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As Assam burns, troubleshooter Himanta Biswa Sarma gets his big chance to upstage CM Sonowal

Assam has seen violent protests over the citizenship bill and the situation has spiraled out of control under CM Sarbananda Sonowal’s watch.

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New Delhi: The violent outburst and street protests in Assam following the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill will have a crucial bearing on the state’s politics, while also putting the spotlight on two of the tallest BJP leaders there — Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and senior minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.

With the situation having spiralled out of control under CM Sarbananda Sonowal’s watch —who has kept the Home portfolio with himself — eyes will now be on Himanta Biswa Sarma, who has come to be seen as the BJP’s chief troubleshooter, not just in the state but in Northeast as a whole.

As the Rajya Sabha Wednesday debated, and later passed, the vexed citizenship bill, Assam witnessed massive protests not seen in the state in decades. The citizenship bill, along with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that was recently updated in Assam, has deep-rooted ethnic and social connotations and has exposed old fault-lines.

Equally crucial is the impact of this on the politics of the ruling BJP in the state — bringing to the fore the uneasy, competitive dynamic between Himanta Biswa Sarma and Sarbananda Sonowal as well as their games of one upmanship.

Also read: Anti-CAB protests in Assam force PM Modi into crisis management mode, BJP plans campaign

Himanta vs Sonowal

According to well-placed sources in the state BJP, the protests and how the situation has become so grim “is likely to go against the chief minister”.

Sonowal’s rise in politics has been on the back of his stint with student politics and association with the All Assam Students Union (AASU) that spearheaded the anti-outsider Assam Agitation. But although many of the protests since Wednesday have been led by student groups and AASU itself, the chief minister hasn’t been able to reach out and calm tempers.

“This will definitely be seen as the CM’s failure, especially since he has law and order directly under him. The grim situation could have been prevented had he reached out to student bodies, universities and other stakeholders in advance and left some space open for negotiation,” said a BJP source in Assam, who did not wish to be identified.

“Despite being a former AASU person himself, he hasn’t been able to control the situation.”

Even more interesting, though, is how the ball is now in Himanta Biswa Sarma’s court. According to a senior BJP leader in Delhi, Sarma has assured BJP president Amit Shah that he will tackle the crisis himself.

Sarma was in Delhi when the citizenship bill was being discussed and passed by Rajya Sabha, and returned to Guwahati only Thursday morning. On Wednesday, Guwahati and other parts of Assam saw violent protests spill on to the streets.

A Congress import, Sarma is known to be close to Shah and is the party’s chief strategist in the region. He holds four portfolios, including Finance and Health.

“That Himanta wants Home under him is barely a secret. This crisis and the CM’s inability to handle it gives him a golden opportunity to showcase his administrative skills, thus bargaining for the crucial portfolio in return,” said another state BJP leader, also on condition of anonymity.

Sarma has vast administrative experience given his stints with Congress governments, far greater than Sonowal, who is a greenhorn in this area. Known to be a shrewd negotiator, the onus will now be on Sarma to reach out to the protesting groups and pacify the ethnic Assamese with the promise of wriggling in concessions for them in the citizenship bill, sources added.

The fact that Sarma is now likely to take active charge of the situation is clear from the big move to shift Inspector General NIA (National Investigation Agency) G.P. Singh back to Assam as ADG (Law & Order). Singh, a 1991-batch IPS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre, is known to be close to Sarma. The IPS officer has past experience in Assam, particularly in the years when the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) was also active.

The Sonowal-Sarma rivalry

While both Sonowal and Sarma are not organically homegrown BJP leaders, the former has an edge having joined the party from the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in 2011, whereas Sarma left the Congress only in 2015.

Even though Sonowal is the chief minister, Sarma has emerged as the BJP’s more critical leader and with a closer connect to the party’s top command in Delhi.

“The cold war between the two is known, and it has only intensified with time. This was also a reason why Himanta wanted to come to the Centre and not remain in state politics,” said a government functionary in Assam who has worked with the leaders.

However, it is their politics and hold over large swathes of electorates that will be crucial.

Sonowal, known as a jatiya nayak (hero of the race), built his politics on agitating against ‘outsiders’. With the bill, his politics has taken a hit, particularly in regions where he has a grip — upper Assam districts, including Dibrugarh and Lakhimpur.

Sarma, meanwhile, has a better hold over Barak Valley — which, due to its Bengali Hindu population, supports the citizenship bill, some tribal regions that by virtue of being Sixth Schedule areas have been exempted under the bill and lower Assam, where there have been no protests so far. However, Guwahati is the leader’s main base, and one that is witnessing massive protests. How he is able to quell the tension will be crucial to his political fortunes.

With a perception of Sonowal losing a grip of the situation in the first few crucial hours, this could well be the moment in the sun Himanta Biswa Sarma has been waiting for.

Also read: Now Modi govt has proved that it not only talks like Pakistan, it thinks and acts like it


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  1. No one of the critics of bill answers 1 simple question that is Pakistan’s minority population percentage come down to 2 percent from above 20 percent .Our past governments & opposition shamelessly pursued .The present government only assuring it will put a full stop all this. Bangladesh was a secular nation at the time of its birth & turned Islamic by the military .It is still remains so . They should have become secular.

  2. A question, born out of unfamiliarity with the state’s politics. Since the chaos that is unfolding in the north east hurts the ruling party, moving it to damage control, shouldn’t Mr Sarma have advised the high command to move with greater prudence ?

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