Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam minister and BJP’s chief strategist for the Northeast, is often described as the de facto chief minister of the state, but he disagrees saying he just happens to be seen more because of the kind of responsibilities he handles. On the campaign trail for the upcoming Assam elections, Sarma takes time out to speak to Open on a range of issues. Excerpts from the interview:
What inspired you to join politics?
I was in the student movement right from childhood. In class five, I joined the Assam agitation. Later, I started doing organisational activities with AASU (All Assam Students’ Union). I was general secretary of Assam’s most prestigious Cotton College for three consecutive terms, which was a sort of record. Since it’s a government college, you need to meet ministers for development of the college. I came into close contact with Hiteshwar Saikia, who was then chief minister. I wanted to be an advocate, but he inspired me to fight elections, that too against Bhrigu Kumar Phukan of AASU. Congress could not hope to win. It used to get 9,000 votes while Phukan would get 70,000. I got involved in political activities and simultaneously started doing law. In 1996, I was 26 when Saikia gave me a ticket to contest from Jalukbari. I lost to Phukan by 7,000 votes. Saikia passed away during the election. I continued with my legal profession till 2001, and again fought from Jalukbari and defeated Phukan by 12,000 votes. By then, it was the Tarun Gogoi era and he inducted me as a minister in 2002. Initially, I was not keen on joining politics but Saikia inspired me to join.
How would you describe your five years in BJP?
I joined BJP because of my deep frustration with Congress, and particularly Rahul Gandhi. After joining BJP, I got a lot of affection, love and respect. The Northeast was an unexplored territory for BJP. Gradually, the Sangh and party started working in the entire Northeast region. Because of the ideological commitment, working relationship and family bonding, I became part of the system in one year. In contrast to Congress, where an ordinary worker has no respect, BJP values every member with respect.
Under the visionary leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, BJP knew the Northeast deserved a better deal and there was an opportunity to bring about change. It was a mission for the party to ensure good governance in the region and I was lucky to have got an opportunity to work in close coordination with the central leadership on this. My role as NEDA convenor gave me ample opportunity to use my understanding of the region, and along with a fine set of very dedicated party workers, we were able to bring about a difference. I also had the chance to work in so many states and I am glad that I was able to deliver as per the leadership’s expectations. For an ordinary party worker like me, the opportunity to work closely with the prime minister, home minister and karyakartas was a golden one. During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when Amit Shah (then the party president) visited Assam, he said Himanta has integrated into the party ideology like sugar dissolves into milk.
Was there any ideological conflict in joining BJP? Did you face any such dilemma later?
If you see the history of Assam Congress, right from the time of Gopinath Bordoloi, it has been against illegal migration. If you see some of the writings of the Congress party in the late 1940s, you will see that it was more BJP than BJP today. Except during the Assam agitation, Assam Congress, by and large, has been against illegal infiltration. Congress has a tradition of strong nationalist ideals. While in Congress, we took a hard stand against infiltration, Badruddin Ajmal and Indo-Bangla border issues. So, for me moving to BJP was a natural journey. Congress faltered on the way, and gave in to Ajmal. I have not changed but the Congress has changed. If you see the communication between Mahatma Gandhi and Bordoloi, and compare with BJP today, Congress is more rightist. The Congress has changed now because of political considerations. In practicality, there may have been some changes, but theoretically and ideologically, I didn’t have to change.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the Assam election this year?
The biggest challenge is the growing Bangladeshi Muslim community which is against BJP. Their numbers have grown. But at the same time, we have gained confidence in new segments. Of the 126 seats, in 40-42, we face a tough challenge. In other seats, it’s by and large fine.
Congress has entered into an alliance with Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF. How do you plan to counter it? Do you see a Muslim consolidation?
I want them to consolidate. We want to do development for the Muslim community. We don’t expect their votes. We know migrant Muslims won’t vote for us. We are prepared for it. There are thousands of polling booths where BJP will not get any vote. In 2016 also, the Muslims did not vote for BJP. Either they will pick Congress or AIUDF, but they will vote against BJP. They split where they are 80 per cent. There are 20 constituencies where BJP will not get even 5,000 votes. From the arithmetic point of view, there was a split, but that is where they felt BJP will not win despite the split. Where they felt BJP could win, they voted for one candidate. If you dissect, even earlier Muslims voted for one candidate, but they will vote against BJP.
How far will the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA) hurt the party? How do you plan to counter the anger over CAA?
There are elements strongly opposed to the CAA. There are people representing strong regional sentiments. But there are several other issues that are evident and for which people will vote for us—like the way we worked during the pandemic, generation of employment opportunities, development work and taking infrastructure to a new high. All of this will weigh in our favour and people will vote for us despite their opposition to the CAA. I do not think the electoral outcome will be impacted by opposition to the CAA. Those people opposed to the CAA will also vote for BJP because they have seen the kind of work done in the past five years.
How will the absence of Tarun Gogoi impact elections?
Gogoi was 92 years old. He has not campaigned in the last two elections. He was on the verge of retirement. Apart from the loss of a gigantic leader, it will not affect elections. It will not affect Congress except that it may be deprived of his counsel.
Which has been your most challenging moment in the past five years?
There have been two challenging moments. One was the outbreak of sentiments after the CAA was passed. There was agitation on the streets. The seven days after Rajya Sabha cleared it was a tough period. In 2020 when we faced Covid, it became very challenging.
A lot of people say you are the de facto chief minister. How do you see your own role in Assam?
Actually, these are words I do not agree with. I have departments which are people-centric, like roads, education and health. Obviously, my public appearances are more (frequent). Importantly, because of Covid and my political responsibilities, I am seen more in the forefront. Some people use words like de facto, but I do not agree because everyone has their own responsibilities. The chief minister (Sarbananda Sonowal) and I have been working harmoniously together for over five years. This has frustrated many. Some thought we would fight, but there is complete harmony.
Why have you decided against fighting this Assembly election?
I have fought five Assembly elections, of which I have won four. I have requested my central leadership to consider me for parliamentary elections. I have written to the state party president and central party indicating that given an opportunity, I would like to move to Delhi. But I have said that I will go by whatever the party decides. In BJP, it has to be the party’s call. I never said I won’t contest elections, but that I don’t want to fight Assembly elections.