The Bharatiya Janata Party will soon need a leader to fill in Amit Shah’s shoes — as an astute election manager and shrewd political strategist to manage pan-India operations. It’s clear that J.P. Nadda isn’t the man to do that. At best, he can be a placeholder. The BJP’s best bet is Assam’s Himanta Biswa Sarma, if only the party and its ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh are willing to shed their rigidity.
Himanta Biswa Sarma is everything that Amit Shah is — calculative, ruthless, astute in his understanding of politics, toxic on-demand troubleshooter, hardworking and with an insatiable appetite for power. Sarma has a dash of Modi too — he enjoys great popularity among the constituency he caters to.
Amit Shah, who as BJP president and with Narendra Modi turned the BJP into an election-winning machinery, will need a suitable successor. If one looks at the BJP’s second-rung bench strength at the national level, it fails to inspire much confidence, and this glaring HR crisis is evident in the Modi government as well.
While he may have a lot going for him, the Assam BJP leader’s big drawback is that he isn’t an RSS product and does not have his roots in the Sangh — almost a disqualification for any significant national post in the BJP.
Himanta Biswa Sarma: The politician
If there’s one thing the soft-spoken, but fiery, Himanta is known for, it is his ability to read the political situation correctly and ensure it works to the advantage of his camp.
A Congress import, Himanta Biswa Sarma took little time to become the BJP’s most known, trusted and relied-upon face in Assam, in fact the entire northeast. It was in 2015 that he walked out of the Congress, after a very public and bitter fight with then president Rahul Gandhi.
The Modi-Shah duo is not known to trust easily, but Himanta ensured he became their go-to man in the region. The BJP won the 2016 assembly election in Assam, and under Himanta’s close watch, fanned out across the northeast, gaining control state after state, either by legitimately winning an election or unapologetically using underhand tactics to storm to power.
Much like Shah, Himanta Biswa Sarma has no qualms using whatever it takes to come to power. Much like Shah, he understands the pulse of the electorate and ensures even difficult territories like Tripura open up to the BJP. Again, like Shah, he can spew communal venom on-demand and pretend to be statesman-like when he feels the need.
Most importantly, Himanta Biswa Sarma has the fire in the belly, the hunger for power and his own understanding of why it is important to rule — perhaps among the reasons why he couldn’t bother to stay on in a flailing, directionless and happy-to-sit-in-opposition Congress. Again, reminiscent of both Modi-Shah’s primary qualities — the unabashed desire for power.
Sarbanada Sonowal maybe the Assam chief minister, but it is the scheming and calculative Sarma who has emerged as the BJP’s face. Look at how things unfolded in Assam after the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act — Sarma allowed it to seem like Sonowal had failed, and then swooped in to ‘control’ the situation.
Himanta: The mass leader
The argument against Himanta Biswa Sarma may well be that towering over a state like Assam is very different from playing a pan-India role. But the fact is that by his dominant position across northeast, Sarma has shown he knows how to spread his wings quick and far.
He may not be the most known BJP face across India, but Modi-Shah also started off within the confines of one state and soon carved a niche for themselves to capture the imagination of the nation. All it took was a sharp political mind, the unapologetic journey towards power and manipulating the voters to buy into their brand of politics and promises.
In Assam, Sarma has a considerable following. When this writer travelled across the state in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election, a common refrain among voters was that things would have been very different for the Congress had Sarma remained in the party. He knows his constituency and knows how to retain it despite shifting camps.
The big glitch
What, however, works against Himanta Biswa Sarma is his non-RSS background — something that is a strict no-go zone for big national positions in the BJP. To most, Sarma might seem like an opportunist, with no real commitment or investment towards one camp.
The difference between Himanta Biswa Sarma and Amit Shah is that the latter has a clear ideological leaning, a commitment to Hindutva that runs in the BJP. The former, meanwhile, has only one ideology — power. The NRC-CAA bandwagon has become a convenient tool for Sarma to ride on to showcase his commitment towards the BJP. But does he really believe in the CAA-NRC project’s communal aspect over its ethnic feature? One will never quite know.
It is no secret that Sarma wanted to come out of Assam to play a larger national role in 2019. Modi and Amit Shah, however, felt the time wasn’t right and preferred to keep him as their main man in the northeast.
Will Himanta Biswa Sarma be able to convince the BJP and the RSS then? That will be the real test of his astuteness and ability to navigate his way through difficult circumstances.