Breaking a barrier

65Sonowal Celebration time: BJP workers in Guwahati holding placards with pictures of Sonowal and Modi | PTI

BJP’s clever poll tactics pay rich dividends in Assam

Tarun Gogoi might have had a premonition of his impending defeat when he hurriedly released his autobiography, Turnaround: Leading Assam from the Front, days before the results of the assembly elections were announced. Published by HarperCollins India, the book was launched by Congress MP Karan Singh at a glittering function at Ashoka Hotel in Delhi on May 15. Turnaround chronicled how Gogoi’s three consecutive terms as chief minister (2001-2016) brought about changes in Assam. As Singh went on to describe Gogoi as “a great son of Brahmaputra”, saying his place in history is assured “for being the CM during the most difficult times”, many in the audience were left misty-eyed. And the curtain came down to thunderous applause.

Four days later, when the election results came, it became clear that the curtain had come down on Gogoi’s tenure as chief minister as well. Assam, which has traditionally been a Congress bastion, voted overwhelmingly in favour of a change of guard, with the BJP-led alliance winning 86 of 126 seats in the state.

The man of the moment is Sarbananda Sonowal, the 54-year-old Union minister who led the BJP to its first assembly polls victory in the northeast. The victory has changed the BJP’s image as a Hindi heartland or cow-belt party.

Gogoi, however, insists that, without the Congress, the state is set for a bout of instability. “Assam needs a stable government and only the Congress can provide one, as seen in the last 15 years,” Gogoi told THE WEEK before the results were announced. “The BJP is a khichiri (mixture), and it will be difficult for them to function cohesively, especially in the absence of a common minimum programme.”

The stage for the high-stakes assembly poll battle was set in 2014, when the BJP came in for a sweet surprise. It won seven Lok Sabha seats in 2014, up from just three in 2009. The Congress tally declined from seven in 2009 to just three in 2014. The BJP got down to business when it realised that, in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, it had led in 69 of 126 assembly segments and had come second in 29. It coined the slogan ‘Mission 84’, in an effort to win 84 assembly seats in 2016.

In the absence of a pan-Assam leader, the BJP was perceived to be a party of outsiders. The perception was broken last year after the party inducted Himanta Biswa Sarma, who quit the Congress after rebelling against Gogoi.

Apparently, the Congress high command had failed to prevent the dissension within the Congress snowballing into a major crisis. In 2014, it sent former Union minister Mallikarjun Kharge to douse the flames and ascertain the views of each of the 78 dissenting Congress MLAs. At least 50 of them wanted the leadership to be changed. The party high command, however, stood by Gogoi, a die-hard Gandhi family loyalist. Obviously, it was a mistake.

Sarma’s entry into the BJP and his appointment as convener of the BJP campaign paid rich dividends. As Gogoi’s deputy and key troubleshooter, he had brought about a sea change in the state’s health and education sector, which won him a massive fan following. During the crucial campaigning, he was the only leader who addressed close to 300 rallies, crisscrossing the length and breadth of the state and drawing huge crowds.

The BJP also showed farsightedness and took quick decisions. To avoid a leadership tussle in the event of a win, the party announced Sonowal as its chief ministerial candidate. It was a break from tradition for the BJP, much like when it declared Modi as its prime ministerial candidate before the Lok Sabha elections.

Another prime reason for the BJP win was its alliance with two frontline regional parties: the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland Peoples’ Front. Stitched up by Sarma, the alliance with the AGP turned out to be a masterstroke. The AGP won 14 of 24 seats it contested, and BPF maintained its influence in the Bodo heartland.

The unprecedented victory for the BJP also means that it received considerable support of Muslims, who form 34 per cent of the state’s population. Thanks to the gentle Sonowal and the charismatic Sarma, who won a record vote share of 75 per cent in his Jalukbari constituency, it is certain that the BJP will be in the saddle in Assam for a while.

Poll diary
Perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal, president of the All India United Democratic Front, lost in South Salmara.
Militant-turned-politician Hagrama Mohilary’s Bodoland People’s Front, an ally of the BJP, won 12 seats and maintained its influence in the Bodo heartland

Interview/ Sarbananda Sonowal, BJP’s chief ministerial candidate
I will work at breakneck speed from day one

What is the reason for the BJP's resounding victory?

People were tired with 15 years of Congress rule and have voted decisively for a change. The first-time voters, too, wanted a government that will work for the development of the state. The youth, in particular, voted for us wholeheartedly.

The youth tend to get disillusioned quickly.

True. I will have to work at breakneck speed from day one to bring about a speedy change in the state and live up to expectations. Yes, it is a huge responsibility and I hope everyone will cooperate on this. I shall strive to fulfil all the promises made in the election manifesto.

Himanta Biswa Sarma is getting a fair share of praise for the BJP’s victory.

All of us in the BJP worked together as a family, which has led to this massive victory. From the leader to the grassroot-level karyakarta, who began campaigning door-to-door with tamul-pan (betel nut and leaves), as is the custom in Assam, everyone had a hand in our win.

What is your relationship with Sarma ?

We have been working together for quite some time and we have a brotherly relationship. Since our AASU (All Assam Students Union) days, we have worked closely and understand each other very well. It is great working with him. Now we will have a bigger role in shaping the future of Assam.

The state has 34 per cent Muslim population. They must be a bit apprehensive now that the BJP has come to power.

No one needs to harbour any fear on account of us. As I have always maintained, Assam is a land of two great personalities, Sankardev and Azan Fakir, who showed us how to live in peace and harmony.

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