How the BJP's CM Candidate in Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, Tried to Block Himanta Biswa Sarma's Entry into the Party

Political circumstances have 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
19 May, 2016

Today, the results for assembly elections in four states—Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala—are being declared. In his cover story for our State Elections issue in April, Krishn Kaushik reported on 'The Spectre' of the immigrant that hung over the assembly elections in Assam, the only state in which the Bharatiya Janata Party had a chance to win. In the following extract from the story, Kaushik recounts how, in mid 2015, the then sports minister, Sarbananda Sonowal—now the BJP's chief ministerial candidate—had attempted to block the entry of the charismatic leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, who had been persuaded to defect from the Congress, into the BJP.

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.”