On November 21, when he was sworn in as the new BJP state president at the party headquarters in Guwahati, Sarbananda Sonowal, 53, was among a mix of faces; some new, some familiar. The most excited of the lot were the people who had ditched the Congress and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) to join the BJP. They waited for their turn to deck Sonowal with the traditional gamocha (Assamese scarf), perhaps with the hope of securing party tickets. The state assembly elections will take place next year, and Sonowal will once again lead the state BJP, a role he had performed before becoming Union sports minister.
But the party seems to have started off on the wrong foot—Assam did not find a mention on the BJP posters lining the roads leading to the party office. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah were on the posters, along with Sonowal, and the tagline read: Shaktishali BJP, Shaktishali Bharat (strong BJP, strong India).
“That’s not how it should be,” said Anil Das, who works at a local bakery. “The BJP has a fair chance of winning the polls, provided the Hindi speakers from the heartland stop making a beeline for Assam. We cannot relate to them; they do not even know the name of our greatest hero, Lachit Borphukan”.
Sonowal, however, told THE WEEK that he was the one tasked with “winning the hearts of the people”. The BJP workers, he said, would visit each household in the state and take suggestions from the people on all aspects of development. And, the party would incorporate the people's dreams into its vision document.
With more than 27 lakh members, the state BJP has the numbers to take on the mighty Congress. Since the previous assembly elections, where it won only five seats, the BJP has upped the ante with teams at the ward and constituency levels. Their saffron topis on, the volunteers have been going from house to house, talking to the public and offering them traditional tamul-pan (betel-nut and leaf) in shining brass botas (containers).
After the drubbing in the Bihar elections, the BJP seems to have realised that polarisation will not work, especially in Assam, where most people live in harmony. This is the land of Hindu scholar Srimanta Sankaradev and Muslim saint Ajan Fakir, both of whom preached religious harmony and universal brotherhood. “We have to live by the ideals preached by them,” said Sonowal. On controversial issues like cow slaughter and beef ban, the smiling bachelor said one had to “go by the fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution”.
Dynamic and popular, Sonowal seems to be the perfect leader to take the party forward. He is a former president of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and a former AGP MP. Under his presidentship, the BJP wrested upper Assam from the Congress in the last Lok Sabha elections, winning seven of 14 seats. Asked if he would be the BJP's chief ministerial candidate, Sonowal said no such decision had been taken. “Our aim is to create peace and harmony and that will see us through in the 2016 polls,” he said.
Where does this confidence come from? “There is a wave of discontent against the corrupt Congress regime and people are yearning for a change,” he said. But the change has already started. The BJP rules 38 of 74 urban local bodies and it won a seat in the Bodoland Territorial Council elections for the first time. It formed the Tiwa Autonomous Council with the help of the AGP and independents and, a few weeks ago, the BJP wrested the Dima Hasao Autonomous Council by causing defections in the Congress. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad has won about 75 per cent of posts in college and university students unions in the state.
The ace up the BJP's sleeve, however, is former Congressman Himanta Biswa Sarma. The popular leader, who recently quit the Congress, says next year's contest will be between the BJP and the All India United Democratic Front, and the Congress will come a poor fourth after the Bodoland People's Front (BPF). Along with him, Sarma has brought along hundreds of young Congress members to the BJP, including nine Congress MLAs. But, this could be a problem as the longtime BJP workers would be upset at newcomers getting tickets.
Sonowal's biggest strength is Modi's support. Apart from a hefty package coming Assam’s way, and a lot of sops, the Modi government has made the northeast a priority zone in its national agenda. “It is for the first time in 68 years that India’s prime minister has given maximum emphasis on developing the region,” said Sonowal. Apparently, one Union minister must visit the region every fortnight to oversee proper implementation of Central schemes. Will all this work? Only time will tell.