The Hindu Profiles | On Hamas, Himanta Biswa Sarma and Mohamed Nasheed

Himanta Biswa Sarma | From student leader to CM

A student leader, Congress Minister-turned-rebel and now the much-feted Chief Minister of BJP-ruled Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, 52, has covered almost the entire spectrum of politics in Assam with reassuring ease.

The position of Chief Minister was the culmination of a political journey that started as a teenager; one in which he successfully moved from the politics of cultural and regional identity to the BJP’s overarching idea of “one nation, one culture”.

Known for his oratory from his early days, Mr. Sarma, like many from that generation, plunged into student politics by becoming a member of the powerful All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), the student body that had catapulted student leaders like Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and the late Bhrigu Kumar Phukan as the State’s Chief Minister and Home Minister.

The Assam Agitation from 1979 to 1985, also known as the anti-foreigners’ movement, to detect and deport undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh not only saw the emergence of Assamese sub-nationalism but also a breed of student leaders whose politics was tied to the question of cultural identity and regional aspirations. Post the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, the AASU became the training ground of many a regional leader, including Mr. Sarma and his predecessor as Chief Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when student leaders dominated Assam’s political landscape — under the shadows of Mr. Mahanta and Mr. Phukan, who had founded the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) — Mr. Sarma, or HBS as he is known in political circles, went on to head the students’ union of the prestigious Cotton College (now upgraded as a university), a premier institution of the State.

Quick rise

His quick rise as the general secretary of the All Guwahati Students’ Union, his organisational skills and the ability to mobilise youth attracted the attention of then Congress leader Hiteshwar Saikia. Mr. Saikia, who had become the Chief Minister in the middle of 1991, was looking for a young leader who could bring the youth — an influential voting segment that had been driven away by the anti-Congressism of the Assam Agitation — back into the Congress fold.

While the Congress found a promising youth leader in HBS, his former mentors at the AASU were forced to sever ties with him. The bitter parting prompted the Congress to field him against Mr. Phukan from the Jalukbari constituency in the 1996 Assembly elections, a contest that he lost but it set the stage for his future politics. In 2001, as the Congress regained the State from the AGP, Mr. Sarma scored his first electoral victory from the Jalukbari constituency, a seat that has now given him five terms including his latest win. He not only endeared himself to Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi but soon became the main troubleshooter and a crisis manager for the Gogoi government. He wasn’t just a Minister whose writ ran across departments but was seen as the ‘real power’ behind the Chief Minister.

Their relationship soured with the entry of Mr. Gogoi’s son, Gaurav, into the political arena. As Gogoi senior made it clear that his son would be his political heir, an ambitious HBS got impatient. His claim to the Chief Minister’s post met with resistance from former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi. After unsuccessfully leading a rebellion to dislodge Mr. Gogoi, Mr. Sarma, along with supporters, joined the BJP in August 2015, barely nine months before the party formed its first government in Assam.

Until then, he had been the BJP’s main political target: from being accused in the Sharada Chit Fund scam to accusing him of reciving kickbacks in awarding a contract for a water project in Guwahati city.

Mr. Sarma not only successfully weathered the storm but soon became the BJP’s chief crisis manager, the force behind the Sonowal government and the master strategist who ensured that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was in power in all the north-eastern States.

If his work as the State’s Health Minister in the previous government to contain the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic got noticed, his strident Hindutva position with regard to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and strong support for the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that went against the Assam Accord endeared him to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), often the source of power in the BJP.

Much like the theories of disruptive innovation taught in business schools, Mr. Sarma’s rise in politics too has been through disruptions in his political career of more than three decades. But his skills will be tested now as his government negotiates controversial laws such as the CAA that had met with massive protests on the ground.

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Printable version | Jun 22, 2021 5:38:06 PM |

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