Assam Assembly Elections | Sonowal scores higher than Sarma, despite the latter making steady gains

While the Finance Minister’s popularity is largely in Lower Assam, the outgoing CM is ahead in Upper Assam and Barak Valley

Updated - November 27, 2021 04:09 pm IST

Published - May 08, 2021 01:02 am IST

Union Home Minister Amit Shah flanked by Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, during a rally in Nagaon district of Assam. File photo

Union Home Minister Amit Shah flanked by Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, during a rally in Nagaon district of Assam. File photo

The election campaign in Assam was marked by speculation of BJP leader and Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma taking over from Sarbananda Sonowal as the Chief Minister after the election, so much so that apart from the BJP’s official campaign song featuring Sonowal and Narendra Modi, there was a parallel song, ‘ Ahise Himanta Ahise’ announcing the coming of Mr. Sarma, that also went viral at BJP rallies.

image/svg+xmlChoices for CM in most recent electionsSarbanandaSonowalHimanta BiswaSarmaGogois2021Assemblyelection2311Gaurav Gogoi122019 LokSabhaelection (onCM choicequestion)263TarunGogoi162016Assemblyelection304Tarun Gogoi26Note: Figures are percentagesSonowalscores highThe survey found that as far as the chief ministerialpreference is concerned, Sarbananda Sonowal continued tobe quite ahead of Himanta Biswa Sarma in popularity, eventhough the gap between the two leaders narrowed downcompared to fve years ago. However, on comparing thecurrent fgures with those from the 2016 election survey, itis Mr. Sarma whose situation appears better

This tussle between the two leaders was perhaps one of the key reasons why the BJP leadership decided to stay away from naming its chief ministerial candidate before the election. In this scenario, it may be important to look at exactly how popular Mr. Sonowal and Mr. Sarma actually were in these elections and among which regions and sections. Lokniti-CSDS’ post-poll survey data offers some interesting insights in this regard.

The survey found that as far as the chief ministerial preference is concerned, Mr. Sonowal continued to be quite ahead of Mr. Sarma in popularity, even though the gap between the two leaders narrowed compared to five years ago. On being asked an open-ended question about who they would like to see as the next chief minister, about one in four (23%) respondents named Mr. Sonowal as their top choice (Table 1). Congress leader Gaurav Gogoi was the second most preferred leader at 12% (largely on the back of Muslim support) and Mr. Sarma was close behind in the third spot as the choice of 11%. So comparing strictly between, Mr. Sonowal and Mr. Sarma, the former was twice as favoured for the post of CM as the latter.

However, on comparing the current figures with those received during our 2016 election survey, it is Mr. Sarma whose situation appears better and than Mr. Sonowal’s. Back then, 30% had wanted Mr. Sonowal to be chief minister and only 4% had opted for Mr. Sarma. The gap between the two leaders, therefore, shrunk from 26 percentage points to 12 points this time. Two points would need to be added here. A sitting Chief Minister always has an advantage (unless he has been intensely unpopular) when people are asked to suggest their preference for chief minister. Secondly, in the previous election, the BJP specifically projected Mr. Sonowal as their CM candidate while this time they did not.

image/svg+xmlCM choice: How Sonowal and Sarma fared acrossdiferent regions and communitiesSarbanandaSonowalHimanta BiswaSarmaBy RegionUpper Assam286Barak Valley229Lower Assam1916By Castes andCommunitiesUpper Castes2921OBCs3414Dalits3522Bodo1910OtherSTs4110Muslims73Others376Note: Figures are percentages and may not total 100 due to rounding

There is also a regional dimension to the reduced gap between the two leaders. We find that much of this reduction happened in the Lower Assam region more than anywhere less.

Mr. Sarma’s popularity was heavily restricted to the Lower Assam (where he contests from) – 16% in this region wanted to see him as CM as opposed to 19% who wanted Mr. Sonowal (Table 2). This is the only region, in fact, where Mr. Sarma has made major gains at the expense of Mr. Sonowal. In 2016, Mr. Sarma had been the choice of just 3%.

Mr. Sonowal, on the other hand, was far more preferred than Mr. Sarma in the Upper Assam and Barak Valley regions.

In Upper Assam, 28% expressed a desire to see him CM again (only 6% opted for Mr. Sarma) and in Barak Valley, 22% (9% for Mr. Sarma). In Upper Assam, there was a slight dip in Mr. Sonowal’s popularity (in 2016, 33% had wanted him CM), whereas in the Barak Valley it actually went up by 6 points. Interestingly, Bengali Hindus (many of whom reside in Barak Valley) were more desirous of wanting to see Mr. Sonowal as CM as compared to Assamese Hindus — 38% to 32%. In 2016, it had been the other way around.

But if there is one community among whom Mr. Sonowal did exceedingly well it was the non-Bodo ST community. Preference for him among them was the highest at 41%. As for Mr. Sarma, Dalits emerged as his strongest supporters (22%), even though here, too, Mr. Sonowal had a good lead of 11 points over him.

(The authors work with Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi)

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