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Has BJP's boast of a strong leadership been exposed in choosing Sarma over Sonowal

By IndianMandarins- 10 May 2021
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New Delhi (10.05.20210: The appointment of Chief Minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, may not be just about rewarding an astute political mind and an election strategist. It was guided by emergent realities that forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to persuade his favorite Sarbananda Sonowal to make way for Sarma.

It is argued in some quarters that had the BJP won Bengal and the Centre didn't face a credibility crisis because of a collapse of the governance structure in the second Corona wave, the PM and the HM might not have been 'forced' to choose between Sonowal and Sarma.

In the given situation, the BJP  is seen to have opted for an easy choice (as Sonowal is unlikely to rebel), but the move may unleash forces for the future struggle for leadership in view of the emergence of young BJP leaders like Lok Sabha member Dilip Saikia from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ranks.

It is said the Assam unit of BJP is witnessing a re-run of power-play forced by leaders who had come from 'outside'.

The first edition of this power struggle in the Assam BJP began when Modi's favorite Sonowal, a former student leader who had represented the Dibrugarh constituency of Upper Assam in the Lok Sabha as a member of the Asom Gana Parishad in 2004, joined the BJP in 2011, after losing the 2009 Lok Sabha polls as an AGP candidate and getting caught in a web of intense faction fights within the AGP. A year after joining, Sonowal became Assam BJP chief in 2012 and rode the Modi wave in 2014 to oversee BJP's win of 8 Lok Sabha seats out of 14 from Assam.

Apart from being rewarded with a union ministership with independent charge, Sonowal became the Chief Ministerial face in 2016 to take on Congress' stalwart Tarun Gogoi.

Months before the 2016 Assembly elections, held in March-April, the BJP's fight against the then formidable Congress got added extra power as Sarma, a firebrand Congress leader and protege of Gogoi, joined the party.

The Congress rebel was disillusioned that despite the backing of the majority of the party MLAs, the party High Command, more specifically Rahul Gandhi, didn't entertain his claim to the top post.

Those close to Gandhi argued that Sarma was an efficient and effective minister, but he had an image problem.

It is said he was once charged under the Terrorist And Disruptive Activities (TADA) Act and the Arms Act for alleged extortion. However, he was subsequently acquitted of these charges as the original police diary went missing and the evidence in the reconstructed case diaries didn't hold in the court.

Sarma was also attacked by the BJP over both the Sharada Chit Fund scam as well as over a government contract to lay water pipelines in Guwahati city.

None of these charges stuck as Sarma claimed that he was given a clean chit by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), paving the way for his entry into the BJP.

Thanks to Sarma's political acumen, the BJP formed a government not only in Assam but also in Manipur and Meghalaya despite the Congress emerging as the single largest party in these States in the 2017 and 2018 Assembly elections.

A former student leader, who had literally started his political career by fighting college union elections, Sarma had acquired a reputation of being a doer, a troubleshooter, and crisis manager.

Even in the 2021 elections, he had made it more than clear that he was not contesting another election to become just a minister. To drive home the point, first, he announced that he would not contest the Assembly elections; then agreed to contest but ensured that the BJP didn't name a chief ministerial candidate despite having an incumbent in Sonowal and finally managed to prevail over the party to give tickets to most of his supporters.

Sarma's contributions to the growth of the BJP in the northeast, and his undoubted political skills must have persuaded the BJP that if Sarma was not offered the Assam CM post, there could be serious trouble in its Northeastern flanks. 

In all likelihood, Sonowal would be back in Delhi as a Cabinet Minister sooner or later. 


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