Himanta Biswa Sarma had hoped to take over from Tarun Gogoi in 2011, but was stymied

Political circumstances forced Assam’s two senior-most leaders, Sarbananda Sonowal (left) and Himanta Biswa Sarma (right) to set aside their fierce rivalry and work together ahead of the 2016 election. ANUWAR HAZARIKA / DEMOTIX / CORBIS
24 November, 2020

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.”

Bhattacharya said that Sarma had been feeling suffocated in the Congress, but was equally apprehensive about his future in the BJP. “So that needed lots of negotiations,” Bhattacharya told me. Sarma, he said, is an “intelligent man. And very ambitious as well. It is almost like playing with fire.” Sarma also has “substantial influence” and “lots of money,” he said, adding that he controlled two of the largest news brands in the state: News Live, “the topmost” regional news channel; and the Niyomiya Barta newspaper, which is “also picking up.” “So all these things were in his favour,” Bhattacharya said.

The BJP needed to break its rival to rise in the state’s politics, Bhattacharya said, “and, obviously, we were looking for a lateral fault line in Congress.” His job, he said, was “to go for a surgical strike and I did that with him.” He described the process of poaching Sarma as “almost like a cloak-and-dagger operation. Very hush-hush and lots of persuasion and lots of hard work.”

The plan was to come to fruition in July 2015, when Bhattacharya travelled with Sarma to Delhi, “and he was supposed to join the next day.” Though the plan was a secret, Bhattacharya told me that, somehow, the news leaked, “from his”—Sarma’s—“side maybe.”

According to Bhattacharya, Sonowal, “in desperation,” attempted to block the move. He and the junior union home minister, Kiren Rijiju, held a press conference in Delhi, alleging that Sarma had emerged as a “key suspect” in the Louis Berger scam. The American firm had admitted in a court in the United States earlier that month that it had bribed officials and politicians across the world to win projects. It said it had bribed Indian officials in Goa and Assam for water development projects in 2010, when Sarma was the heading the relevant ministry in the state. “That was actually Sarbananda Sonowal who brought along Rijiju also,” Bhattacharya said of the press conference. Just 24 hours ahead of the press conference to induct Sarma, “this huge news breaks.” Of course, what looked like a BJP offensive against a Congress politician was, in fact, an internal BJP attack. Sarma’s induction was stalled.

Bhattacharya and Sarma went to meet Amit Shah, to prove that the allegations were unsubstantiated. Shah was persuaded, and apparently told Bhattacharya, “Yeh toh galti hua. Phir toh galti hua toh uska sudhaarna hai” (We have committed a mistake, it should be rectified). Sarma formally joined the BJP on 21 August, exactly a month after Sonowal and Rijiju’s press conference. Bhattacharya’s satisfaction with his orchestration of the plan was evident from the way he described it. A framed photograph hung on the wall behind him, of Sarma, Mahendra Singh and himself, all with beaming smiles, from the felicitation ceremony in Guwahati where Sarma was welcomed into the BJP.

Bhattacharya said Sarma and Sonowal were working together now. “Well, sometimes necessities makes very strange bedfellows,” he said. “The necessity is on both of them.” According to him, Sonowal is neither “a very firm administrator” nor “a very good organisational man.” So, he explained, Sonowal is dependent on Sarma, who has these qualities. Sarma, meanwhile, is “compelled” to work with Sonowal because if he “raises the dissenting voice within BJP,” like he did against Tarun Gogoi in the Congress, then people will mark him out as a permanent dissenter, Bhattacharya said. “So he has no option but to fall in line.”

A key reason Sarma was able to overcome internal opposition from the BJP was that he had the support of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Prodyut Bora, who cited Sarma’s entry as one of his reasons for leaving the BJP, told me that before he left, one top functionary each from the BJP and the RSS had approached him, and asked him not to block Sarma’s entry.

Indeed, the RSS generally appears to be taking a significant interest in Assam. Bhattacharya told me that the BJP’s “remote-control” had a say in the party’s affairs in the state. Ram Madhav and Ram Lal, both former senior RSS functionaries who have been on deputation to the BJP, are heading the Assam campaign. Senior state leaders of the BJP told me that while they directly report to Amit Shah, they also regularly brief Krishna Gopal, RSS’s sah-sarakaryavah, or joint general secretary, who coordinates between the BJP and its parent organisation.

The anti-immigrant shades of the state’s politics comfortably match the RSS’s ideology. At the RSS national executive council meeting in November 2012, Gopal had demanded the expulsion of all Bangladeshi immigrants, stating that their “unabated influx” was a “serious threat” to national integration. The organisation also passed a resolution on Muslim-Bodo riots that occurred in July 2012, around the Dhubri and Kokrajhar districts in Assam. In the resolution the RSS “strongly” condemned “the violence perpetrated by Bangladeshi Muslim infiltrators.”

The Congress in Assam generally eschews firm positions on the state’s most prominent issue. According to a veteran BJP national leader, the party has traditionally had a strong base among the “Ali, coolie, Bengali” populations—Muslims, tea-garden workers and Bengalis. Congress practically doesn’t do anything and still takes people along,” Joydeep Biswas, an economics professor at Assam University, told me. Often, this extends to maintaining double standards, he argued. He cited the example of the Congress politicians Rajiv Gandhi and Hiteshwar Saikia, a former chief minister. Both signed the Assam Accord with the AASU, Biswas said, thereby “giving legitimacy” to what he described as a “xenophobic agitation.” But “they also kept the border porous” allowing people to register, “for votes.”

Gogoi has successfully practiced this noncommittal politics for three terms. His hold on power has been particularly firm because of the Gandhi family’s trust in him. One Congress legislator told me about a comment that Rahul Gandhi made that indicated how deep this trust ran. Rahul, according to the legislator, said that his father, Rajiv, had told him that Tarun Gogoi was the only politician who, after elections, or other party expenses, would return the money that had been given to him. Gogoi does not enjoy that kind of reputation any more, but, according to the legislator, “Rahul Gandhi really likes him.” The legislator said, “He is the tallest leader we have and the biggest liability we have. What will work for us, let’s see.”

It was under Gogoi that Himanta Biswa Sarma built his political career. From 2001 onwards, he headed many key portfolios, including health, finance, education and public works. As Gogoi entered his late seventies, Sarma, in his early forties, took on more responsibilities in running the government. It was he, and not Gogoi, who interacted with MLAs regularly, various senior Congress leaders told me, making him a de-facto chief minister to them. “He was practically running the government,” the Congress legislator told me. “Gogoi was the father, Himanta was the mother.”

Sarma was in charge of the 2011 state election, where he steered the party to victory. He hoped to take over from Gogoi after this, but was stymied. By 2012, his ambition to replace Gogoi was public. According to one senior Congress leader in the state, he “was actively prodded” by high-level leaders, including Ahmed Patel and Digvijaya Singh.

But Sarma tells a different story. On a February morning, I met him at his six-month-old bungalow. The house was the combined width of four houses across the road, and as deep as at least two houses along its side. Sarma wore shorts, a casual T-shirt and running shoes, ready for a jog on his treadmill. Sarma told me that after he “informally led the campaign” for the 2011 assembly elections, the Congress won a resounding 78 out of the 126 seats. But Gogoi, he told me, took this to be “his personal victory.” The success “went to his head” and he “started promoting his brother and his son.”

Unhappy with Gogoi’s performance and behaviour, Sarma said he went to meet Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president, who gave him a patient hearing. “But Rahul Gandhi put his foot down, that ‘I will decide the chief minister.’” Rahul, Sarma told me, “only sees blue blood”—that is, he has “more respect for people whose parents were in the party.” Sarma felt that Rahul Gandhi was arrogant and did not understand politics. “If his dog comes” in the middle of a meeting, “he loses interest,” in the conversation, Sarma said. He clarified that “it is not about the dog, but it shows disrespect.”

“Mrs Gandhi had the opinion that Gogoi needs to be changed, but Rahul bulldozed” that idea, Sarma continued. Between 2013 and 2014, Sarma told me, he had multiple meetings with Rahul and Sonia, even organising a signature campaign of Congress MLAs to prove that the numbers were against Gogoi. The Congress high command sent the senior leader Mallikarjun Kharge to Assam as an observer on the matter, after Sarma had gathered signatures from 53 MLAs. But Rahul stuck with Gogoi. Sarma insisted that there was nothing wrong with being ambitious, but said he wasn’t eyeing the chief-ministership for himself—he just wanted Gogoi replaced.

Sarma said that after a meeting with Rahul and other senior functionaries in July 2015, he decided that he would leave the party. He claimed that it was only after this decision that he approached the BJP and met Ram Madhav—a claim that appears to be a lie, going by Bhattacharya’s account of the long-drawn negotiating process that had started before August 2014.

Sarma attributed his decision to switch parties to “two or three personal issues,” including the peculiar justifications that he “deeply believed in Indian culture.” One reason he gave was more recognisably political, and a possible sign of the direction the BJP will take in the state. He said the issue of Assamese identity was very important for him, and that he believed that the Congress “doesn’t sympathise with the Assam cause.”

This is an extract from Krishn Kaushik’s “The Spectre,” the cover story of The Caravan’s April 2016 issue.