A beleaguered Central Leadership humbled by Himanta's powerplay - Has BJP honoured the loyal 'karyakarta ' in Sarbananda Sonowal?
In the famous TV series, Game of Thrones, there is a scene to which we can refer to, for understanding the turn of events leading to the dawn of the season of ‘Himanta ‘ on Assam’s horizon.
The scene is mounted against two of the most prominent characters of the series- Lord Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, the realm’s Master of Coin, and Queen-Regent Cersei Lannister. Baelish is approached by Cersei, accompanied by four Lannister guardsmen, as he walks through the Red Keep. The missing Arya Stark weighs heavily on Cersei’s mind and she entreats Baelish to use his resources to find her. Littlefinger points to Varys, the Spider, as a better source of information.
The conversation rapidly takes a nasty turn, as Baelish tries to press home the point that “KNOWLEDGE IS POWER ” and that he knows all about the affair between Cersei and her brother Jaime. Queen Cersei orders her soldiers to kill Lord Baelish right away and suddenly changes her mind just as the soldiers were about to decapitate him. Queen walks up to Lord Baelish and reminds him –
” POWER IS POWER “
Since the inception of the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980, there have been only a few exceptions where a sitting Chief Minister was ousted by the Central Leadership of the BJP. One such outlier in the BJP’s mode of functioning happens to be the story behind the rise of the Prime Minister of India himself. In 2001, Keshubhai Patel’s health was failing and the BJP lost a few state assembly seats in by-elections in Gujarat. Allegations of abuse of power, corruption, and poor administration were made, and Patel’s standing had been damaged by his administration’s handling of the earthquake in Bhuj in 2001.
The BJP national leadership sought a new candidate for the chief ministership, and Modi, who had expressed misgivings about Patel’s administration, was chosen as a replacement. Although BJP leader L. K. Advani did not want to ostracize Patel and was concerned about Modi’s lack of experience in government, Modi, reportedly, declined an offer to be Patel’s deputy chief minister, telling Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee that he was “going to be fully responsible for Gujarat or not at all”.On 3rd October 2001, Narendra Modi replaced Patel as Chief Minister of Gujarat and thus began the saga of Narendra Modi.
In the context of Assam, BJP has made its most significant departure from its long-standing policy of strictly adhering to organisational hierarchy. Sarbananda Sonowal had a clean image, rang hearts across communities, remained restrained in his language, and acted in Vajpayeean-demeanour. Humble in victory, tolerant to dissent, perceptive to the opposition, sufficiently obsequious to the top brass at Delhi – that is how a kind observer would describe Sarbananda Sonowal. One can never point out any flaw as to his ability to provide BJP with transparent, accountable and effective leadership in Assam.
Thus, it will be interesting to delve into the reasons why the Central Leadership may have been forced to sacrifice Sarbonanda Sonowal to Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma’s political clout.
1) The ghosts of the Maharashtra experience.
Despite NDA managing to get a comfortable majority in the Maharashtra Assembly in 2019, the BJP is not in power in Maharashtra. In the tussle for the Chief minister’s post, BJP was trumped by an incredible decision of the Shiv Sena to ally with the UPA. The UPA cashed into the crisis between the Sena and BJP and propped up Uddhav Thackrey as the Chief Minister, thereby, successfully keeping BJP out of power. While it continues to be the single largest party in the Assembly, the Central Leadership mustn’t have forgotten the painful Maharashtra experience.
When the NDA successfully returned to power under the leadership of the incumbent Chief Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, Assam’s political climate was ripe with politicking around the possibility of yet another political coup against the BJP. In an interview with Lallantop, the Supremo of AIUDF, Badaruddin Ajmal, said – “Himanta’s dream of becoming the Chief Minister of Assam can be fulfilled only by us.” Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma, quite counterintuitively, was not an untouchable to the Congress too. Many leaders of the Congress were reportedly sending comforting signals to Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma. If Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma can dump the Congress and join the bandwagon of the Modi wave in 2015, why can’t he return to his political creche of Congress? Since these questions were doing rounds in the political corridors of Guwahati, BJP must have been reminded of their Maharashtra nightmare.
2) BJP’s waning popularity across the nation
With a raging pandemic reducing the largest democracy into a grotesque carnival of burning pyres and gasping humans, a humiliating drubbing in the West Bengal elections, NDA’s loss in Tamil Nadu and Kerela, disappointing results in the UP panchayat elections, unforgiving international criticism of the handling of the pandemic, the BJP finds itself in its most vulnerable state since their rise to power in 2014. Assam has provided them with a breather, a safe haven, a reassuring anchor to an increasingly unstable boat.
For any party to subdue a regional satrap like Himanta Biswa Sarma to the niceties of the party hierarchy, they must have the necessary political capital on the negotiation table. That Himanta Biswa Sarma was the prime architect of BJP’s victory in Assam and that he can barter it away at any moment to bring down the party like a stack of cards was made evident to the Central Leadership. In the light of the vulnerability of the BJP’s political clout across the nation, Himanta Biswa Sarma was the last person they could have gambled with. Here, quite interestingly, the BJP seems to have taken a lesson from the Congress’ experience with Himanta Biswa Sarma. For Himanta Biswa Sarma, power is the only ideology – And the BJP was well cognizant of this attribute of their newly chosen Chief Minister of Assam.
3) The Politics of Himanta Biswa Sarma.
From the days of BJP’s prime accused in Sarada Scam and Lois Berger Scam to one of BJP’s prime assets in the country, from his terming of BJP “as a communal force which must be kept away from Assam ” to fuelling BJP’s extraordinary expansion in North East, from his AASU days to Congress’ secular avatar to the BJP’s ‘ Virat Hindu Swaroop’, from a three-term Cabinet Minister in Congress’s Assam to a Chief Minister from BJP – Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma’s political career should be a playbook for political opportunism.
Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma’s politics hinges on the presumption that power decides the truth. ‘Shaam, Daam, Daand, Bhed’ – is how this man runs his political show.In the run-up to the Assam Assembly Elections, one could get a glimpse of what he was aiming for. “Ahise Ahise Himanta Ahise” ( Behold! Here comes Himanta) – was the song with which Himanta Biswa Sarma traversed the length and breadth of Assam functioning in a party which proudly proclaims” Individual last, party first.” The ruthless political machinations of Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma was so menacing that his bete noire, Badaruddin Ajmal, was forced to say – ” Only Allah knows what this man is up to.”
4) Himanta Biswa Sharma, the able administrator.
When the Parliament passed the controversial CAA, Assam went up in flames. Many political pundits were quick to write obituaries for the BJP in Assam. During the CAA protests, no one could have expected the Brahmaputra Valley to vote so decisively in favour of the BJP. Given Assam’s disturbed past with extremist movements, one must appreciate Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma’s sharp yet subtle handling of the highly volatile situation in the state. Not only did he manage to douse the fires of the CAA protests, he effectively churned out the highest number of seats in areas that were most badly hit by the protests.
When the first wave of Covid crashed into Assam, Dr. Sarma was up to the task with all his administrative acumen and managerial skills. From visiting every major hospital to overseeing the testing rates to ramping up the dilapidated PHC’s to regularly updating the people with the Covid situation, Himanta Biswa Sarma placed Assam at par with some of the best performing states in India in terms of testing rates, recovery rates, and mortality. The Himanta Biswa Sarma that says, “This election is about protecting Sanatan Dharma” is the same person which said, “Let’s not demonise Tablighi Jamatiyas. If they are sick with Covid, we will have to treat them. No one catches a disease intentionally.” A difficult man to decipher, indeed.
Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma will be sworn in as the 15th Chief Minister of Assam. No one knows what the BJP plans for Sarbananda Sonowal. Rumours are doing the rounds that he will be elevated to some Central Ministry. To perceive the 7-day long dilemma of the central Leadership of the BJP as merely reflective of inner-party democracy is a simplistic reduction. No party can be expected to be comfortable with changing a successful Chief Ministerial face. The loyal Karyakarta in Sarbananda Sonowal remained unflinching throughout. To offer one’s deputy’s name as the Chief Minister when you are the incumbent Chief Minister is starkly indicative of the fact that if there was one person who truly believed in ‘ Party First ‘, it was Sarbananda Sonowal.
Had Sarbananda Sonowal been a ruthless politician, he too could have ensured a dead end for the BJP. All that he needed to do was switch the allegiance of 16 MLA’s from Upper Assam and BJP would have been stranded in another nightmare of gargantuan proportions. Despite the ideological differences one may have with him, Sarbananda Sonowal has proven himself to be the ‘Last of the Mohicans’ modeled in the Vajpayeean era of virtue, discipline, and political restraint.
The questions, of course, remain – Has the BJP diluted its organisational and ideological commitments to give way to the Himanta juggernaut? What did Sarbananda Sonowal do to not deserve a second term? Did the Central Leadership get cowed down by the political clout of Himanta Biswa Sharma across the North East?
As regards the political horizon of Assam is concerned, behold, Ahise Ahise Himanta Ahise!