Despite being polar opposites of each other, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party share a common dilemma in poll bound Assam — whether or not to project a CM face, and if yes, then whose?
Should the Congress simply declare Gaurav Gogoi, its most prominent face and prolific campaigner in the state, as its CM face? Should the BJP take the plunge and name senior minister Himanta Biswa Sarma as its main face?
The stakes are high — for the Congress, because it needs to put up a decent performance if it does not want to be wiped out of the state’s political map, and for the BJP, because only a retention of power will prove that the it is here to stay in the northeast, a relatively new territory for the national party. Their reasons for not propping up a CM candidate, however, are different.
The paradox here is that while the BJP has witnessed a sharp uptick in its political fortunes in Assam, having stormed to power in 2016, the Congress has seen a simultaneous and steady downfall. And yet, both the rivals seem bogged down by a common predicament.
Congress is hardly spoiled for choice in Assam. With former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s passing away, the party finds itself leaderless and rudderless.
Gogoi was a stalwart, a hugely popular leader even in an electoral loss. His passing away left a deep void in the Assam Congress, one that has seemed even more pronounced because of the BJP’s meteoric rise in the state.
The Congress has no easy successors to Tarun Gogoi. Himanta Biswa Sarma, its second tallest leader in the state, jumped ship to the BJP in 2015, in what has been an irreparable loss to the party. As things stand with the Congress, after Gogoi’s death, there is no mass leader it is left with in Assam — someone with a grip over the organisation who can take charge or confidently lead the party into the assembly election. Gaurav Gogoi isn’t experienced enough to handle the entire party in the state, and has not been taken seriously by Assam’s electorate so far. Senior leaders like Ripun Bora and leader of Opposition in the state assembly Debabrata Saikia have never shown much promise, and lack the mass appeal and electoral astuteness. Lok Sabha MP and Congress campaign committee chairman Pradyut Bordoloi is experienced, but hardly seems to have a statewide appeal or the heft to pull off being the CM face.
Sushmita Dev, a feisty young face, was unable to win her own Lok Sabha seat in 2019, and is caught between the confusing ‘Brahmaputra Valley versus Barak Valley’ politics of her party. The recent reports of her quitting the Congress may just have been the smoke, but as they say, there is no smoke without fire.
In the last few weeks, however, Gaurav Gogoi seems to have got a handle on the situation and is leading the party front with vigour. With the ‘Axom basaon ahok‘ (let’s save Assam) election cry, he appears visible, clear and focussed. At this point, Gaurav is also the best known face from Assam Congress, nationally. But are these enough reasons for the party to project him as the CM candidate?
While promoting the Kaliabor MP as its primary leader may help the Congress showcase clarity and youth, giving it a rallying point, it has its set of disadvantages. Gaurav hasn’t been the most popular leader in Assam by far. When I travelled to his constituency ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, I found voters were hardly showering praise on him. Gogoi junior may have won his election, thanks to the demographic advantage, but Congress has had a tough time finding his father’s replacement.
Moreover, with Gaurav still raw and not carrying widespread acceptability or heft within the party, declaring his name as CM candidate will unleash a series of internal conflicts, dissents and infighting among the other hopefuls — something the party can ill-afford.
There are no easy answers for the Congress. But it can find solace in the fact that its much stronger and in-control rival is also facing similar problems.
Himanta or Sarbanada — BJP’s big question
For the BJP, the situation is perhaps even more precarious. It has a ruling Chief Minister in Sarbananda Sonowal, and hence, the decision should have been easy but for the Himanta-sized problem.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, is without a doubt the biggest asset for the BJP, not just in Assam, but in the entire northeast region. He is sharp as a tack, politically and electorally well-entrenched in the state, significantly popular and has a strong grip over the organisation as well as the government.
Sarma may have been content with senior portfolios (not home though, mind you) in the Sonowal cabinet but for what he brings to the table, and how useful he has proved himself to be, he is hardly going to be comfortable continuing in the same mould. Sarma, sources say, had expressed his desire to come to the Centre ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed more convinced of his indispensability in Assam. There were murmurs that Sarma may not contest these elections, but with his candidature from Jalukbari now announced, it is evident the BJP’s chief strategist in the northeast is there to stay.
Between Sarma and Sonowal, it is the latter who has been sidelined. Whether it was in terms of governance — especially in crisis situations like the anti-CAA protests or the Covid-19 pandemic — or politics, as evident in the recent candidate selection, Sarma has been the dominant factor.
Why then is the BJP shy of declaring him as its CM face? For one, the decision to do so wouldn’t go down well with CM Sonowal and much like the Congress, the party would hardly want a rebellion in its ranks on the eve of polls. Then again, replacing your current CM with a prime leader would be seen as a loss of faith in the former, an unnecessary optic in poll season.
The party may have said it will not go to the polls with a CM face, but its discomfort and lack of certainty is palpable. It isn’t much like the BJP to not go ahead with an existing CM as its poll face — look at recent state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Haryana, in all of which the sitting CMs led the party from the front, for good or for worse. Assam, however, is an aberration, and in being that exception, it betrays the confusion and dilemma the BJP finds itself in.
Unfortunately, for both the Congress and the BJP, their misery is unlikely to end with the polls. This question will become even more difficult to answer, once the election has been won.
Views are personal.