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Assam Elections 2021 | Sarbananda Sonowal or Himanta Biswa Sarma? Who will be BJP's choice for next chief minister?

Having not named a chief ministerial candidate during the assembly election campaign, the BJP will now have the headache of deciding between two popular faces -- Sarbananda Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma.

May 03, 2021 / 02:39 PM IST
File image: Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal (left) and state minister Himanta Biswa Sarma (right) with Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Image courtesy: Twitter/@drlaxmanbjp)

File image: Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal (left) and state minister Himanta Biswa Sarma (right) with Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Image courtesy: Twitter/@drlaxmanbjp)

The alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) retained power in Assam, assembly election results announced on May 2 showed.

Fighting the ‘Mahajot’ opposition alliance, the BJP won 60 seats. Its allies Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the United People's Party, Liberal (UPPL) won nine and six seats, respectively. Together, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) clinched 75 seats.

In a Legislative Assembly comprising 126 members, the majority mark is 64.

The Congress, the main component of the opposition alliance, managed to win 29 seats. Its allies All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Bodoland People's Front won 16, 1 and 4 seats, respectively.

However, with this victory, the headache may have just started for the BJP. The party now needs to decide who will be the state’s next chief minister.

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BJP leader Sarbananda Sonowal has been the chief minister of Assam since 2016 when the party won the state for the first time – after ending Congress’ three-consecutive term rule.

“A mandate for Sabhyata, Suraksha and Vikas. People have rewarded BJP+ for pro-people, development-oriented policies that our government has undertaken under PM @narendramodi ji's leadership. I bow to the people of Assam for the huge mandate and promise to continue the development journey,” Sonowal said in a tweet after the results became clear on May 2.

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However, the party had not projected Sonowal as its chief ministerial face during the election campaign, leading to speculation that it may pick another leader for the chief minister’s post after the polls. Political observers suggest that Himanta Biswa Sarma, one of the party’s most popular leaders in the state, could be in the fray.

The party effectively fought the election under the joint leadership of Sonowal and Sarma. While relations between the two have largely remained cordial, there have been reports of power struggles within the state unit and the BJP is said to have been walking a tightrope on the matter.

Sonowal was the president of the All Assam Students Union. He later joined the AGP and remained with the party till 2011, when he jumped to the BJP. Before taking over as the chief minister of Assam in 2016, Sonowal was a union minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet.

Sarma, on the other hand, was with the Congress until 2015. He was a minister in Tarun Gogoi’s state government and had handled key portfolios such as finance, health and family welfare and public works.

Sarma had quit the Congress after the party reportedly turned down his proposal for a greater role in the state government. But by the time Sarma joined the BJP, Sonowal had already been unofficially projected as the party’s CM face in late 2015.

After the 2016 polls, Sarma was inducted into the Sonowal Cabinet and was given charge of finance, health and education, among other departments. Political observers also credited him for BJP’s victory in the assembly election.

He was also made the convener of the BJP-led North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) and has been credited with helping the saffron party forge election-winning alliances in the region.

Over the last five years, Sarma has been seen as the BJP’s go-to person for all political crises in the Northeast region. H is known to hold significant influence within the state unit and is considered close to the central leadership.

Sarma had reportedly informed the party leadership earlier that he did not want to contest the assembly polls. However, when the party gave Sarma a ticket to contest from his Jalukbari constituency, it was seen as a provision for him to be rewarded with the chief ministerial post if the BJP retained power. Sarma won the seat by a margin of more than 1 lakh votes.

Yet, political watchers suggest that the BJP would also need reasons to not retain Sonowal as the chief minister considering the fact that there was no anti-incumbency wave in the state. Sonowal also retained his Majuli seat.

Asked about who will become Assam’s next chief minister, BJP’s state unit chief Ranjeet Kumar Dass told reporters: “That decision will be taken by the parliamentary board. The party is sending an observer, will talk to all stakeholders and a decision will be taken based on his report.”

Follow Moneycontrol’s full coverage of the 2021 assembly election here
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