Since Independence, Assam has had political leaders with tall standing — from Gopinath Bordoloi, Bimala Prasad Chaliha, D.K. Barooah, Hiteswar Saikia, Dinesh Goswami to Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, Tarun Gogoi and Sarbananda Sonowal — who left a mark on the state’s political landscape. But in the last 20 years, if there is one man whose politics and leadership have been consistent themes in the popular vocabulary of Assam, it is Himanta Biswa Sarma. Understanding the politics of Sarma is akin to understanding Assam’s dilemma and, to a certain extent, Northeast’s political evolution: the decline of the Congress and the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Assam’s polarising tussle with development, ethnicity and Hindutva nationalism, which would shape the state’s trajectory in the years to come. However, what is unmissable in Sarma’s politics is the inherent contradiction between what he has stood for years and what he stands for today, between his individual promises to the people of Assam and of his party that has a Hindutva agenda. His admission that the BJP is committed to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act does make a few things clear but it is still a long way before the contradictions, like reinventing ethnic fissures as religious ones, subside. So while Sarma has taken huge leaps, there still remain some bottlenecks he must overcome before becoming the Assam icon he aims to be.
Primarily, there are two dimensions of Sarma’s leadership — social development and power politics, which in his years in the Congress party, had closely aligned with a regional variant of Indian civic nationalism but of late is being served as a cocktail with a form of Hindutva, presented in the vocabulary of Assamese identity.
Sarma, the administrator
In terms of the first dimension, when Sarma was a minister in the Tarun Gogoi government, heading the finance and planning departments, he had extensively focused on internal revenue generation via record growth in tax collection, regularisation of jobs for more than 22,000 master roll employees in a single day and divorcing of the state plan from salary. As health and education minister, Sarma stressed on strengthening health infrastructure and introducing education reforms. He ensured transparent employment of over 50,000 teachers via Teachers’ Eligibility Test; pushed infrastructural development of colleges and provincialisation of educational institutions (which he gave new fillip to after coming back to power as a minister in the BJP government by providing free textbooks to all students); brought the Gunotsav academic evaluation programme of Gujarat to Assam; cleared innovative proposals like geriatric care, inclusive cancer control care scheme in partnership with the Tata Trust; distributed free sanitary napkins; promised 10 gram gold to every bride if a marriage is registered with the aim of reducing child marriage; provided monetary support to disadvantaged women and introduced a universal health insurance scheme (Atal Amrit Abhiyan) much before Ayushman Bharat.
A cursory look at the budgets presented by Sarma as the finance minister over the span of five years in the BJP government reflect themes of social security, welfare and sometimes outright populism with little visible progress in terms of economic reform. Moreover, in terms of key indicators, as per a World Bank Group report in 2018, Assam’s Maternal Mortality Ratio was a dismal 300 as opposed to all India ratio of 167 and Infant Mortality Rate was 54 as opposed to the all India ratio of 40 in 2013. Assam’s learning outcomes of students are very low and most adults have only a few years of schooling. Although, there have been substantial gains in schooling for the young.
Sarma’s development policies, be it from his days in the Congress or the BJP have displayed a secular theme of bringing tangible changes in common people’s lives as quickly as possible — witnessed most recently by his proactive role during the coronavirus pandemic — as opposed to the policy paralysis of the previous governments. Sarma not just has a holistic view of the challenges of development but also a fine understanding of the system’s pressure points to get things done.
Dr Ashutosh Kumar in his 2013 paper titled Development Focus and Electoral Success at Local Level: Nitish Kumar as Bihar’s Leader had argued that despite being propelled by the same socio-political forces as Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish adopted a leadership model thriving on secular idiom of development while cultivating the regional asmita. He has retained his traditional community support base, but has also relentlessly worked to broaden it on a developmental plank across the deeply rooted social cleavages of Bihar, thereby emerging as an altruistic leader attempting to salvage the system from the brink of complete breakdown.
While public opinion in Assam doesn’t identify Sarma’s politics as altruistic, he is similar to Nitish in emerging as a numero uno leader with the fusion of an increasingly broadening developmental paradigm cutting across all cleavages, along with rewriting of the Assamese identity unlike Prafulla Kumar Mahanta of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) who could not rise above politics of ethnicity that propelled him to prominence.
Sarma, the power centre
The second dimension of Sarma’s politics is deeply ingrained in power and Assam’s tussle with identity and “outsiders”.
Sarma is a true follower of his political guru Hiteswar Saikia in being the advocate of New Delhi’s priorities in the state — unlike Gopinath Bordoloi who stood up to the Congress leadership at the time to save Assam from going to East Pakistan — while trying to bring forth an ideological transformation in the state from the ethnic sub-nationalism (or regionalism) of Assam Agitation to the civic nationalism of Congress and finally the Hindutva nationalism of the BJP, relying on a supposed threat from the “other”.
From being a 10-year old fiery public speaker during the Assam Agitation, to becoming the focal point of student politics in Guwahati, and a controversial yet best performing minister-cum-election strategist during the 15-year reign of the Congress, to the BJP’s Northeastern Czar, Sarma has come a long way. It is not just Assam’s political transformation that prompted him to change his political positions. The converse is also true. He too ended up shaping the public avatar of Hindutva in the Northeast.
In the 2016 Assam election, a rainbow coalition of the BJP was formed at Sarma’s behest with Bodos, Tiwas and Rabha-Hazong politically and other groupings like tea garden workers, Marowaris, Bengalis, etc. socially, along with the AGP, which represented the legacy of the Assam Movement to take on the supposed enemy Badruddin Ajmal led ‘illegal immigrants’. The attempt was to carefully distinguish between indigenous Muslims and illegal immigrants while keeping the Hindu Bengali refugees outside this narrative, opposed to the secular opposition of illegal immigrants prevalent in Assam. This was in tandem with how the BJP adjusted to the local variant of the Hindu culture as part of their project of vernacularisation process by appropriating Sankardev, the16th-century socio-religious reformer of Assam who was against Brahmanical orthodoxy. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) primary education wing Shishu Shikha Samiti, established in 1979, started schools across Assam and called them ‘Sankardev Shisu Niketan’.
Sarma was also the convener of the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) that sought to bring different political parties of the region together under the NDA umbrella as their collective voice rather than directly imposing Hindutva. Sarma has left no stone unturned to become the face of Hindutva in the Northeast — be it his vociferous advocacy of the CAA, his statements about clash of civilisation in Assam or the steps taken by him with regards to population policy and Madrasas (both being debated as communal but presented by him in a socially liberal idiom). He is aiming either a national role for himself or the post of the chief minister of Assam.
Sarma’s popular grass-roots connect with the masses and election strategies are beyond question in Assam but the top post in the state still eludes him, primarily why he left the Congress. At present, the relationship between Sarma and the BJP is complementary but whether this will remain so for good is questionable. Ethnic politics in Assam is still not out of fashion and how Himanta Biswa Sarma, who usually understands the pulse of people, interacts with it in future would be consequential for Assam’s future, given the two communally polarising political forces emerging in the state —Hindutva and the politics around the Bengali Muslim community. History will also note whether Sarma tried to find a reflective equilibrium between the NRC, Assam’s identity and the status of minorities.
If Himanta Biswa Sarma is able to make it big, Assam and the Northeast will get a nationally acknowledged political administrator and a voice after a long time, somewhat equivalent to P.A. Sangma. Sarma is currently not just the most popular mass leader in Assam but also capable of emerging as an effective policy maker at the national level in future. However, the tightrope between D.K. Barooah and Gopinath Bordoloi is tough to walk. Although, the final destiny of a controversial ex-Congressman from a region that sends not more than 25 MPs to the Lok Sabha is risky to put one’s money on, Sarma has been outlining his vision for an Assam that can compete with the rest of India as one of the top five states and a cooperative Northeast as the engine of India’s Act East push for over a decade. The legacy of his political leadership would lie in the success or failure of the developmental and ideological paradigms of the Northeast that he re-engineered and how the Indian Union and the region’s politics negotiate with each other in future.
The future of Himanta Biswa Sarma after the 2021 assembly election results will also determine the future of Assam in the decade to come.
Subhrangshu is an M.Phil research scholar at the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views are personal.