Himanta Biswa Sarma: BJP’s Prashant Kishor for Assam
How Himanta Biswa Sarma, a former student leader and Congress minister, rose in politics and directed BJP’s popularity wave in the state
Mumbai: At 8am on the morning of the second phase of polling in Assam on 11 April, Guwahati’s usually congested roads are empty. Every few blocks, long lines of voters, who have been queuing before 6am, break the calm. Inside the drawing room of Himanta Biswa Sarma’s opulent house on Zoo Road, well-wishers wait to greet him. A Lhasa Apso soundlessly emerges from within the house to bark at the gun-toting guards outside. No one talks.
It’s been less than a week since Sarma’s return to Guwahati. As the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election convener, he has been busy travelling and campaigning across the state. He finally had the chance to visit his own constituency of Jalukbari, the state’s intellectual nerve centre where the Guwahati University is located, barely two days before the close of campaigning. On that visit, Sarma made a tearful plea that on his death, his final farewell should be from Jalukbari, the place from where he first became an MLA in 2001.
Sarma is not unlike the proverbial cat with nine lives. Though only in his late forties, he has already worked with the most influential political actors in Assam, be it the All Assam Students Union (AASU) or the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). In his decades-long innings with the Congress party, he rose to become a powerful minister and chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s right-hand man. Not only did he survive repeated allegations of corruption, but in joining the BJP after being ousted from the Congress, he relaunched his career. Though Sarbananda Sonowal is the BJP’s official CM candidate, everyone knows that Sarma has done most of the ground work in rallying support for the party and crafting the strategic alliances with the Bodoland People’s Front and the AGP.
But Sarma is also a controversial figure. His critics, who accuse him amassing wealth through corrupt means, call him a Machiavellian operator. His followers point to his sound track record as a minister holding the key portfolios of health and education.
His tenure as a health minister saw the establishment of Assam’s first medical university and the opening of three new medical colleges. Yet, his name cropped up in two of the biggest scandals to have surfaced in Assam in the last five years: the Saradha chit-fund scam, and alleged bribery of officials by Louis Berger, a consulting firm for a water supply project in Guwahati.
Half an hour later, when Sarma emerges to greet the visitors, he looks relaxed and supremely confident. He betrays no signs of campaign fatigue, and he doesn’t appear to be affected by the controversies that have emerged during the intense campaign.
Only two days ago, Sarma had argued at a rally that instead of 1971, the BJP would ensure that 1951 would be the cut-off year for granting citizenship to migrants, going against the hard-won, fragile, political consensus for 1971 as the base year. Tarun Gogoi, the chief minister, was quick to attack him on this. Sarma clarified on Twitter that he had not made such a claim, but the clarification came two days late. He says he hadn’t made a case for shifting the date of deportation of illegal migrants from 1971 to 1951. Instead, he says the 1951 date is crucial because it seeks to define who is an indigenous Assamese.
“Since it’s so hard to define who is an Assamese, I propose a broader definition called Asom baxi, or Assam-based citizen. This definition will include tribals, Bengali Hindus who migrated from Bangladesh, as well as a Bihari or a Marwari who came to Assam as recently as 2014,” he says.
This is a drastic shift for a politician like Sarma, who is a product of the sub-nationalist Assam movement of the 1980s that sought to protect the rights of indigenous peoples against those of foreigners or migrants. Sarma articulates the social engineering that the BJP and its spiritual parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh combine have sought carry out in Assam of late. He argues that Bengali Hindus should be recognised as Assamese without reference to date and year.
Sarma brushes aside any suggestion that this may alienate the Assamese voter base. “Middle class Assamese have gradually understood that Bengali Hindus are not culturally and politically aggressive. Besides, Bengali Hindus are the victims of partition and amount to only 2 lakh in number. This is not a huge burden. The Bengali Hindus are our natural allies in fighting the communal politics of Badruddin Ajmal,” he argues. Ajmal is a veteran Muslim politician from Assam.
Sarma does not mention the protests that had erupted across the state last September after a central government notification granted stay rights to Bangladeshi Hindus. Identity politics is the key issue on which this election has been fought, and the BJP’s tall promises of deporting illegal migrants sounds ironic when one considers the fact that Sarma, its star campaigner, was in fact the minister in charge of implementing the Assam Accord of 1985. His critics argue that if he could not do his job then, what is the guarantee that he will be effective this time around?
Sarma appears undisturbed by the criticism, and argues that during his time, he managed to close most of the India-Bangladesh border, and persuaded the Muslim minorities to agree to the National Register of Citizens update.
A month later, ahead of the exit polls, Sarma took back his own words and reiterated his demand that 1951 be made the cut-off date for determining citizenship for those living in Assam. A look at his Twitter timeline is enough to tell the story of his flip-flop on the issue. A few minority organisations criticised him for making these statements, but curiously enough, there were no large scale protests.
Akhil Ranjan Dutta, a political science professor at Gauhati University, explains that Sarma’s statement is a calculated move to shape the political discourse in his favour. “He is playing to hardline elements who form the backbone of Hindutva support. Sarma also said in the interview that 1951 would have no impact in areas of lower Assam where BJP anyway doesn’t have a chance of winning. So, it won’t hurt the BJP’s electoral support. He is trying to delegitimise the signatories to the Assam Accord (which had agreed on 1971 as the cut-off date), including the Congress, the Gandhi family, but also Prafulla Mahanta, who remains popular,” he argues.
Dutta also points out that Sonowal’s reputation as a leader is built on the fact that he had successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to have the 1983 Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act (IMDT Act) struck down. “But the challenge to the IMDT was built on the tacit acknowledgement of 1971 as the cut-off date for determining citizenship. So Sonowal could not have made this demand for 1951. It is a clever move by Sarma to ensure that he stays at the centre of the political debate. He is using the media to position himself as the leader of the indigenous people, and as a change agent,” he explains.
The story of how Sarma came to join BJP is well known, but how did he rise in the BJP so quickly, especially when several rank and file members of the BJP were opposed to his entry? Sarma argues that at the outset, there were no ideological handicaps to the union. “The BJP’s core ideology reflects my line of thinking: sabka saath, sabka vikas. I believe in Hinduism, in Sufism, in Tagore’s humanism, just like (BJP president) Amit Shah and (Narendra) Modi. For the last 6 months, I have been talking to Amit Shah on a day-to-day basis. The BJP central leadership encourages local leaders,” he says.
He denies that he has any specific mentor in the party, but points to Ram Madhav as the man who inspired him to join the BJP. “I have been in touch with Madhav for about 2 to 3 years, and he was the bridge between me, and Amit Shah and Modi,” he says. He also credits Madhav for the idea of a rainbow alliance of the AGP, BPF, the Rabha and Tiwa (tribes). “We wanted the Mising (tribe) also, so we could have a 50% (poll) understanding with them, if not completely. He (Madhav) was the person who said that we need to create a rainbow alliance against Badruddin Ajmal and create a sense of oneness amongst indigenous people. He took that idea to Amit Shah, who greatly supported the plan. So, in a sense, the entire election victory is to the credit of Mr. Amit Shah and Mr. Ram Madhav,” he explains.
He credits these two leaders for handling the entire campaign competently, and also for certain “swift moves” that smoothened away any opposition to the alliance with the BPF and AGP.
This air of newfound bonhomie masks the fact that only two years ago, Sarma had publicly criticised Modi, famously stating in an election rally that the blood of Muslims flows through the water pipes of Gujarat, referring to the 2002 riots. So what is Sarma’s equation with Modi now? Sarma says that on the few occasions he met Modi, the prime minister advised him not to “commit mistakes” -- a warning to be careful with public pronouncements and avoid strategic errors, like promoting the wrong candidate. “I have shared the dais with Modiji 9-10 times, and he would ask me questions in micro detail, things that he wouldn’t know through the IB (Intelligence Bureau), for instance. He is in complete command of the situation in Assam. He told me that there are 400 districts in the country where he has stayed for at least two days. He would share these insights between meetings. He would say that we (Modi and his team) are very hard-working people, and he would urge me to work hard,” he explains.
Sarma also states that he is inspired by Modi’s ability to connect with audiences. “Modiji knows what to speak to the crowd. He brings new content according to the audience. Modiji’s communication is a two-way communication. He asks questions and engages audiences. I have tried to emulate this in the last few rallies,” Sarma says.
It’s easy to understand why this aspect of Modi may have struck him the most. In many ways, Sarma’s glib responses reflect the pugilism of a debater, a throwback to the days when he was general secretary of the Cotton College student’s union. The lawyer in him is never too far away when tough questions are posed. When questioned about the corruption charges, he reminds me that he is a lawyer by training. “There is no documentary evidence against me,” he claims, seemingly unnerved by a statement made by Amit Shah at an election rally only days ago that no one involved in scams would be spared. “If I was guilty, then Tarun Gogoi would not have spared me,” he states confidently. Gogoi has publicly named him as an accused in corruption cases, which provoked Sarma to file a Rs100-crore defamation case against his former mentor. The question gets him somewhat agitated and aggressive, and I move on to other topics.
As someone who first made his mark as a student leader in the Cotton College elections, I am curious about what he thinks of student politics, and of leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar, the Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ union president targeted by BJP supporters. “Kumar’s politics are not constructive. Left student politics is very bad,” he replies. He argues that students should be more nationalistic and should join the “mainstream”. He blames faculty members for grooming students to become ideologically oriented.
In winning this election, Sarma has scripted history for the BJP. Yet, throughout the interview, he is careful not to bad-mouth his former mentor, Tarun Gogoi, and indirectly acknowledges that he owes his career to the Congress. “It was (late Congress leader) Hiteshwar Saikia who inducted me into politics, and without this, I would have continued practising as a lawyer,” he tells me. Gogoi, in the meantime, has made no secret of his intense dislike for his former protégé. He even organised a press conference on the day of polling to complain about violations of the poll conduct by the BJP, accusing Sarma of leading a bike rally on the day before polling. But Sarma has someone else in his crosshairs, that person being the All India United Democratic Front leader Badruddin Ajmal. Sarma repeatedly singles out Ajmal as the “social enemy”. “We are here to tackle a social problem. Congress is not our cause of worry,” he says.
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