In naming him the CM candidate before the 2016 polls, BJP had broken with tradition. However, few questioned the choice of the 52-year-old leader who cut his political teeth in the AGP, after heading the All Assam Students Union for over six years.
Why Sarbananda Sonowal?
In naming him the CM candidate before the 2016 polls, BJP had broken with tradition. However, few questioned the choice of the 52-year-old leader who cut his political teeth in the AGP, after heading the All Assam Students Union for over six years. Sonowal earned the title of jatiya nayak (national hero) for filing the PIL that led to quashing of the controversial IMDT Act. Since taking over, Sonowal has remained on solid ground despite the presence of power centres such as Himanta Biswa Sarma in his Cabinet
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Your government in Assam is completing four months. What has the experience been?
The expectations are higher this time. We have to handle every issue carefully. In the past four months, we have focused on bringing good governance. I do not want to be critical about the previous government (the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government), but there was a feeling then that nothing could be achieved without money
or giving bribes. To change people’s perspective, we have had to work very hard in the past four months. We have spoken to officials at all levels… Our target was to form a formidable team, Team Assam.
We had the Kaziranga issue. We had to honour the high court order (the Gauhati High Court order of October 9, 2015, had directed the government to evict all encroachers from Kaziranga, adjoining forest land and animal corridors). Ahead of the Assembly elections, we had promised people that we would protect the one-horned rhino. So there have been evictions.
Then there was the issue of anti-national forces in the region. It was a big challenge for us. Earlier, people could not come out on the streets and celebrate Independence Day on August 15 because of threats. This year, we decided, with the support of the people of Assam, that we would celebrate Independence Day for three days—August 13, 14, 15. It was a massive success.
Whatever we have done so far, the people of Assam have supported us. We have had to work hard, particularly on two things: procuring energy and sealing the India-Bangladesh border.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Himanta Biswa Sarma played a crucial role in the BJP campaign before the Assam elections. It is widely believed that he left the Congress because he wanted to be the chief ministerial candidate and he was denied that. What makes you think he will not make the same demand in the BJP?
We are working as a team and will continue to do so because we have a bigger role to play in Assam.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: There are some reports of resentment in the Assam BJP about leaders who have come in from other parties and have been given big responsibilities, compared to those who have been in the BJP for long.
No, no… We are all working as a team. We have to find answers to the long-standing problems in the state.
KABIR FIRAQUE: You have spoken about sealing the Assam border. But how do you propose to seal the riverine border, which is open? There is no fence there.
Yes, of course, there is no fence there, but we have technology. It is simply a question of applying your will.
KABIR FIRAQUE: There have been reports that not just Bangladeshis, even Assamese people were evicted from Kaziranga.
Look, we have honoured the high court order. That’s clear. There has been no discrimination in it. The NRC (National Register of Citizens) update is on. Once it is complete, everything will be clear to everybody. Illegal migrants will be identified.
KABIR FIRAQUE: So you are not confirming whether those evicted were Bangladeshis or Indians?
Of course, suspected (Bangladeshis).
KABIR FIRAQUE: So will those evicted from Kaziranga be evicted from the country as well?
We have to protect the identity of the people of Assam. Once the NRC is updated, the next course of action will be decided. The greater Assamese society has Marwadis, Biharis, Bengalis, Punjabis, Nepalis, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists… Everything would be taken into account.
KABIR FIRAQUE: How long will the NRC updating process take?
The process is underway. The house-to-house verification is done. We are at the document verification stage. More than six crore documents have been submitted to prove citizenship, they will all be properly scrutinised.
Maneesh Chhibber: In state after state, we have seen the BJP seek votes in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Now, you are the chief minister of Assam and people will come to you with their problems. But then, there is also this expectation that you are ruling in the name of the Prime Minister. Is that a challenge?
Modiji is an ideal leader. He is a man of action, a man of dedication, a man of commitment, a man of discipline. The younger generation has tremendous faith in him. People of Assam, people of the north-east have tremendous faith in him because Modiji has given priority to the region. He is the first Prime Minister who has directed all the Union ministers to visit north-eastern states. He sincerely wants the growth of this region.
COOMI KAPOOR: We have had disappointing results in the Rio Olympics. You were the sports minister when preparations for the games were underway. It is said that you spent most of your time in the north-east and did not concentrate on getting our sportsmen ready for the games.
I just want to say that we have to put in a lot of effort in the coming days. We have to work much harder for the Olympics. We have to be optimistic and I am confident that, in the near future, India will win more medals.
Amitabh Sinha: What is your assessment of the kind of reforms needed in the sports administration, in the different national federations?
Many more reforms are required, particularly at the grassroots level. Training system, exposure, sports science… they all need to improve.
COOMI KAPOOR: What about interference from the authorities and favouritism in selection? How do you propose to combat that in Indian sports?
Talented sportsmen must be selected and the process must be impartial. I had two years (as sports minister) and in the latter part of my tenure, I had to devote more time to the South Asian Federation Games (SAF). That was one of my biggest agenda. It was a grand success and all the players who took part in the games expressed their satisfaction. But, of course, we need a lot more innovative ideas… I see a bright future for Indian sports, no doubt about it.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: You are saying that SAF was important. But don’t you think the top athletes should have been concentrating on the Olympics? Quite a few players didn’t want to play in SAF.
A game is a game. Hard work will never go waste. If I am a player, I should concentrate on every game. If players work hard and participate, I do not think their efforts would go in vain.
SHEELA BHATT: Tarun Gogoi served as the chief minister of Assam for three consecutive terms. He must have done something right…
Gogoiji is a senior leader, he is like my father. We will need his help too in executing our motto of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas. They (the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government) had adopted certain strategies for individual benefits. It may have worked for some time, but you cannot mislead people repeatedly. If you give someone a blanket, a mosquito net, it will only do good for a while, it won’t help the new generation. The new generation wants a future, they want employment, they want to live with pride. It is the duty of the government to take steps in this direction.
In 2005, Gogoiji, along with the then prime minister Manmohan Singh, promised to update the NRC in two years. They also promised to seal the India-Bangladesh border in one year. But nothing happened.
I think that the Congress has not fulfilled a single promise in the past and so they had to suffer in the (Assam Assembly) elections this year. We have learnt a lesson from them: think before you speak. People of the state always keep a watch. Now they are watching us. All our promises will be tested on the ground. Words will not suffice, only efforts will. Nobody can cheat voters forever. Impossible.
ANAND MISHRA: Ahead of the 2014 general elections and the Assembly polls in Assam this year, the BJP had taken a hardline approach. Do you think the things that were said back then have now become a problem for the government?
No. Whatever Modiji had said in Assam is being implemented in the state. Dr Manmohan Singh had gone to Bangladesh, but could not work out the Land Boundary Agreement (India and Bangladesh had signed the Land Boundary Agreement in 1974 and a revised version of the agreement was adopted by the two countries on May 7, 2015). Our Prime Minister had the strength to undertake this task.
ANAND MISHRA: What do you think would be the impact of the attack in Uri, and government actions?
Modiji has said it clearly: we have to fight against poverty, let’s fight if you have the courage and then let’s see who wins. Modiji has given India a new place in the world. He is the first Prime Minister who is being discussed across the world. Everyone has accepted him as a world leader. This is the truth.
ANAND MISHRA: Declaring you as the CM candidate before the Assam elections helped the BJP. Do you think the party should declare its CM candidate in Uttar Pradesh too?
Our national leaders will discuss the issue and take the right decision. This is not the right time. The BJP will come to power in UP, that is clear.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: You spoke about the progress in updating the NRC, but it is court-monitored. What is the role of the state?
The state coordinator is ours, 50,000 people are involved in the job, 8,500 people are making data entries. Our government has constantly been working on this. The state’s machinery is at work here.
Assam is the first state that is updating the NRC since Independence. It is a historic initiative.
SHEELA BHATT: Before he joined the BJP, your party had accused Himanta Biswa Sarma of being involved in a number of corruption cases. Now he is part of your Cabinet.
We are all working as a team.
SHEELA BHATT: Were you surprised when Modi and Amit Shah chose you for the post of Assam Chief Minister?
I am a farmer’s son. The people of the state have elected me. When I was called and offered the (chief minister’s) job, I sought the blessings of my seniors. I said that I would work under their guidance.
KABIR FIRAQUE: Will you ban beef in Assam?
We will always go by the principle of secularism. We will follow the Constitution and continue to move in that direction.