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.