenarian instead of the maverick and the rest is history.

DUAL POWER CENTRE OF ASSAM

Though Sarbananda Sonowal is the Chief Minister of Assam, there is a dual power centre in the party here. Apart from Home, most of the key ministries, including Health, Finance, Education and Tourism, are with Himanta. And though he brushes aside CM ambitions citing the "responsibility of eight states" the party has given him, it is common knowledge in Guwahati that one slip and Sarbananda would be gobbled up by him.

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| Edited by: Puja Menon
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