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Who is Himanta Biswa Sarma?

March 10, 2018 06:21 pm | Updated 06:21 pm IST

When the Congress sidelined the ambitious Himanta Biswa Sarma in 2015, the Bharatiya Janata Party, desperate to make Assam its base for expansion in the northeast, sniffed an opportunity. The BJP made him draw up the blueprint for ousting the Congress in the 2016 Assembly elections, besides forging an alliance with the Bodoland People’s Front, which had parted ways with the Congress in 2014, and the Asom Gana Parishad. The alliance won 86 seats — and the Assam election.

How did he get a bigger role?

Mr. Sarma, 49, got the Finance portfolio in the new government, and the BJP gave him a bigger role. He was made convener of the North East Development Alliance (NEDA), whose primary task was to bring disparate regional parties on board to fight the common enemy: the Congress. Mr. Sarma got going, first engineering the BJP’s takeover in Arunachal Pradesh from the Congress and helping to turn the tables on the Congress, the single largest party, in Manipur, cobbling up a BJP-led alliance government last year. His role in Tripura, where the BJP had a machinery in place, was limited but his ability to strike deals was vital in the installation of an alliance government in Meghalaya and dealing with a temporary crisis when the rival regional parties — the Naga People’s Front and the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party — fought to tie up with the BJP in Nagaland.

How did he rise to power?

In the 1990s, the former Assam Chief Minister, Hiteswar Saikia, considered the craftiest leader the Congress has produced in the northeast, had followed his instincts to invest in a young law graduate prone to inviting trouble. The impulsive youngster, Himanta, had cut his teeth in the All Assam Students’ Union that spearheaded the anti-foreigners’ agitation from 1979 to 1985. He became the “errand boy” of the agitation’s leader, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who went on to be the face of regionalism in Assam, and his associate Bhrigu Kumar Phukan. While Saikia died weeks before completing his term in 1996, the Congress earned dividends from his investment when Mr. Sarma wrested the Jalukbari Assembly seat from Mr. Phukan, one of his political mentors, in 2001. The Congress under Tarun Gogoi tweaked its policy of overlooking firsttimers to make Mr. Sarma a junior Minister in 2002.

Why did he fall out with Gogoi?

Mr. Sarma worked his way up to become one of Mr. Gogoi’s most trusted lieutenants. He established himself as a multi-tasker: nurturing his constituency and performing better than his colleagues in the Gogoi Ministry and taking care of niggles within the party. His acumen as a strategist came to the fore in the 2006 Assembly elections. He managed the Congress’s 2011 campaign too, helping the party win an unprecedented 78 seats. But Mr. Gogoi’s bid to project his son Gaurav, a parliamentarian now, upset Mr. Sarma, and he drifted away from the Congress. He had a camp of supporters and challenged Mr. Gogoi’s leadership. Some of his supporters switched over to Mr. Gogoi, who enjoyed the high command’s support. A sulking Mr. Sarma became a recluse before resurfacing in August 2015 as arguably the BJP’s biggest catch in Assam. A few weeks later, 10 Congress MLAs followed him to the BJP. Mr. Gogoi called it “good riddance,” but many Congress leaders sensed this could spell trouble for the party. However, Mr. Sarma had come to the BJP with a handicap — allegations of involvement in the Saradha chit fund scam and the Louis Berger bribery case — just as a couple of TADA cases, dismissed long ago, had preceded his joining the Congress.

What lies ahead?

The former Assam BJP president, Siddhartha Bhattacharyya, who had pushed for inducting Mr. Sarma into the party, wondered why the Congress was “letting go of an asset despite everything.” Though Mr. Sarma has proved himself, the real test would be to make the BJP a force to reckon with in the Christian-majority Mizoram, considered difficult to crack, where elections are due this year-end.

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