New Delhi: It is not unusual for BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is set to be sworn in as Assam’s next Chief Minister, to call meetings past midnight and keep civil servants on their toes at ungodly hours. According to those close to Sarma, he catches up on sleep while travelling from one constituency to another, or, as the NDA’s point person for the Northeast, between different states in the region.
And this works out well for the Assamese leader because, as an unrelenting election machine, he is known to travel extensively. This is precisely what made this “outsider” an indispensable warhorse for the BJP.
Sarma was Sunday appointed as the BJP’s chief ministerial pick for Assam, a week after assembly election results for the state were announced. He succeeds Sarbananda Sonowal, who served as the BJP’s first Chief Minister in the Northeast from 2016 to 2021.
The decision was taken at a meeting of the BJP legislature party in Guwahati, a day after he and Sonowal were summoned to Delhi by the party brass to thrash out consensus on the CM issue.
In August 2015, when Sarma joined the BJP following differences with the Congress leadership in Assam, 10 MLAs followed him. Then chief minister Tarun Gogoi gave a two-worded response to his exit — “good riddance”.
But Gogoi’s response hasn’t aged well, with Sarma playing a crucial role in helping the BJP gain a strong footing not only in Assam but five other states in the Northeast — Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya.
Sarma has never hidden his political ambitions. He quit the Congress after Tarun Gogoi projected his son Gaurav, now a parliamentarian, as the face of Assam’s Congress leadership. This, despite Sarma managing the 2011 election campaign for the party, and helping it win an unprecedented 79 seats in the 126-member assembly.
Sarma had also deftly managed the 2006 campaign for the Congress and it was this political astuteness that once made him one of Gogoi’s most trusted lieutenants.
ThePrint reached Sarma, 52, for a comment via text messages but he did not respond till the publishing of this report.
Man behind BJP’s Northeast inroads
Sarma has been credited as the man behind BJP’s increased foothold in the Northeast and the BJP rewarded him handsomely with the finance portfolio in the Sonowal government.
In 2019, the BJP appointed Sarma as the convener of the North East Development Alliance (NEDA), a coalition formed to dislodge the Congress from its bastions in the region.
Sarma has been a rather patient ground-level worker who worked his way up the hierarchy. He had participated in the anti-foreigners’ agitation led by the All Assam Students’ Union from 1979 to 1985, during which he worked closely with Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, the agitation’s leader who went on to serve as CM, and his associate Bhrigu Kumar Phukan.
After joining the Congress in the 1990s, Sarma first contested polls from Guwahati’s Jalukbari in 2001 and defeated Phukan, contesting as a candidate of Mahanta’s Asom Gana Parishad. He has held on to the Jalukbari seat ever since.
Between 2002 and 2014, Sarma held a slew of positions, including Minister of State for agriculture, planning and development, finance, health, education, and Assam Accord Implementation, in the state’s Congress government.
His tenure as a minister, however, was mired in allegations of corruption with critics dubbing him a “Machiavellian operator”.
Later, a falling-out with Gogoi and an alleged snub for place in the party high command led Sarma to join the BJP just prior to the 2016 assembly polls. Until then, the BJP had absolutely no footprint in the Northeast, which was dominated by the Congress and regional players.
The BJP’s maiden victory in Assam in 2016 is credited to a great extent to Sarma joining forces with the party. And his clout as a mass leader has become even more prominent during his stint as the convener of NEDA. He helped the party form a government in Arunachal Pradesh, and managed to cobble up a BJP-led alliance government in Manipur.
In 2018, Sarma, along with the BJP’s Tripura in-charge Sunil Deodhar, was able to break away the state’s top Trinamool Congress and Congress leadership and convince them to join the BJP.
In the process, Sarma established himself as a deft election manager with an understanding of the voters’ mind.
The Assamese leader also fits right into the BJP’s polarising politics, despite being an “outsider”. He has become a crucial troubleshooter for the party, and was instrumental in managing the post-CAA disturbance in Assam and the subsequent political crisis in Manipur that put the party’s government in the state on the precipice of collapse.
With Sarma’s help, the BJP managed to come to power in six states in the Northeast, either by winning elections or forging alliances.
He is known as a workaholic who can take meetings even at 12 in the night. Civil servants who have worked with him say Sarma has an understanding of subjects he is dealing with and comes prepared for meetings and interactions.
The election results in Assam last week left the BJP in a difficult spot because of the choice it had to make between Sonowal and Sarma. However, the latter had an edge over the relatively inexperienced Sonowal because he is known to have a grip over governance and administration on account of his experience working in Congress governments.
Those who know Sarma said he would never have settled for a central ministry instead of the CM’s chair in Assam. And looks like he didn’t.