The dissidence in the Assam Congress finally seems to have been quelled, and the BJP can take much of the credit for that. What the Congress netas in Assam and New Delhi couldn’t do for the past three years, the BJP did effortlessly last fortnight – that of steeling the resolve of Assam Congress master strategist Himanta Biswa Sarma to remain in the party and engage in efforts at repairing the damage ahead of the 2016 Assembly polls.
Before the recent turn of events, Sarma, who is Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s bête noire in the Assam Congress, was rumoured to have been at the BJP’s doorstep, about to enter the party. That he did not do so is because some BJP netas from Assam and Delhi worked overtime to sabotage his impending inductionh. A printed booklet charging him with being the ‘main accused’ in the Louis Berger water project bribery case in the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA) surfaced around the time the rumours of his defection were floating around. So what if the US Federal Bureau of Investigation or the US Justice Department documents do not talk of any Assam ‘minister’ receiving kickbacks; for the BJP, this did not matter.
Sarma, of course, had never confirmed he was in talks with the BJP leaders in a possible bid to join the party, or that he was even engaging in discussions with the AGP leadership, toying with the idea of being part of a new regional force. What cannot be denied, however, is that he has been openly opposing the leadership of Chief Minister Gogoi, a fact that made several party MLAs rally around him and give an impression that he was the key dissident leader working to emerge as an alternative to Gogoi. That the Congress high-command let him be and refused to take any action against him in the past three years only goes to indicate he was someone the party was not willing to dispense with because of his influence and ability to be useful in difficult situations.
Like any ambitious young leader with potential, Sarma may have got frustrated at his or his lobby’s inability to effect a leadership change in the state and at the near-blind support the AICC lent to Gogoi. That is why it is likely he was tempted to try his luck elsewhere.
Authoritative sources within the BJP say that influential sections in the party were keen to have him in the party fold ahead of next year’s elections. Those BJP leaders who wanted Himanta to join the party even apparently lobbied for him. But there was another section within the BJP which didn’t want him, and it is obviously this group which may have taken the lead in giving an instant verdict against him in the Louis Berger case. They could actually have been apprehensive of the Congressman’s potential to hijack the saffron party’s leadership position in the state.
If the BJP decision to hit out at Sarma in the kickback case helped end the long-standing dissidence within the Assam Congress, it has also widened the divide within the state BJP. This divide is over the question of local leadership and can damage its prospects in 2016, something more astute party workers are aware of.
That Sonia Gandhi agreed to meet Sarma within 48 hours of the BJP news conference in Delhi where the party levelled its kickback charges against him goes to indicate the Congress is keen on sending out an all-is-well message. It also suggests Himanta may have finally decided that the Congress is his best bet after all. By sending out a message that Sarma is a man in demand within the party, the Congress high-command hopes he and his rivals will now bury the hatchet and go all out to ensure a Congress win in next year’s assembly elections.
Wasbir Hussain is a political commentator and Executive Director, Centre for Development and Peace Studies, Guwahati