New Delhi/Guwahati: The rising threat of Covid-19 cases has once again sent Guwahati into a complete lockdown, putting the spotlight back on Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Sarma has, at least from what is perceivable, single-handedly managed the Covid-19 pandemic in the state, emerging as the face of the crisis. And once again, this has brought to the fore the imbalance in Assam’s leadership, with Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal playing second fiddle to Sarma, a former Congress leader who has now emerged as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s most prominent face in the Northeast.
“For the general public of Assam, Himanta is running the show and is extremely effective. Even certain people who don’t like the BJP have started appreciating the party because of his perceived efforts,” said a well-placed source in the Assam BJP who did not wish to be identified.
“His daily press conference and updates are important, especially when life is largely stalled and people are looking for information. His perception as a worker, and one who is efficient, has spread among the general public during this crisis,” the source said.
However, this has been the general pattern ever since the BJP government came to power in Assam in 2016 — with Sarma overtaking CM Sonowal as the party’s man in-control, at least outside the state.
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At the forefront of Assam’s Covid war
Sarma is the Assam health minister, and the Covid-19 pandemic falls directly under his charge. But contrast his role with other states and the difference is glaring. Chief ministers across states — from Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, to Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab, B.S. Yediyurappa in Karnataka and Vijay Rupani in Gujarat — have largely been at the forefront, whether in receiving bouquets or brickbats.
Sources in the Assam government say Sarma keeps “extremely long work hours” and is “very hands-on during the pandemic, as is his usual working style”.
“He has been making daily field visits, briefing the media everyday anytime between 12 noon and 4pm, deciding on the next course of action, and keeping himself updated about the situation almost on a minute-by-minute basis,” said a government source, also on condition of anonymity.
Sarma has been involved in governance before, having been part of Congress governments since the early 2000s (also handling the health portfolio), till he parted ways with the party in the run-up to the last assembly polls.
Sonowal, meanwhile, is a relative novice in administration and relies heavily on civil servants close to him, even though as a leader, he is a popular local face, lovingly known as ‘jatiya nayak’ (roughly translated, hero of the tribe).
The CM also realises Covid handling is a double-edged sword, and can boomerang for him if the state is unable to handle it efficiently.
“The CM didn’t have a direction, and has taken a backseat, letting Himanta run the show. He is generally a safe player and likes to bat when the ball is a little old,” a second BJP source said of Sonowal, a former Union minister of state for sports and youth affairs.
“He also knows there is nothing to gain out of a fight here, and the perception of work can also backfire if the situation gets out of hand,” the source said.
Sources also say Assam DGP Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta and Chief Secretary Kumar Sanjay Krishna are running the show for the CM, and that the cracks between Sonowal and Sarma are visible through the equation between the bureaucrats close to them.
“There is a bureaucratic tiff between them and ADGP (Law & Order) G.P. Singh, who came from the NIA during the anti-CAA protests, and is known to be close to Himanta. So, currently, there is an ongoing power struggle between these bureaucrats, which is a shadow fight of the actual one between the big men,” said the first BJP source quoted above.
An old story
Earlier this year, as the violent anti-CAA protests threatened to spin out of control under Sonowal (the CM also controls the home portfolio), Sarma, who was in Delhi, flew back to Guwahati to calm the situation.
The state burning under Sonowal’s watch ended up damaging his image — especially because of his background in student politics and association with the All Assam Students Union (AASU), which was among the groups leading the protests.
But Sarma, who joined the BJP only in August 2015, showed once again why he quickly climbed up the ranks to emerge as the party’s main face in the region, and someone who has the ear of the party’s central leadership.
He is also the convener of the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) and BJP’s main political brain in the region — from planning elections to rushing to resolve crises across states.
A fine balance
Some in the BJP, however, believe the Sarma-Sonowal equation can also be seen as a fine balance.
“It isn’t as if everything Sarma is doing has worked, and that the CM is doing nothing. The controversial import of 50,000 PPE kits from China dented Sarma’s image among medical workers and others. That made him overtly aggressive with the media, and he became confrontational. But now he has calmed down again and is back to his old, efficient self,” said the first BJP source.
“The CM, meanwhile, has done some things very well. He visited FCI warehouses, LPG bottling plants etc. to ensure that essential commodities don’t run out,” the source added.
Officially, of course, the BJP wants to project harmony and a well-oiled government machinery.
“BJP is an experienced party; it’s just the opposition’s way of spreading lies and misconceptions among people. Whatever our Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma has done so far in handling the crisis in the state comes directly under the captaincy of our chief minister,” said Rupam Goswami, spokesperson for the Assam BJP. “It is a collective decision. Everyone is equally invested in tackling this situation. It is teamwork.”
“The Assam government has been handling the Covid situation quite well under the leadership of Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal. Assam did not have so many cases before, but it started accelerating after migrants from the other states started coming in. The health department has done a tremendous job in testing and screening all the migrants/returnees,” Goswami added.
Neither is doing much
But there are those like Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, Independent Rajya Sabha MP from Assam and former journalist, who believe that neither the CM nor the health minister are doing much.
“When a large number of people were affected by this virus in other parts of the country, there were only a handful of cases in Assam till April. But look at the scenario in the state now. The Assam Government and health minister have failed miserably in tackling the crisis in the state. That again a 14-day lockdown has been clamped in Guwahati itself speaks volumes,” Bhuyan said.
“The health minister is pretending to do something by plane-hopping and addressing an endless number of press conferences. The CM is doing nothing and is not even being seen as doing anything to diffuse the crisis,” he added.
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