The Assam Election was Decided As Much by the BJP’s Risk-Taking as It was By the Congress’s Refusal to Look Beyond Loyalty

Himanta Biswa Sarma is one of Assam’s most powerful and astute politicians, and was the architect of last two assembly elections victories of Congress. In 2015, after almost two decades with the party, he quit it to join the BJP. BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images
21 May, 2016

In mid February, several weeks before assembly elections began in four states, a close associate of Rahul Gandhi’s told me in an off-the-record chat that the Congress didn’t have a chance of winning in any of the states. Not even in Assam, the associate said.

This was an unexpected admission from such a senior party person. Of the four election-bound states, Assam was the Congress’s best bet—Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal being the remaining three. I had recently returned from a fortnight-long trip to the state. No Congress leader or even a cadre member would have let slip the thought of a loss.  Instead, the streets of the state capital, Guwahati, were flanked by billboards with a smiling Tarun Gogoi, the incumbent chief minister, either enumerating the successes of his 15-year-old government or criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A few days later, back in Assam, I met the BJP’s state election convener, Himanta Biswa Sarma, at his extravagant house in Guwahati. Sarma was quite critical of the billboards—not as an opponent, but as a strategist. According to him, all the constituencies in Guwahati were BJP strongholds. If he were to suggest a strategy to the Congress, Sarma said, he would ask them not to waste any money in the city, but use it outside, where they had a better chance of winning. Sarma knew what he was talking about. The 47-year-old is one of Assam’s most powerful and astute politicians, and was the architect of the last two assembly election victories of the Congress. In 2015, after almost two decades with the party, he quit it to join the BJP.

A BJP cadre-member I had met earlier on a train in Assam had called Sarma “a joker.” “Like in cards,” the cadre member said, “whoever has the joker wins.” The BJP leadership, including the national president Amit Shah and the general secretary Ram Madhav seemed to agree. After courting Sarma for about a year, in August, Madhav managed to poach him.

Sarma was not the only new face among the BJP’s ranks for the assembly election. The party’s chief ministerial candidate, Sarbananda Sonowal—now the chief-minister-in-waiting—had also joined the BJP only five years prior, before which he was with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a party that has had a strong presence in the state since the mid 1980s. Like Sarma, Sonowal had also quit his party to join the BJP.  The BJP bypassed established state party leaders such as Siddhartha Bhattacharya, and put these two recent imports at the front of their campaign. Neither Sarma nor Sonowal were new to state politics, but neither were party loyalists. In stark contrast to the Congress, which appears to reward loyalty to the Gandhis even at the cost of the party, the BJP seemingly staked its hopes on Sarma and Sonowal’s potential and ability—a risk that likely won it the election.

The popular narrative in Assam is that Sarma started to become insecure about his place in the party when his mentor Tarun Gogoi’s son, Gaurav—who had no political experience—began to be groomed as heir. When Sarma opposed the move, Rahul did not side with him, and lent his support to Tarun Gogoi instead. Since his exit from the party,  Sarma been quite vocal in his criticism of Rahul Gandhi’s trust in “blue blood”—kin of party old-timers. Rahul has “more respect for people whose parents were in the party,” he told me.

In an informal off-the-record interaction with journalists in February, Rahul was asked if letting Sarma go was a mistake, and if Sarma was to Assam what Captain Amarinder Singh was to Punjab. Singh is another Congress leader, who, for the past few years, had been eyeing the top seat in the state and who is now its face for the assembly elections next year. Rahul refused, saying that the two couldn’t be compared—a hint that he didn’t believe Sarma was as trustworthy as the Captain.

But Sarma’s exit might have hurt Congress the most in this election. Fighting a three-term anti-incumbency sentiment, the party required some radical moves to regain the assembly. Yet, the Congress simply dug its heels, refused an alliance with any party, and stuck to the 81-year-old Gogoi as their chief ministerial candidate. The AGP leader Prafulla Mahanta told me that the election strategist Prashant Kishor had said that, according to the latter’s calculations, only two alliances could win the state: a BJP-AGP-BPF (Bodoland People’s Front) alliance, or a Congress-AGP-BPF one.

The BPF had been an ally of Congress in the past, and might have agreed to come back if offered a good deal. The AGP too, though an antagonist of Congress in the state for decades, had flirted with the idea, even opening negotiations after the BJP’s decimation in Bihar last year. Though it said that it couldn’t join a Congress-led coalition ideologically, such an alliance would not have been impossible. As Mahanta said during our conversation in February, alliance discussions are ultimately about seats. “You can put a nice sentence about ideology,” he said, “but it is seat-sharing” that forms alliances.  The Congress even refused a Prashant Kishor-brokered alliance with All India United Democratic Front, a party with a strong base in the Muslim-dominated areas of Lower Assam and Barak Valley. It could have helped the party with the Muslims voters—a third of Assam’s population—but at the risk of alienating the mainstream Assamese voters of Upper Assam. This region, which sends around 60 members to the state’s 126-member assembly,  largely views the Bengali-origin Muslims of Lower Assam and Barak Valley as a threat to the Assamese identity.

Had he been with the party, Sarma, a wealthy and ambitious man with links across party lines, might have convinced Congress leaders to go for such alliances. In the BJP, with support from the party’s central leadership, he forged the alliance that Kishor had suggested to Mahanta: a coalition of the BJP, the AGP and the BPF.  The BPF won all the seats it contested in its bastion, the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts. The AGP rose from five seats in 2011 to 14 and the BJP, which benefitted from the support of the anti-immigrant voters who have traditionally supported the AGP, jumped from 5 seats in 2011 to 60. The alliance needed 64 to form the government. It snatched 86.

With Madhav’s and Shah’s backing, Sarma did for BJP what he had done for Congress over the years. Sonowal, a “fresh face” as many called him in Assam, campaigned across the state, reinforcing the BJP’s narrative of poribortan, or change. By trusting the newcomers over other senior leaders, and even against the wish of the cadre at times, the BJP showed the will to do whatever needed to be done to win a state the party and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has desired for years.

In hindsight, because the strategy worked, it can now be commended. Had the BJP lost the election, almost all these decisions could have been cited as causes. But where the BJP showed its appetite to take risks even in what was its most forceful effort to win the state, the Congress continued to walk with its blinkers of loyalty intact. In politics, loyalty may be important, but not when it starts to cannibalise the very organisation it is meant to serve. In the process of rewarding it, the Congress has squandered two-thirds of its seats since 2011, and lost one of the last few states it still ruled.