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.