Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam’s minister of health, education and finance and the BJP's Tripura in-charge, is believed to be the man behind the BJP's turnaround in the Northeast.
When Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) MLA Shiladitya Dev was upset over being denied a ticket for the 2021 state election, he decided to contest against BJP's official candidate, Ram Krishna Gosh, as an independent.
Later, this is what Dev had to say, "I feel proud that such a big leader like Sarma, who is called Chanakya of Assam, came to my house to discuss my grievances. I feel convinced by his assurances and have decided not to contest as a Independent or leave the party platform."
'Chanakya of Assam', Himanta Biswa Sarma or Mama as he is now popularly known in Assam, is a natural.
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As BJP's face in the northeast, Sarma has an astute political instinct that he has used to his advantage to stay ahead in the game. Firefighting is his forte. After all, he did convince a sitting legislator (Dev) not to contest as an Independent against the party’s official candidate, a move that could have played heavily against BJP, had Dev gone through with his plans.
52-year-old Sarma has been a key figure in Assam politics for two decades now. But Sarma, who quit Tarun Gogoi’s Congress government in 2015 to join the BJP, has had a meteoric rise in the saffron party and his influence is not restricted to Assam but can be seen across the region.
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BJP's golden boy in the northeast
For 15 years Assam was Congress' stronghold. Cut to the 2016 state election and BJP has come to power for the first time in the state, beginning their journey of dominance in the Northeast.
What happened? Well, Himanta Biswa Sarma, a year before the election, in 2015, switched sides to the BJP. His political acumen and oratorical skills played a key role in BJP winning 60 of the total 126 seats in 2016 and forming the party’s first government in Assam with alliance partners Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF). Despite being new to the party, Sarma was given four crucial departments — health, education, finance and public works — in the Sarbananda Sonowal cabinet.
Sarma was also appointed as the convener of North East Demoratic Alliance (NEDA), a BJP-led front of anti-Congress parties in the northeast. As the convenor, Sarma shared a close rapport with senior politicians in all seven states of the region.
After Assam, BJP won Manipur in the 2017 state elections, despite having 21 seats- seven less than Congress in the 60 member assembly. Sarma's role was crucial in this victory as well.
Over the past 5 years, Himanta Biswa Sarma is a known face across the country-a rarity for politicians from the northeast. Using his position in the Assam cabinet and in NEDA, he has made his mark beyond the region and is consulted by the BJP leadership for any issue concerning Assam and the region and, more often than not, his suggestions are accepted.
Sarma has been representing the Jalukbari seat continuously since 2001 and this time too the party gave him a ticket from the seat. Even though Sarma had made his intentions of not contesting the 2021 state election, the party announced his candidature along with the names of candidates for the first phase that goes to the polls on March 27. Sarma's constituency Jalukbari, goes into polls only in the third phase on April 6.
Read: Himanta Biswa Sarma outlines Assam's plans to combat COVID-19, here's what he has to say
Let's backtrack a little
When it comes to politics in Assam, Sarma has travelled the spectrum from the armed separatism of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the students' agitation of All Assam Students' Union (AASU), establishing his writ in the Congress and then leading the BJP to power.
Of course, this hasn't been an overnight journey.
Born on February 1, 1969, in Guwahati, Sarma studied in Cotton College before completing a law degree and a PhD.
He has been president of the badminton and cricket academies in the state.
As part of the All Assam Student's Union (AASU), Sarma joined the Assam agitation against illegal migrants. AASU's top leaders later formed the Asom Gana Parishad. Sarma rose to become AASU's Guwahati unit's general secretary.
In 1990s, Sarma officially joined the Congress and in 2001 he contested polls from Guwahati's Jalukbari 2001.
He defeated Asom Gana Parishad leader Bhrigu Kumar Phukan, and has since held onto that seat.
Sarma served in multiple Congress governments and held a slew of positions including the Minister of State for Agriculture, Planning & Development, Finance, Health, Education, and Assam Accord Implementation from 2002 to 2014.
Serving in the Gogoi cabinet, Sarma is said to have been the brains behind the Congress' victory in the 2011 Assembly polls, when it won 79 of 126 seats.
From here on, his relations with Congress turned bitter. There was a fall out with Gogoi over the political prospects of the chief minister's son Gaurav and a snub for a 'pride of place' in party high command. All this led Sarma to join the BJP just prior to the 2016 Assembly polls.
Read: Mentor first, politics later: Himanta Biswa ensures best treatment for Gogoi as he battles post-COVID complications
What are his true achievements though?
Sarma has been the brain behind most of the social welfare schemes on the Sonowal government such as ₹830 per month to 2.2 million households and cash incentives and grants to various sections of society.
But his role as health minister in the past year, when he supervised setting up of large COVID care centres, boosting infrastructure at hospitals and personally visiting quarantine centres to keep tab on care being provided to those infected, earned him headlines as well as admiration even from his critics.
Sarma’s strength was also visible during the CAA protests. By taking a tough stand in controlling the violent protest against the government in 2019, the 52-year-old, once again, proved himself to be a crisis manager for the party.
Read: Will leave politics if a single person over five lakh is given citizenship in Assam: Himanta Biswa Sarma
With BJP not announcing its chief ministerial candidate for this assembly election, there is a lot of confusion regarding a dual leadership that persists now between CM Sonowal and Sarma.
Unhinged by questions on his role after the election, Sarma is busy doing what he does best. Shuttling across the state trying to quell rebellion within the ranks, accompanying party candidates and those from alliance partners while filing nominations, addressing poll rallies and strategising with BJP leaders on what needs to be done for another stint at power, Sarma remains a key figure in Assam’s politics.