Sarbananda Sonawal or Himanta Biswa Sarma: Who will become chief minister if BJP returns to power in Assam?

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Updated: March 30, 2021 3:57 PM

Himanta has handled key portfolios like finance, health, public works under Sonowal. He was the second most powerful person in Tarun Gogoi-led government before he decided to dump the grand old party to join the BJP.

Generally, the BJP doesn't announce (with exceptions) chief ministerial candidates ahead of the elections but rarely has it been the case with the incumbent chief ministers. (IE)

Assam Assembly Election 2021: The Bharatiya Janata Party’s decision not to name incumbent chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal as party candidate for the top post has triggered a wave of speculation that the saffron party might be thinking of rewarding Himanta Biswa Sarma if it returns to power in Assam. Generally, the BJP doesn’t announce (with exceptions) chief ministerial candidates ahead of the elections but rarely has it been the case with the incumbent chief ministers. For Assam, where Sonowal has been the chief minister for five years, the saffron party has not yet announced that it would be him who would be its leader if the party wins the polls. Going by BJP state chief Ranjeet Dass, the decision of who would be the chief minister would be taken by the parliamentary board. This has generated quite a buzz that Himanta may be the BJP’s pick for Assam. Himanta has handled key portfolios like finance, health, public works under Sonowal. He was the second most powerful person in Tarun Gogoi-led government before he decided to dump the grand old party to join the BJP. Himanta was eying the top post in the Congress but then chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s moves to promote his son Akhil led to his departure. So, the saffron party is aware of his ambitions and is waiting for the right time to reward the man, now known as the ‘Chanakya of Northeast’.

Who will be the chief minister of Assam?

Both Sonowal and Sarma say the decision will be taken by Prime Minister Modi and Amit Shah. But Himanta is a bit more expressive than Sonowal. When asked about a tussle between him and Sarma, Sonowal recently said it was just a ‘media creation’ and his interest was to have a BJP government in Assam. He further said that he was a committed party person and wanted his party to come to power. Himanta, on the other hand, suggested that he was ready for the role. Speaking to The Times of India, Himanta addressed the question of him being ambitious and said “even if I am ambitious and Amit Bhai says no, you will not become (chief minister)…then what can I do.” He then said that whatever Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah say, will happen. He also said that he will follow whatever Prime Minister Modi and Amit Shah decide. However, Himanta added that if he “could gain something by lobbying in pursuit of that ambition, I would do it”. “They (Modi, Shah) have my full record. So, for Assam, if they feel Himanta is the right man, they will give it to me. If they feel Sonowal is the right man, they will give it to him,” Himanta said to Times of India. One thing stands out, Himanta talks about his record, which no doubt is impressive.

Himanta ahead of Sonowal in CM race? 

Ever since Himanta joined the BJP in 2015, the party has expanded its footprints in every part of the region. He was instrumental in making governments in states where his party’s numbers were less than that of the Opposition’s. In Manipur, for example, the saffron party formed the government despite having seven seats less than that of the Congress. Himanta is one of the well connected leaders in Northeast. Even in the current election, when Shiladitya Dev, a sitting MLA, was denied a ticket by the BJP, he resigned from the party and announced his candidature as an independent. Himanta reached out to the former BJP leader and convinced him to withdraw, which he did. Himanta is BJP’s crisis manager in the North-eastern region and has loyalists not only in his own party but also in other opposition parties including Congress. And if the BJP falls short of the majority, he would be the man on the hunt in the region.

Where they stand on CAA, Hindutva

In the last five years, Assam witnessed two serious pushbacks from the people, first on highly botched up NRC and then the Citizenship Amendment Act. On both issues, Himanta was clear and fought for what he thought was right. On the NRC, he demanded re-verification of names in some border districts and backed the Centre on the CAA. People of Assam don’t support CAA, saying new citizenship to anybody regardless of their religion will disturb the language and Assamese culture. Sonowal comes from the league of leaders born out of All Assam Student Union or AASU, the outfit that fought a long battle against the illegal migration into Assam. He has to tread a very fine line while speaking on the CAA.

Sonowal, by some accounts, is not very open to embrace Hindu refugees from the neighbouring countries. He, however, too backs the Centre on CAA. In an interview to Hindustan Times, Sonowal recently said that the opposition to CAA in the state was not a concern anymore. He said people were misled into believing that it would disenfranchise millions, but none of that was going to happen. The Congress, he said, was engaging in doublespeak by saying it will not allow its implementation of CAA in Assam. Sonowal represents the soft power in the government while the situation is the opposite with Himanta. For instance, Himanta can openly say that he doesn’t need Muslim votes to win in Assam while Sonowal would do it differently. With Sonowal, the saffron party wants to control local Assamese votes while Sarma can help it consolidate Hindus against the Congress-AIUDF.

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