GUWAHATI: As Assam readies for Assembly elections, the spotlight is back on the chief minister’s chair.
Only time will tell if the BJP’s Central leaders will clear the haze on the perceived “dual leadership” but Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma being in the poll fray has triggered speculations on his as well as Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s future responsibilities.
Earlier, Sarma had said at least twice that he would not contest the 2021 Assam elections which set tongues wagging that he was, possibly, eyeing a bigger role at the national theatre.
The BJP, which heads Assam’s ruling coalition, is braving allegations from the Opposition that it is running on two engines or alternately without clear leadership.
Recently, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel tried to exploit this perceived leadership tussle.
“The Assam government is driven by two engines. One is pulling it in one direction while the other is pulling it in the opposite direction,” Baghel had said in Guwahati alluding to Sonowal and Sarma.
Over the last 40 years, Assam never had a chief minister from Lower Assam albeit the stopover when Bhumidhar Barman served in that position for 22 days following the demise of the then chief minister Hiteswar Saikia ahead of the 1996 state elections.
When a reporter on Monday asked Sonowal if it is a myth that one needs to be from Upper Assam or a non-Brahmin to be the Assam chief minister, he retorted: “I think you should not raise this question because BJP is genuinely a democratic party. And we firmly believe in people’s democracy.”
Assam has so far seen 14 chief ministers. Most of them have been from the Assamese-majority Upper Assam. Sonowal is from Upper Assam while Sarma, a Brahmin, is from Lower Assam.
During their recent rallies in the state, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah did the balancing act by giving equal credit to Sonowal and Sarma for the state government’s various development initiatives.
Ahead of the 2016 polls, Modi had named Sonowal for the top post. No such announcement has been made so far this election.
There is a perception that either of them will be shifted to the Central ministry if the BJP retains power. Sarma has been serving as a minister for the past 20 years, 14 of them with the Congress. He had defected to the BJP in 2015 after falling out with his mentor and then chief minister Tarun Gogoi.
A master election strategist who is widely known for his political acumen, Sarma was instrumental in scripting BJP’s victory in Assam and some other states in the Northeast.
On the other hand, Sonowal, who has a clean image, earned the sobriquet of “Jatiya Nayak” (National Hero) after the Supreme Court, based on his PIL, had struck down the controversial Illegal Migrants (Determination Tribunal) Act in 2005. It was allegedly heavily tilted in favour of the immigrants.
Prior to donning the chief minister’s mantle, he had served as the Union Sports Minister. He has a past in the regional Asom Gana Parishad. He joined the BJP in 2011.