Column | Why Himanta Biswa Sarma's stock has risen in the BJP

Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Himanta Biswas Sarma
Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Himanta Biswas Sarma

There are two BJP chief ministers who are nicknamed 'mama' by voters and supporters. But they are unlike in terms of their so-called uncle characteristics. The senior among them is Shivraj Singh Chauhan of Madhya Pradesh, who earned the nickname for the launch of big schemes for girl students, pregnant women and housewives. His supporters would proclaim to voters that "your mama has brought this scheme for you."

Chauhan who has been in power for 17 years is the quintessential party man, having roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and going up the organisational ladder of the BJP in the central state, and then winning three elections to the Lok Sabha, before being para dropped into the chief minister's chair in 2005, following the turbulent and short terms of Uma Bharti and Babulal Gaur. He has held the fort for the party, except losing to Kamal Nath-led Congress narrowly in 2018, but the breakaway group of Jyotiraditya Scindia, helped Chauhan to return to power in 2020. (Scindia was rewarded with union ministership, while his supporters were made ministers in the state.)

Chauhan is confined more to state politics and is rooted in the political style of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era.

The rising star from Assam

But the rapid rise of the other 'mama' in the party is astonishing. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswas Sarma, who was a high-profile Congress defector to the BJP in 2015, is the bigger sensation though he is 10 years younger than his Madhya Pradesh counterpart. He attracts party leaders not only in north-eastern states but is a key person for the party high command, especially for strongman Amit Shah, in conducting political operations.

Sarma became the Assam chief minister last year, after being number two with a bunch of big portfolios under the first BJP chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal. But it is his pan-India reach, both as a politician and as the president of the Badminton Association of India, which gives Sarma higher mobility in party circles. Plus the fact that he has consistently delivered results for the Narendra Modi-led BJP has held him in good stead in the party.

Sarma, who was entrusted with finance and health portfolios by the last Congress CM Tarun Gogoi for eight years, wanted to be replaced later. When he went with a list of complaints to the Congress high command, Rahul Gandhi did not pay much attention. Sarma claimed the young Gandhi was busy feeding biscuits to his pet 'Pidi'. Sarma's declaration that he is a soldier for Narendra Modi's mission of ousting Congress from power in all states has been sweet music for the BJP leadership.

Sarma's Jharkhand mission

Sarma is once again in the news as Congress has accused him of mounting the 'Operation Lotus' in Jharkhand to destabilise the JMM-Congress coalition by luring MLAs from his former party. The finger is pointed at Sarma after the West Bengal police found Rs 50 lakh cash in the car of a Congress legislator, who was accompanied by two other party legislators. A fourth MLA accused that the trio had contacted him to come with them to Guwahati to meet Sarma, who was ready with inducements.

Key role in the break-up of Shiv Sena

Earlier, the rebel Shiv Sena MLAs who had successfully revolted against Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray were rushed from the safe haven of BJP-ruled Gujarat to distant Guwahati. There were two reasons: the proximity to Maharashtra made some MLAs become unsure whether they should return to the Thackeray fold; second, it was felt Sarma would use better skills to manage the rebel legislators led by Eknath Shinde, who soon went on to become the Maharashtra CM.

Though Sarma claimed he had no involvement and that the MLAs were paying their bills, many were convinced he facilitated the communication between Delhi and Eknath Shinde on the deal. The finger was pointed at Sarma again when actor-turned-politician Mithun Chakravarthy recently claimed 33 Trinamool Congress MLAs were in touch with the BJP.

Pro-active, well-planned and ambitious

His close supporters say that Sarma has maintained contact with leaders in all states ever since he became a minister of state in Assam in 2002 and his links were not only with Congressmen but with other parties. After he became the convenor of BJP's Northeastern Democratic Alliance to keep the regional parties under the saffron umbrella, he impressed PM Modi and Shah with his database on every legislator in the northeastern states, and his rapport with them. He had a big role in engineering defections from the Congress in Tripura which helped the BJP to rout the CPM in 2018. As his ambitions have grown bigger his database has also grown bigger.

But apart from political operations against opposition governments, Sarma has also become a votary of the BJP agenda on ending special rights for Muslims. He has converted many madrasas into schools, has been telling Muslims to adopt family planning, and has promised to implement the Citizenship Act totally.

Interestingly, last year when the BJP decided to intensify its campaign against Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao, the party sent both 'mamas' to Hyderabad to address high-profile rallies. But if Chauhan was harsh in his public speech, Sarma not only performed the public role but spent time checking how strong the Congress was becoming under its new state president Revanth Reddy. Sarma is valued much in the BJP national headquarters for his willingness to go the extra mile in destabilising opposition parties. In that way, he is no loving mama to parties that are opposed to the BJP.

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