Tarun Gogoi, the former chief minister of Assam from the Congress, died on 23 November. “It was under Gogoi that Himanta Biswa Sarma built his political career,” Krishn Kaushik, a former staff writer at The Caravan, wrote in the publication’s April 2016 cover story, “The Spectre.” Sarma, currently a cabinet minister in Assam, was a Congress member for about fourteen years before he joined the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2015.
In “The Spectre,” Kaushik reported how politicians played on the fear of immigrants ahead of the 2016 state assembly elections. The following extract from Kaushik’s cover story discusses how Sarma came to join the BJP, and his strained relationship with Gogoi and the present chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal.
Its alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad sealed, the BJP now poses a significant challenge to the Congress. But its careful planning could be weakened by the rivalry between its two senior-most leaders in the state: Sarma and Sonowal.
The two politicians are a study in contrasts. This was evident at a rally I attended in Guwahati on 31 January that both were at, three days after Sonowal was declared the party’s chief ministerial candidate. He flew into the city, and was received at the airport by party functionaries, including Sarma and Mahendra Singh, the BJP’s prabhari for Assam, in charge of the party’s functioning in the state. The group drove to the BJP headquarters in central Guwahati. A few hundred metres from the office, a temporary stage had been constructed on a vacant plot, to felicitate Sonowal. When the cavalcade reached the office, Sonowal emerged and walked to the stage, greeted by drumbeats and chants: Long live the BJP! Long live Narendra Modi! Long live Amit Shah! Long live Sarbananda Sonowal!
Sarma, Singh and Sonowal sat on stage, before a crowd of around two thousand, the chief ministerial candidate flanked by the others. Taking the mic, Singh looked at Sarma and Sonowal. The two together, he told the audience, were “treta yug ke Ram-Lakshman jaisi jodi”—a pair like Ram and Lakshman. Then, mixing his epics, he described the political battle ahead of them as “Mahabharat ka yudhh.”
From the two rallies at which I heard them, it was apparent that Sarma was the far more charismatic public speaker. He knew how to charm a crowd, interact with it and play off responses. Sonowal, on the other hand, treated his listeners as obedient spectators. In both rallies, Sonowal, as the senior figure, spoke later, but couldn’t keep up the crackling energy that Sarma had left the audience with.
Sarma’s arrival has, indeed, considerably charged up the BJP’s campaign in Assam, and given it firmer hold on the state’s politics. Though it was widely assumed that he had first approached the party, I discovered that the BJP had, in fact, mounted a persistent campaign to win him over from the Congress, which he had been with for more than two decades. Sonowal, I learnt, had attempted to thwart the plan.
The BJP’s state president between August 2014 and November 2015, Siddhartha Bhattacharya, whom I met in his Guwahati office, told me that when he took over as state president, Sarma was already in talks with Ram Madhav and others. “They made out the blueprint,” he told me, referring to Madhav and his associates. “It was me who carried out that blueprint.”