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Why BJP picked Himanta Biswa Sarma as Assam CM and what happens to Sarbananda Sonowal now

As a chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal was known for his ‘zero-tolerance’ against corruption. Himanta Biswa Sarma on Sunday described his tenure as one “unblemished without a single charge of corruption or any other allegation”.

May 10, 2021 / 09:22 AM IST

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) defeat in the West Bengal polls seems to have prompted it to pick Himanta Biswa Sarma as Assam’s next chief minister. The party is now weighing various options to “suitably accommodate” the outgoing CM Sarbananda Sonowal.

Sarma will be sworn-in as Assam’s 15th chief minister at 12 noon on Monday. The oath-taking ceremony will be held at Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra, a cultural complex, in Guwahati.

BJP national president JP Nadda, Union minister for development of northeastern region (DONER) Dr Jitendra Singh, chief ministers of neighboring states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya are expected to attend the event.

Sarma, BJP’s trouble-shooter and the go-to man in the Northeast, was instrumental of the party’s two consecutive victories in Assam. And after its humiliating defeat in West Bengal, the party brass may have felt that he should be given a free-hand to further consolidate BJP’s position in the region ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

Sarma who had been a strong contender for the CM post, enjoys the support of a majority of BJP legislators besides its allies, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the tribal outfit, United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL).

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Despite Sonowal’s clean image, Sarma’s impressive performance in the past five years as a senior minister and his ability to frame result-oriented strategies have made him indispensable to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah.

His smart handling of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the state was lauded by many. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) showered praise on Assam’s COVID-19 management system.

As finance minister in the last minister, Sarma was also seen as the brains behind a number of populist schemes such as ‘Orunodoi’ for low-income families, ‘Arundhuti’ for women’s welfare, distribution of free two-wheeler to girls, free admissions for poor students, financial assistance to pregnant women from the tea garden workers’ community among others.

These schemes were among various factors that contributed to the BJP’s victory in the state.

Had the BJP top brass allowed Sonowal to continue as CM, it could have sparked an internal feud in the party’s Assam unit, something Modi-Shah cannot afford after the West Bengal rout.

The BJP, which kept claiming throughout its poll campaign that it would cross the 200-mark in 294-member Bengal assembly, could not even cross the 100-mark while chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress stormed back to power by winning 213 seats.

In Assam, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has secured 75 seats while the ‘grand alliance’ led by the Congress bagged 50 in the elections to the 126-member Assam Legislative Assembly.

Needless to say, the BJP has fulfilled Sarma’s a long-cherished dream of becoming CM. It’s worth recalling that Sarma had switched to the saffron party after the Congress high command refused to make him CM in place of incumbent Tarun Gogoi despite the former’s claim of support from 52 legislators in July 2014. He joined BJP a year later.

Central berth for Sonowal?

Earlier on Sunday, Sonowal tendered his resignation to governor Jagdish Mukhi. Later, it was Sonowal who proposed Sarma’s name for the top post at BJP’s state legislative party meeting, which was seconded by state president Ranjit Kumar Dass.

There is speculation that Sonowal will be given a berth in the Union council of ministers because one Rajya Sabha seat from Assam has been lying vacant since Biswajit Daimary of the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) resigned from the upper house last November and joined BJP.

However, the local media quoted Sonowal as saying that he would prefer to stay back in Assam.

Sonowal was part of Narendra Modi’s first council of ministers, where he handled the sports portfolio.

Sonowal was the president of the influential All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) in the 1990s, before joining the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which is now a BJP ally. He quit AGP over his differences with its leadership and joined BJP in 2011.

He was immediately appointed as a member of the BJP National Executive and later became the state president of the party. He was elected to the 16th Lok Sabha from the Lakhimpur constituency.

In May 2016, he won the Majuli assembly seat and was sworn in as the 14th chief minister of Assam. He has been re-elected from this seat for the second time this year.

As a chief minister, Sonowal was known for his ‘zero-tolerance’ against corruption. Showering praise on Sonowal, Sarma on Sunday described his tenure as one “unblemished without a single charge of corruption or any other allegation”.

“He practised politics of values. Sonowal is a leader with a foresight, someone who had the vision of uniting the people of ‘Barak-Brahmaputra-plains-hills’ while ensuring no section of the society was left behind. He was our leader and will continue to guide us,” Sarma was quoted as saying by media.
Jayanta Kalita is a senior journalist and author based in Delhi. He writes on issues related to India’s Northeast. The views expressed are personal.
first published: May 10, 2021 09:22 am

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