Assam Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sharma’s new saffron avatar has added colour to an otherwise dull and predictable political situation in the State. The inevitable finally happened—Sharma, a three-time Congress MLA and minister has quit the party and joined the BJP. This drastic shift took place because the Congress, to which he belonged, refused to vest the leadership position of the Assam Congress Legislature Party to him. The Congress leaders, both in the State as well as the AICC, ignored the view of the dissident camp led by Sharma who wanted a new Chief Minister in place of Tarun Gogoi. Pushed to the wall after the mother-son duo of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi decided to throw their weight behind Gogoi, Sharma decided to desert the Congress.
Loss for Congress?
The key question that has arisen now is this—is Sharma’s exit a loss to the Congress or a gain for the BJP in Assam in an election year? Despite a brave face being put up by Chief Minister Gogoi, Sharma’s desertion of the Congress has sent out a message that the party listens only to the views of the Nehru-Gandhi loyalists. It has put a question mark on the Congress’ inner-party democracy. That aside, it has brought to the public consciousness a perception that Gogoi, who has since made known his desire to lead the party for the fourth consecutive term, is even prepared to sacrifice the interest of the Congress to have his way and hold on to his position.
Half-a-dozen Sharma loyalists, all Congress MLAs, have already declared their intent to go with him, obviously to don saffron colours. Again, the key issue here is not how many of the 78 Congress legislators are going to actually side with Sharma eventually and quit the party. In an election year it’s more about the message that goes out to the electorate. Congress MLAs making statements against the party’s leadership at this juncture is bound to damage the poll prospects. For example, a one-time Sharma loyalist Chandan Sarkar, now a minister in the Gogoi cabinet, decided to openly say on television that he and 51 other Congress MLAs had at one stage lent their support to Sharma after accepting him as their leader. He got agitated and said it was Sharma who went to the Governor and resigned his ministership ‘without telling us.’ Admissions like these by Gogoi’s ministers are damaging to the party.
Chief Minister Gogoi is right when he says the exit of one man from the party cannot impact its overall performance. But the issue again is not of Himanta Biswa Sharma quitting the Congress, it is about the party’s failure to quell the rebellion. Questions are being asked as to why the Gandhis refused to be bothered about the party affairs in Assam where it had come to power thrice in a row. What has been really perplexing is the AICC’s decision discipline Sharma any time during the past two years when he was leading the dissent in the state’s CLP. The result is there now for all to see. The Congress high command sent feelers to Sharma within 48-hours of his announcing his decision to join the BJP, but it was too late in the day.
Will the BJP gain by inducting Sharma? Well, the BJP’s organizational machinery is still far from satisfactory in Assam. Besides, the party is desperately trying to knit together an informal coalition of small ethnic political forces to work together and expand its vote base during the 2016 polls. In this endeavour, the BJP hopes to cash in with Sharma’s known connections and network with these groups. Already, the biggest ethnic political party in Assam, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), which is in power in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), has expressed support to Sharma and his decision to join the BJP. This is what the BJP hopes to achieve with his induction—a realignment of political forces in the State ahead of the polls in 2016. Moreover, Sharma could emerge as a counter-balancing force within the Assam BJP where more than two leaders are in a race to emerge as the mascot for the polls next year, which will, of course, be fought under the banner of brand Narendra Modi.
(A political commentator, Wasbir Hussain is Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati)