It was nearing midnight but the lights were still on at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) office in Agartala.
In the conference room on the first floor, Assam Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma was holding a meeting with about 20 candidates for the Assembly election of 2018, in a state where the Communist Party of India-Marxist’s (CPM) Manik Sarkar had been in power for two decades. Sarma effortlessly struck a chord with them. Several of them had quit the Congress and joined BJP, as he had done three years earlier.
By the time he was made in-charge of Tripura, Sarma, then 48, had already proved to be BJP’s fiercest strategist against his old party. He began with decimating Congress, reaching out to almost each of its leaders. The BJP edged its way into the space of the main opposition, occupied by Congress, bracing itself for a face-off with CPM. This itself impacted 46-47 per cent of the votes. Needing to wean away the Tribal vote from the Left, BJP made the controversial move of going in for an alignment with the Tribal outfit Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), which had been demanding a separate state. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 19 of the 20 Tribal seats. Two years before the Assembly polls, if someone had asked him which state would be the most difficult for BJP to win, Sarma would have said Tripura. That hypothesis changed by the beginning of 2018, turning around to confidence about bringing down what had looked like an impregnable red citadel.
It was a strategy replicated from Assam, where BJP emerged victorious for the first time in 2016, defeating three-time Congress Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, making inroads into the Northeast, mostly a Congress turf. Politicians in Assam say it’s Sarma’s party in power in the state, more than Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s. Overshadowed by Sarma’s strategic skills and aggressive style, Sonowal, of a milder disposition, pales into the background. The contrast was amplified during the pandemic, when Sarma, the state health minister, gave out the Covid data on his Twitter handle for 270 days without a break, used social media to help people, enforced stringent testing and quarantine rules and became the face of the state’s fight against the coronavirus.
A BJP leader who has watched both politicians closely says that the chief minister, a quintessential Tribal from Dibrugarh in Upper Assam, is a quiet but shrewd player. Sarma, a Brahmin and eight years younger to Sonowal, may be seen as the de facto chief minister, but declaring him as BJP’s face could send out a message that the party was anti-Tribal in a state where around 12 per cent of the population is Tribal. The challenge before BJP is to balance the two faces, ensuring they work together, as the state heads for elections scheduled in April this year.
For Sarma, quitting Congress, which he was a part of for 23 years, was not an overnight decision. It had started ahead of the 2014 parliamentary elections, when Narendra Modi, then the Gujarat chief minister, had been projected as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, according to a BJP leader familiar with the developments. At that time, Ram Madhav was still in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), handling the election campaign in Assam. Sarma had fallen out with Gogoi, his former mentor, and wanted him replaced. Through a senior officer in Assam, Madhav connected with Sarma, who then met senior BJP leaders. The leader says that because of him, BJP ended up getting seven seats, abouttwo-three more than it was anticipating, out of the 14 Lok Sabha seats. It was, however, only by the middle of 2015 that BJP managed to convince Sarma to join the party. He joined in August, without conditions. Two months later, nine MLAs loyal to him, including a Muslim, quit Congress and joined BJP.
Sarma, no longer an ‘outsider’ in BJP, has indicated that he is not keen on fighting the state election this year. Everyone in the party knows he deserves to be rewarded. Some speculate it could be a cabinet berth at the Centre
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Within four months of Sarma’s joining, Sonowal, a former Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) member who had joined BJP in 2011, was declared as the chief ministerial candidate, leaving no scope for speculation. By then, Madhav, inducted into the party as general secretary in July 2014, had been given charge of Northeast affairs. It was Sarma who backed him in stitching up alliances with the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), a former Congress ally which fights for the cause of Bodos. He worked hard, pulling out all the stops, taking advantage of his familiarity with local MLAs. It left him no time to campaign in his own constituency. Amit Shah, realising this, held the last rally before campaigning closed in his constituency, Jalukbari, in Guwahati. This moved Sarma, who while addressing a rally on his home turf, made an emotional speech, launching a fierce attack on Gogoi and expressing his gratitude for the “respect” that BJP had given him. The alliance won 86 of the 126 Assembly seats, with BJP itself scoring 60. The AGP got 14, and BPF 12. Sonowal was anointed chief minister and Sarma was inducted into his cabinet with portfolios of health and education.
That was just the beginning of Sarma’s performance as a vote mobiliser for BJP. The party leadership appointed him convenor of the North-East Democratic Alliance. One after another, BJP captured the northeastern states. He became Congress’ most formidable foe, not just in Assam but the entire Northeast, though a different strategy was adopted in each state. “An energetic and committed party leader, his contribution to the rise of BJP in Assam and other states is critical. He will play a significant role in retaining the party’s hold in the region,” says Ram Madhav.
In Manipur, it was his persuasive skills with four MLAs of Conrad Sangma’s National People’s Party (NPP) that brought BJP to power in 2018. In June last year, when the N Biren Singh government plunged into a political crisis with NPP MLAs withdrawing support, Sarma, along with Sangma, flew to Imphal. The MLAs were brought back into the NDA fold.
A WORKAHOLIC, Sarma would hop from one constituency to another through the day and catch up on sleep while travelling all night. “He’s an election machine. I have seen him meet people till 2AM. BJP has utilised his experience and understanding of the Northeast to its advantage very well,” says former Congress leader Kirit Pradyot Deb Barman, heir to Tripura’s Manikya dynasty. Sarma had approached him to join BJP but Deb Barman had maintained that he would not be able to accept certain policies of the party. Their personal relations, however, remained cordial. Deb Barman says few people are aware that last year Sarma had played a significant role, along with Home Minister Amit Shah and himself, in settling 34,000 Bru refugees in Tripura.
A BJP leader described him as an articulate politician who is daring and a doer. Sarma now faces a bigger challenge in his home state—ensuring another victory for BJP, revealing the extent to which the party led by Modi and Shah holds sway over a region it started capturing electorallyonly recently. It was in Assam, with Upper Assam being the epicentre, that protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which grants Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan Indian citizenship, had sparked off first. Indigenous Assamese fear that giving Hindu Bangladeshis legal sanctity would be a demographic threat. As anti-CAA protests gripped the state last year, Sonowal, who began his political career with the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which had spearheaded the agitation for the Assam Accord, remained silent. The Accord, signed in 1985, introducing an amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955, legislated that all those who entered Assam after March 24th, 1971, would be deported. Sarma, who openly defended the CAA saying it did not dilute the Accord but would address its unresolved issues, was shown black flags at the Republic Day function last year. Opposition leaders accuse Sarma of wading into the politics of religious polarisation in a state with nearly a 35 per cent Muslim population, but he has maintained that the issue is more about ethnic differences.
Lauded for his handling of the pandemic, he has reinforced his image as BJP’s most dynamic face in the state. He would often stay up late in the night with the team involved in data crunching. It was also a time when he put behind political differences. Wearing a personal protective equipment (PPE) kit, he walked into a hospital and met his arch-rival Gogoi and other MLAs, who had tested positive for Covid. When Gogoi died in November, Sarma, who was once a minister in his cabinet, described him as the architect of modern Assam. It was apparently Sarma who was given charge of the Congress strategy for the 2011 election, reinstating Gogoi as chief minister for the third term.
A workaholic, Sarma would hop from one constituency to another through the day and catch up on sleep while travelling all night. He has been described as an articulate politician who is daring and a doer
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Five years later, he was BJP’s pointsman to bring down the Gogoi government. With Gogoi gone and Congress silent on a chief ministerial face, BJP is bracing up for a fight with a Congress-led Grand Alliance. Sarma has played down the impact of the Congress’ alliance with perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and the Left parties, which is hoping to gain from the anti-CAA vote. A slice of this vote, however, could go to local parties like Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and AASU. Sarma is trying to turn it to BJP’s advantage. “The only aim of Ajmal, the Congress and other regional parties is to bring Babur’s rule in Assam. But till BJP’s Hanumans are here, we will not deviate from Ram’s ideals,” he said, addressing a public rally in Shah’s presence.
Undaunted by opposition criticism, he has gone ahead with decisions that have brought him in the line of fire. As education minister, he decided to convert all state-run madrassas into regular schools. The opposition accused him of trying to polarise voters ahead of elections, while Sarma maintained it was meant to modernise those institutions and the regulation did not extend to the private ones. His argument is that if the government is spending Rs 600 crore for teaching the Quran, then why not the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita.
Those who have known Sarma during his Congress days say he may have stayed on in the party had he been given a Rajya Sabha seat. In 2014, Congress gave Sanjay Singh, a party leader from Uttar Pradesh and Raja of Amethi, a Rajya Sabha seat from Assam, a move Sarma alleged was aimed at ensuring Rahul Gandhi’s victory in Amethi. That was the last straw for Sarma, who had been winning the Jalukbari Assembly constituency continuously from 2001. Ironically, four years later, Singh himself quit Congress and joined BJP. A Congress leader from Assam, who does not want to be named, asks what has changed for Sarma who “left to fulfil a dream” but is again fighting elections to make someone else the chief minister.
Sarma has no time to waste. He is pursuing his dream—carving a niche for himself in whatever role he is assigned. The BJP’s Northeast trouble-shooter is again busy moving from one constituency to another. Both Modi and Shah recently visited Assam. The prime minister, who distributed land pattas or allotment certificates to over a lakh indigenous Assamese, skipped any mention of the CAA. It was also absent from Shah’s speech. He described the Bodo Peace Accord signed with the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) and the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU), which spearheaded a movement for Bodoland, as the beginning of the end of insurgency in the state.
Sarma, no longer an ‘outsider’ in BJP, has indicated that he is not keen on fighting the state election this year. Everyone in the party knows he deserves to be rewarded. Some speculate it could be a cabinet berth at the Centre. Whatever it is, it will define the road ahead for him. At 51, he still has a long way to go.