How Himanta Biswa Sarma has emerged as key architect of BJP's vision for northeast

He has a sharp political mind and a deep understanding of insurgency movements

48-Chief-Minister-Himanta-Biswa-Sarma Leading from the front: Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma greeting supporters during the BJP’s Assam executive meeting in Guwahati on January 10 | Salil Bera

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma prides himself as a son of the soil. In his office at the secretariat in Guwahati are the portraits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and of Gopinath Bordoloi, the first chief minister of Assam who won the Bharat Ratna for his service to the nation and to the people of the state. It serves as a constant reminder of the two tasks clearly cut out for Sarma. To follow in Bordoloi’s footsteps as an Assamese, a statesman, a humanitarian and as a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, and also to fulfill Modi’s dream of ‘Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat’.

“As I am from Assam and at the receiving end of a demographic change, I talk about religious identities like Hindu or Muslim,” said Sarma. “But when I go to Prime Minister Modi, I realise that for him, Bharat matters.’’

Sarma’s journey, from the students’ movement in Assam to becoming the tallest political leader of the state, mirrors the many struggles of the Assamese people. Groomed by his father, the late Kailash Nath Sarma, a schoolteacher, Sarma was in class five when he realised that he was destined for bigger things. “I used to think why is it that we don’t get to read anywhere that Assam is one of the top-ranking states of India. Holding those dreams close to my heart and not being mature enough to bear so much anguish, I joined the students’ agitation,” Sarma wrote in his book, In Pursuit of a Dream.

Those were the days of the anti-foreigners’ agitation and the entire state was struggling to preserve its identity. Many young Assamese lost their lives in the agitation that ended with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. But this was only the beginning of a cycle of violence that lasted three decades. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which was formed in 1979 to fight for an independent state, recruited and trained Assamese youth to participate in an armed struggle. The support from insurgent groups in neighbouring states and from across the border poured in, and ULFA grew to become Assam’s deadliest insurgent group. Retaliatory operations plunged Assam and neighbouring states into the dark days of violent insurgency which successive governments could not resolve.

Sarma is a product of this strife-torn society and he has been watched closely by citizens and outlaws alike since he entered electoral politics in 1996. He first contested assembly elections as a Congress candidate from Jalukbari where he was defeated. But that was the only time he lost. In 2001, he won the same seat with a thumping majority. The same year, he was inducted as a minister of state with important portfolios like finance, agriculture, planning and development. There has been no looking back since. He joined the BJP on August 23, 2015 and was appointed convenor of the election management committee for the 2016 assembly elections. He said he earned both critics and admirers along the way, and never lost a friend.

“I think my greatest strength is that I have never lost a personal friend, whether it is in the Congress or in the BJP, or in sports, in culture or in jobs,” he said. “I don’t think personal and professional life or choices are in conflict. If everything goes well, there is harmony,” said Sarma, who is an avid reader of history and philosophy.

His rainbow vision for Assam from the Barak valley to the Brahmaputra valley and beyond prompted the BJP to appoint him convenor of the North East Democratic Alliance, a political front to unite non-Congress parties in the region.

With the combination of a sharp political mind and a deep understanding of insurgency movements, Sarma has been able to shape the BJP’s internal security approach in Assam, bringing dividends to the party and the state. He was troubled when he saw that of the 126 assembly constituencies of Assam, nearly 35 to 40 constituencies were dominated by suspected foreigners. The 2023 delimitation exercise is one of the many steps he has taken to stop the impact of illegal migration and threats from Islamic radicalisation coming from foreign shores.

Assam is considered the gateway to the northeast because of its location. For historic reasons, events in Assam influence the entire region. Therefore, even though he is chief minister of only one state, his responsibility lies in delivering Lok Sabha seats from the entire northeast for the BJP. Sarma expects to win at least 22 of 25 Lok Sabha seats in the region. He said the three Muslim dominated seats in Assam would go to the Congress.

Sarma has also emerged as the ‘man-to-rely-upon’ for ‘quick-fix’ solutions for Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah even for issues outside the northeast. Whether it is trouble with extremists in Punjab or politicking in Maharashtra, Sarma has played a crucial role in settling issues in the BJP’s favour.

For example, when trouble erupted in Punjab following the arrest of extremist Amritpal Singh last April, he was flown out to Dibrugarh on a chartered flight. He is now lodged in Dibrugarh central jail. A year before that, a Guwahati resort hosted Eknath Shinde and his supporting MLAs who rebelled against the Shiv Sena, which resulted in the toppling of the Uddhav Thackeray government in Maharashtra. Shinde’s supporters remained in Guwahati for eight days and ensured that their leader got installed as chief minister.

Sarma also ensured that the BJP retained power in Tripura in the assembly polls held last year, notwithstanding the stiff challenge posed by the Tipra Motha, a party founded by Pradyot Kishore Manikya, the head of the Tripura royal family. As the opposition votes got divided, the left front, which used to be the biggest player in the state, was relegated to third position. The Tipra Motha won 13 of 20 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes, and for the first time since 1978, the left parties failed to win a single seat in the tribal belt. Many in the northeast see Sarma’s hand in propping up the Tipra Motha, and his friendship with Pradyot is no secret.

Ever since he left the Congress, Sarma seems to be on a mission to demolish the grand old party in the northeast. He never forgets to tell how respected he feels in the BJP as a leader from Assam, who can call up anyone in Delhi, including the president and the prime minister. “These were things unheard of in Assam,” said Sarma.

Appreciating Sarma’s tactical prowess, the BJP did not hesitate in taking him in, and he ensured the BJP’s victory in the 2016 assembly elections. But the chief minister’s chair went to Sarbananda Sonowal, who joined the BJP in 2011, four years before Sarma. Five years later, Sarma fulfilled his dream of becoming the chief minister of Assam. It clearly showed his rising stature in the BJP that the party did not repeat the chief minister under whom it won the elections. Sonowal was inducted into the Union cabinet with a major portfolio.

People with an ear to the corridors of power say Sarma gets along famously with the powerful Union home minister. In 2021, he translated a book on Shah, Amit Shah and the March of BJP, into Assamese.

But Sarma remains grounded in more ways than one. “I cannot be successful as a chief minister and fail as a father. I have to be a good father, a good son and a good statesman. Many people think that being a chief minister means that you will abandon your family. So, at least once a year, I take my wife out somewhere.”

And whom does he worship? “We all ask sometimes, where is God? I think the closest resemblance of God is your parents. If you respect your parents’ hard work and value systems, somehow you will be secure,” said Sarma. “I have seen every kind of trouble in life. I have seen every kind of conspiracy. Be it politically or personally, my life has been full of struggles. But I feel what my father taught me, to be a simple human being, gives me a lot of strength.”

Clearly, there is still more to hear about Sarma―this seems to be just the beginning.