Assam: Parliamentary elections

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2010-14: BJP in Assam

India Today, August 27, 2015

Kaushik Deka

On the evening of August 23, before they went to Amit Shah's 11, Akbar Road residence in Lutyens' Delhi, Assam BJP President Siddhartha Bhattacharya could have done a high-five with his former political opponent and ex-minister from the state, Himanta Biswa Sarma. The duo had managed to catch most players and non-players from the state napping. So as the entire BJP leadership remained in the dark till the meeting wound up, on the "breaking news" ticker TV channels in Guwahati reported that Bhattacharya was to meet the BJP national president to tender his resignation over the party's disastrous performance in the Tiwa Autonomous Council polls. The results had come a day before.

The story was the exact opposite. Bhattacharya's mission for almost a year was getting a happy ending with that meeting-the BJP brass had agreed to induct Sarma, once the most trusted lieutenant of Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, despite opposition from six of BJP's seven Lok Sabha MPs from the state. The agenda of the meeting was kept a secret to avoid any last-minute hiccup, especially from Union minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who sees Sarma's entry as a threat to his chief ministerial ambition.

Sarma had also played his part in the game by tweeting about the Congress's Tiwa victory. Unhappy with Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi's decision to back mentor-turned-tormentor Gogoi in their four-year-long feud, Sarma had resigned as Assam's health and education minister on July 21 last year.

So why did the BJP leadership side with Bhattacharya and take in Sarma? The answer lies in the latter's popularity across the state and his record in election management. As health minister between 2006 and 2014, the three-time MLA from Jalukbari introduced a host of populist initiatives, including a 24-hour ambulance service and mandatory presence of doctors in rural hospitals. As education minister from 2011 to 2014, he rolled out a transparent process to employ schoolteachers, leading to nearly 200,000 fresh recruitments. "Sarma gave millions of youngsters hope in a state where teachers' jobs were sold openly. This ensured unprecedented popularity for him," says Guwahati-based journalist and commentator Dileep Chandan. This rising popularity, however, created insecurity in the minds of Gogoi's son Gaurav when he joined politics in 2011, an Assam minister claims.

The 46-year-old lawyer-turned-politician has the most followers on social media among politicians from the North-east and personally responds to most comments and text messages. Ruing that Sarma's exit could mean Assam slipping out of the party's grasp for the next 10 years, a Congress general secretary says, "The party has no leader in the state who can take on Himanta at present."

Rahul Gandhi, who vetoed his mother's decision to replace Gogoi with Sarma last year, seems to have realised that a little too late in the day. On August 24, he is learnt to have sent an SOS to Sonia Gandhi's political secretary Ahmed Patel, saying, "Send my private number to Himanta and ask him to call me back." Sarma has decided to keep Rahul waiting.

Sarma's entry to the saffron party, however, nearly fell through even as recently as last month. Media reports suggested that Sarma, then the Guwahati development minister, was among the alleged recipients of bribe from US consultancy firm Louis Berger for a water supply project in Guwahati in 2010. Much to the delight of several BJP MPs from Assam, the BJP Parliamentary Party soon circulated a booklet saying Sarma was the prime accused in the bribery case, although the former minister points out that the US Justice Department's own release says the bribe had been paid to officials, not politicians. Bhattacharya, too, offers a similar defence: "When we studied the chargesheet filed before the court in USA along with the judgment of the court concerned, we found there was no mention of Sarma."

In 2010 and 2014, Sarma had ensured cross-voting from BJP MLAs to make Congress candidates win in the Rajya Sabha elections. But it is this very expertise in election management that the BJP now wants to cash in on. He ensured Congress returned to power against severe odds and anti-incumbency in Assam and Manipur and oversaw financial management of the election campaign in Mizoram to get the party to power in 2013. The BJP is also keen to have Sarma on board after the party's disastrous performance in Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) polls earlier this year and in Tiwa in August. According to insiders, the BJP's internal surveys indicate that if the picture does not change drastically in the intervening months the party may be left with less than 50 seats in 2016, way below the majority mark of 63. And in a situation where it may need coalition partners, Sarma could be the best bargainer. He has cordial relationships with the leaders of all three probable coalition partners-BPF, AIUDF and AGP.

The BJP may be hoping to use Sarma's skills and popularity to form its first government in Assam, but the big question for his followers is, will he get what he could not achieve in the Congress-the chief minister's post? It may not be a smooth ride for Sarma even in his new party, as Sonowal is also eyeing the top post. The two have been involved in a bitter rivalry since the time both were members of the All Assam Students' Union in the 1980s. In fact, one BJP leader says Sonowal was the brain behind the booklet charging Sarma as the "main accused" in the Louis Berger bribery case.

It will be interesting to see how Sarma, who started off as a child actor in an Assamese film, performs in his new role of a lotus bloomer.

Seat and vote share, party-wise

2011, 2014

Seat and vote share in Assam assembly polls 2011;
Seat and vote share in Lok Sabha polls, 2014
From: Kaushik Deka, December 7, 2015: India Today

See graphic:

Seat and vote share in Assam assembly polls 2011;
Seat and vote share in Lok Sabha polls, 2014

2014: the victorious candidates





Name Of Member



Autonomous District

Biren Singh Engti




Siraj Uddin Ajmal




Badruddin Ajmal




Rameswar Teli




Bijoya Chakravarty




Kamakhya Prasad Tasa




Gourav Gogoi




Radheshyam Biswas




Naba Kumar Sarania (Hira)




Sarbananda Sonowal




Ramen Deka




Rajen Gohain




Sushmita Dev




Ram Prasad Sarmah




See also

Assam: Assembly elections

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