Assam polls: Himanta calls the shots in BJP’s candidate selection

Party insiders say he could be given a senior post in the Modi ministry or made Chief Minister if NDA retains power

The BJP does not seem to be looking beyond Finance, Health and Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma for ideas in poll-bound Assam.

A majority in the first list of 70 candidates announced by the party on March 5 are known to be loyalists of Dr. Sarma. Such has been his clout, party insiders say, that many aspirants backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and some new faces reportedly preferred by Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal were ignored.

Party insiders said Dr Sarma’s loyalists have been fielded from four of the 11 constituencies from where the sitting MLAs were dropped. His loyalists also got tickets from as many seats taken from ally Asom Gana Parishad, including Barhampur that has been former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta turf for three decades.

At least 15 of the new faces and current BJP legislators who have been fielded came along with or followed Dr. Sarma from the Congress in 2015. While Amiyo Bhuyan (Bihpuria seat) is said to be the only one among Mr. Sonowal’s proteges to have been nominated, at least three RSS-backed candidates — former Deputy Speaker Dilip Paul, Ashok Kumar Sarma and Jagadish Dutta — did not get a ticket for the Silchar, Nalbari and Lakhimpur seats respectively.

Ashok Sarma was replaced by Jayanta Malla Baruah, a former Congress MLA.

Calculated move

Ahead of the elections, Dr Sarma said he was not keen on contesting from his pocket borough of Jalukbari unless the party leadership wanted him to. The speculations that he could move to Delhi for a bigger role in the Narendra Modi government got traction when the BJP nominated Biswajit Daimary from the Panery Assembly seat.

Mr. Daimary, who switched over to the BJP from its former ally Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) in 2020, is a Rajya Sabha member. Some party leaders believe, if he wins the election, Dr. Sarma could replace him in the Rajya Sabha.

According to another school of thought, Dr. Sarma could very well break a “tradition” by becoming Assam’s first Brahmin Chief Minister if the BJP and its allies retain power. The BJP has not named its “CM face”, as State party president Ranjeet Kumar Dass said this was immaterial for a party in power.

“Such questions should not be raised. BJP is a democratic party and decisions are taken appropriately,” Dr. Sonowal said when asked if Assam was destined not to have a Brahmin or a person from Lower (western Assam) as a Chief Minister.

Assam has not had a Chief Minister from western Assam since January 1982 barring Bhumidhar Barman’s 22-day stint between predecessor Hiteswar Saikia’s death and the Assembly elections in May 1996. Mr. Sonowal and his predecessor Tarun Gogoi are both from eastern Assam.

Major force

The rise of Dr Sarma as the BJP’s chief strategist in Assam and beyond in the northeast became apparent when Prime Minister Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah gave him and Mr Sonowal equal importance during their official visits to the State or at political rallies.

But it was BPF president Hagrama Mohilary, who had first given a whiff of BJP’s plans with Dr. Sarma.

“The BJP-BPF relationship suffered after I told Amit Shah that Sarbananda Sonowal should be the CM again at a NEDA meeting,” Mr. Mohilary told The Hindu a few days ago. The NEDA or North East Democratic Alliance is an anti-Congress front of regional parties headed by Dr Sarma.

In February, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel too hinted at the BJP giving Dr Sarma more weight than Mr. Sonowal. “The BJP talks of double-engine. But the people of Assam know which engine is running the show,” he said while campaigning for Congress a few days ago.

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