At Guwahati’s Sankardev Kalakshetra Auditorium, Himanta Biswa Sarma took oath on Monday as the 15th chief minister of Assam.
In the recently concluded elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led ‘Mitrajot’ alliance, which also comprises the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), secured an impressive victory, bagging 75 seats in the 126-member assembly. With this, the incumbent alliance has become the first non-Congress government to retain power for a consecutive term in the state’s political history.
While most acknowledged Sarma as the architect of Mitrajot’s success, a section of the BJP leadership felt uneasy about the prospect of his elevation to chief ministership on the basis of it. It was felt that despite Sarma’s role during the elections, it was under the banner of Sarbananda Sonowal’s leadership as chief minister that the Mitrajot has achieved its success. Besides, Sonowal also had a successful performance record and belonged to the tribal community, as opposed to Sarma’s ‘upper’-caste background, which was also why he should continue in office.
Consequently, such divergent views about who should assume the top position led to a momentary impasse in government formation. As state-level talks failed to yield any solution, both Sarma and Sonowal were summoned to Delhi where they held three rounds of discussion with the BJP central leadership. Following these parleys, the BJP legislature party met the next day in Dispur, where Sonowal proposed Sarma’s name as its leader, revealing the central leadership’s choice in the process.
As Sarma begins his new innings as chief minister, the way the BJP has settled the leadership question once again reiterates the party’s much more pragmatic approach towards politics, which has helped it move from strength to strength, in comparison with the Congress, whose choices often seem to suffer from a dearth of objective judgement.
At the peak of the leadership tussle between Tarun Gogoi, then chief minister of Assam, and Sarma (who till then had not joined BJP), the Congress high command had deputed senior leader Mallikarjun Kharge to look into the situation. During his visit, despite a majority of party legislators and office bearers reportedly expressing their support for Sarma, the Congress high command responded, first by trying to defer the matter and thereafter by sidelining him. The ensuing spiral of events, as has become well known now, led to Sarma’s exit from the Congress.
Under what consideration did the Congress high command ignore Sarma’s claim? Was it because of a colossal misappraisal of his influence? Or was he bypassed because of certain other vested reasons? Sarma often said that Congress leadership disdained him for not belonging to the “blue-blood culture”, referring to his humble origins.
It is difficult to give a precise answer regarding this. But what could be reasonably argued is that the Congress high command perhaps did not even factor in basic political considerations before deciding to turn its back on Sarma.
His elevation at that time could have helped the Congress in multiple ways.
By standing behind Sarma, who led the larger faction, the Congress high command, before anything else, could have ensured the continued stability of both the government and party. Replacing Gogoi at that juncture could have helped the Congress fight leader fatigue that was beginning to develop after he assumed office for the third term. Sarma’s appointment to the top post would have not only invigorated the public appeal of the government and party, but could have also tempered the growing popularity of the BJP in the region, which was rapidly beginning to make inroads into Assam around that time.
Notwithstanding such prospects, the Congress high command instead chose to lend its weight behind an octogenarian, who was by then at the fag end of his political career at the cost of one of its most efficient political managers.
In contrast, BJP’s decision to elevate Sarma has come on the basis of some hard political calculations, which clearly outweigh any qualms about asking an apparently successful incumbent chief minister to step down.
To begin with, the BJP leadership’s choice clearly reflects a realistic understanding that the party’s recent performances in the state owes much more to Sarma’s popularity and political weight rather than the goodwill enjoyed either by Sonowal or even Narendra Modi for that matter. For many years, the people of Assam had been hoping to see Sarma as the state’s chief minister. As such, the BJP could also hope to tap the enormous public appeal that his succession has generated, which would also help it diffuse any emerging challenges to its power for some time.
Also, as the leader who commands a majority of the MLAs’ support, it is quite natural that the BJP central leadership would back Sarma in the interest of a stable government. It has also been alleged that Sarma made it amply clear to the party leadership that if Sonowal continued in office, he was neither interested in joining the ministry nor would he take the Rajya Sabha route. The party, as such, did not wish to take the unnecessary gamble of disgruntling Sarma, especially in view of meeting some of its long-term interests.
One such interest revolves around the next Lok Sabha elections. The BJP’s drubbing in the West Bengal elections has put its future prospects in the state under some amount of uncertainty. With Mamata Banerjee’s return with a strong majority, the BJP is unlikely to be able to capitalise on the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats as much it would have otherwise wanted. This has once again made it imperative for the party to make big gains across northeastern states, which consist of 25 seats, in the interest of its overall prospects. In 2019, under Sarma’s leadership, who is also BJP’s NEDA (North-East Democratic Alliance) convenor, the NDA won 19 seats, in what was once of its best ever performances in the region. As such, the party is once again dependent upon him for putting up a good show in northeastern India. This has perhaps been the single most important factor for placating Sarma by offering him the top position.
If the Congress used a similar mode of reasoning, the party could have perhaps saved itself from being routed not only in Assam but also across the northeast, which was once its formidable fortress. But the fact that BJP has been able to look at politics much more clinically, once again serves to explain its success on one hand and on the other hand, the Congress’s continuing downward spiral, not only in the recently concluded elections in Assam but in most elections across the country over the last few years.
Abhinav P. Borbora teaches political science at the Assam Royal Global University, Guwahati.