INTERVIEW | Brand Modi bigger than Citizenship Bill says Himanta Biswa Sarma

Claiming that the Citizenship Bill was hardly a poll issue, Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma talks to H Khogen Singh and Prasanta Mazumdar.

Published: 25th April 2019 08:49 AM  |   Last Updated: 20th May 2019 06:42 PM   |  A+A-

Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. (File | PTI)

Express News Service

How do you think the BJP will perform in the Northeast?
There are 25 seats in the Northeast, including Sikkim. There is the BJP and there is the NEDA (Northeast Democratic Alliance, a BJP-led alliance of non-Congress parties). I believe the BJP alone will get 16 to 17 seats. With allies, it will get another three. Out of 25, my projection is the BJP will win 19 seats in the worst case and 21 in the best case.

The BJP had won 10 seats in 2014 because of one personality, Mr Narendra Modi. After Amit Shah took over as the BJP chief, he said the party should expand organisationally in the South, East and the Northeast. Today, we are all over the Northeast. We have our own governments in some states and some with regional alliances. Today in the Northeast the Congress is almost non-existent. There was a lot of resistance against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Will the BJP’s prospects be affected by it?

CAB was a bigger issue in Manipur than Assam. We said when we reintroduce the Bill, we can accommodate the concerns expressed by the people of Manipur. In my view, a state where the National Register of Citizens is not updated, CAB will have no applicability immediately because nobody is going to come voluntarily and say he has come from Bangladesh because of religious persecution. Through a dialogue process, we have been able to assuage the people’s feelings. That’s why CAB was not an electoral issue in the final days of voting. 

In Assam, the number of people endorsing CAB was more than those opposing it. Assam has difficult demography with many believing that the state will not be affected negatively by the accommodation of Bengali Hindu immigrants who came prior to December 31, 2014 (the CAB cut-off date).

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But yes there is a section that opposes CAB as it violates the Assam Accord. So the public opinion is fractured. But the people think the re-election of Mr Modi is much more important than discussing CAB. Given this, I think CAB was put in the backburner during the entire election process. Neither the Congress nor the AGP (Asom Gana Parishad) raised it vociferously. We also did not make it a big issue as we had to capitalize on brand Modi and development. 

There is a perception that CAB is aimed at consolidating the Hindu population in Assam and winning over the Bengali Hindu immigrant voters in Bengal. For the sake of stability, Assam needs CAB as it is getting a high degree of Muslim immigrants. They have become the state’s single largest community. By pushing back five lakh Hindus, we cannot give any dividends to the people of Assam. At the end of the NRC, there will be five-six lakh Hindus who will be CAB beneficiaries.

When you have already accepted 1.35 crore Muslim immigrants who are better at manipulating the NRC legacy data by claiming their father’s name and title as that of anyone’s, the people of Assam will not gain anything by dealing firmly with five-six lakh Hindu migrants. And where will they be pushed back? If they are pushed back to Bangladesh or Pakistan, they will be further persecuted. A criticism of CAB is that it identifies people along religious lines, people belonging to six communities are welcome to India but not Muslims. 

Can you give me an example of a single Muslim in India who came prior to December 31, 2014, claiming he migrated as he was persecuted for practising Quran in Bangladesh or Pakistan? Even if persecuted, why will he come to India? There are so many officially-declared Muslim countries in the world. When you don’t have a single Muslim who will say he has been religiously persecuted in Bangladesh or Pakistan, why do you create a gate for those people to enter by giving a back date? 
Isn’t it true that some of your allies in the Northeast have reservations on CAB?

In the Northeast, no regional party can completely align with the BJP on all issues. There will be a difference of opinions. It is there between the JD(U) and the BJP in Bihar as well. 

Modi talks about sab ka Saath, sab ka Vikas, yet the BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate in Assam despite the community accounting for 34 per cent of the population. We don’t have a religious quota. Our alliance partner, the AGP, has fielded a Muslim in Dhubri. SCs and STs are official quotas. We should focus on individuals and not create sub-quotas which the Constitution does not provide for. Beyond the SC/ST quota, it is all about efficiency. At some point, all 14 candidates could be Muslims or Christians or Hindus. We go by winnability. 

How do you think the BJP will perform in the country?
The sense that I got by talking to people is that there is huge enthusiasm. In 2014, it was a wave. Now, it is logic. Let me also put it this way, when you are in the opposition and you want to replace a government, it is like a revolution. There is a lot of noise around the effort to dislodge a government. This is what happened in 2014 when there was a huge noise around Mr Modi.

People were fed up with corruption, policy paralysis etc and they wanted a change. But re-election of a government is always a quiet affair. For instance, when Manmohan Singh was re-elected in 2009, there was hardly any noise. Re-election is about continuity and always less talked about. But when change is imminent, there will be a huge noise. In this election, I have seen that people have already decided to vote for Modi. If Congress were destined to change Modi, there would have been a huge noise, but where is the noise? My number is 250 plus for the BJP alone. This is my reasonable and conservative estimate. 

How do you view the Congress promise of Nyay?
The people are not talking about Nyay. If Nyay were announced by Modi in 2014, it would have been discussed. Today, the people have decided they are not going to bring the Congress to power so whether they promise Nyay or anyay, people are not taking cognizance of it or discussing it. Congress’s Nyay will only be a subject of research for students of economics. 

Do you think Opposition unity is possible?
For a realignment of Opposition parties to take place, an anchor party is needed. The anchor party will be able to attract others to its fold. And this anchor party has to have at least 150 seats (in the Lok Sabha). Unless you have that number, nobody is going to align with you. Congress is not going to perform that anchoring role because it will not get 150 seats. When there is no anchoring party, even calling for meetings will be difficult. On the day of the election results, the people will see there is no party to anchor the Opposition. Small parties will immediately support Mr Modi. So instead of regrouping of the Opposition, I foresee de-grouping of the Opposition. 

How many seats do you give to the Congress?
Where will the Congress improve? The only state it can improve is Chhattisgarh. In Jharkhand, the Congress is not contesting in a significant number of seats on its own. In Tamil Nadu, it will be in alliance with no significant number of seats. I don’t know how Congress will cross 75 (seats). My assessment is 75-85 in the best case scenario.  

How do you view Rahul Gandhi’s performance as the Congress chief?
I have seen him for the last 7-8 years. He is an average Indian. There is nothing in him intellectually, spiritually or enterprisingly. Had he not been a Gandhi, nobody would have taken cognizance of him. People talk about him only because of his surname.

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