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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 22, New Delhi, May 15, 2021

Inside Story: How Himanta Biswa Sarma Became Assam CM | Barun Das Gupta

Friday 14 May 2021, by Barun Das Gupta

The unanimous election of Himanta Biswa Sarma as the new Chief Minister of Assam had all the elements of a melodrama. First, all the 60 BJP MLAs were called to Delhi and each was asked to write the name of the person whom he wanted to see as chief minister. All sixty legislators named only Himanta. The first part of “Operation Chief Minister” was thus completed in Delhi.

The next act of the melodrama was played in the big hall of the Assam Assembly in Guwahati which was once the office of the AGP legislature party. The BJP Legislature Party met there. Narendra Singh Tomar, Union Agriculture Minister flew in from Delhi to steer the meeting. The name of Biswa Sarma was formally proposed. Tomar then asked the assembled BJP legislators to raise both their hands over their heads and clap. They obediently did what they were asked to do. Biswa Sarma was thus formally elected leader of the BJP Legislature Party.

Then came the third act of the melodrama. The outgoing former chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and the chief minister-designate Biswa Sarma set out for Raj Bhavan in the same car, pretending that everything was hunky dory between them. They formally informed the Governor that Biswa Sharma had been elected leader of the BJP Legislature party.. Sonowal, who was once Youth and Sports Minister at the Centre, is reportedly being catapulted back to Delhi where he is likely to get a berth in the Union Cabinet.

This scribe asked a friend at Guwahati how Sonowal had performed as a Union Minister earlier. The friend shot back: “Don’t you know that no minister has to ‘perform’ at the Centre? All the ministries are run by Prime Minister Modi himself through the PMO. Don’t you know that during his chief ministership in Assam, Sonowal held a sinecure and Biswa Sharma was the power behind the throne who ran the whole show?” After this, further conversation became unnecessary. Incidentally, it was Sonowal who was asked to propose formally Biswa Sharma’s name as the Leader at the BJP Legislature Party meeting. He dutifully did what he was asked to do.

Biswa Sarma’s political ambition is sky high. He was once associated with the secessionist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). He has been a controversial man all through. His name cropped up in connexion with the murder of Manabendra Sharma, the president of the Assam INTUC, in 1991. It was the then Congress Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia who persuaded him to join the Congress. As a quid pro quo all the cases against him under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA) were withdrawn.

After Hiteswar Saikia’s death in 1996, Prafulla Mahanta of AGP became the Chief Minister. In 2001, the Congress was voted back to power. The old war horse Tarun Gogoi became Chief Minister. In 2001 Biswa Sarma was elected to the Assam Assembly on Congress ticket. From then till 2014 he held different portfolios in the Assam cabinet. It was during this period that his ambition to become chief minister grew. As he found Gogoi to be the stumbling block on his way to fulfilling his dream, he turned against Gogoi. Having been thwarted in his ambition. he left the Congress party in 2015 along with a large number of legislators and joined the BJP. In the assembly elections next year, 2016, the Congress was defeated and the BJP came to power. Sarbananda Sonowal, a former leader of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), became chief minister with Biswa Sarma as a powerful minister in his cabinet. Since then he had been trying to become the chief minister himself. His ambition has now been fulfilled.

Two new political parties were formed on the eve of the assembly elections. One was the Asom Jatiyatabadi Dal and the other was the Raijor Dal (People’s Party) founded by the peasant leader Akhil Gogoi. Akhil Gogoi is the founder-secretary of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity. He landed himself in jail because of his untiring campaign against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. It was from jail that he contested the election and was returned from the Sibsagar constituency, defeating his nearest BJP rival Surabhi Rajkonwari by a comfortable margin of 11,875 votes.

According to some Assam watchers, if these two regional parties had fought the elections along with the Congress and the AIUDF, it might have been possible to defeat the BJP. But all these belong to the domain of might-have-beens. There is no use crying over spilt milk. Many parties in the country have still to realize that it is only when all the opposition parties committed to the ideals of secularism and democracy join their hands together that the BJP can be defeated. Mamata Banerjee fighting a lone battle in West Bengal has just proved that the BJP with all its money, muscle and propaganda power, can be made to kiss the dust.

However, Akhil Gogoi is still in jail and is not likely to be released any time soon because he had been arrested by the NIA and held for “anti-national activities”. Meanwhile, the Assam Assembly Secretariat has allotted him a bungalow in the housing complex of the legislators. But when he will be able to move into his bungalow is anybody’s guess.

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