Being a perennial No. 2 can be unnerving for many, but not for the convener of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election management committee for the Assam elections. Twenty-three years in the Congress, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s de facto second-in-command and the architect of the party’s three back-to-back victories since 2001, Himanta Biswa Sarma suddenly finds himself on the other side, playing undercard to Sarbananda Sonowal, the man the Bharatiya Janata Party has chosen as its chief ministerial face as it seeks to win Assam for the first time.
Mr. Sarma joined the BJP in August 2015, followed by nine Congress MLAs, and was made the campaign committee convener in November. Four months down the line, with Mr. Sonowal having to devote part of his energies to his constituency, Majuli, which goes to the polls in the first phase, it’s Mr. Sarma that the BJP’s central leadership and candidates is turning to for crisis management, feedback and ear-to-the-ground counsel. He is touring first-phase constituencies extensively on a four-seat helicopter exclusively assigned to him, mostly canvassing in Upper Assam but making a few sorties into the Barak Valley as well.
Even before we take off from the Khanapara Veterinary Ground, Mr. Sarma is attending a flurry of calls at his Zoo Road residence while letting youngsters who have gathered around take selfies with him. “Those are doubtful constituencies,” he answers a call from Delhi. On the road after a short-haul flight, in hops Rupak Sharma, the candidate from the Nagaon constituency. He wants a grand BJP rally with central leaders, including Smriti Irani, to give his campaign a boost. Grand rallies are fine, Mr. Sarma tells him, but they do not fetch you votes; many turn up merely to see the star campaigners. Focus on the booths, hit the road, connect with as many voters as you can, he adds. “You don’t need to worry about Majuli [constituency], Sarba da,” he tells Mr. Sonowal over the phone after the Nagaon candidate got off en route another chopper ride that will take us to Dhemaji, the site of Mr. Sarma’s first rally.
Contours of a speech
A modest crowd — including men in dhotis or gamochas, women in mekhela-chador, and even schoolgirls in uniform — has gathered in the middle of a field as the chopper lands in an adjoining makeshift helipad. It’s a sunny morning, bordering on hot, but the crowd gets animated as Mr. Sarma steps out and is escorted to the stage.
“This election is an election like no other. There is a man called Badruddin Ajmal [All India United Democratic Front chief] who wants to be CM. In Lower Assam, there are areas whose face has changed in the past 25 years. Borduwa, in Nagaon, is the birthplace of [Assamese Vaishnavite saint-reformer] Srimanta Sankardeva. There was a time when an aspiring MLA would go to Batadrava satra [in Nagaon] to seek blessings before launching one’s campaign. Now, whoever want to be MLA, they have to ask for dua [prayers] from Ajmal. This election, we have to stop Badruddin Ajmal. We won’t let him enter Dispur [the State’s administrative capital, in Guwahati]. It is a fight for our jati, mati, bheti [identity, land and base].”
He ridicules the State government’s electoral ploy of distributing xuta-kombol (thread for weaving and blankets), saying it only has sops to offer common people while the Congress leaders turn the party into a fief of families.
It’s time for competitive promises. The BJP would also offer the people xuta-kombol, he says, but of a different kind. It would offer jobs to the unemployed youth so that they can buy their parents thread and blankets. If the Gogoi government is offering rice at Rs. 3 a kg, the BJP government would bring rice to the doorstep at Rs. 2 a kg; if the Congress gives college-going girls bicycles, the BJP would take a leaf out of Gujarat and offer them “Scootys” (motorised, un-geared two-wheelers); if the women’s self-help groups are getting Rs. 5,000, they would under BJP rule have a seed capital of Rs. 5 lakh. The government would offer up to Rs. 2 lakh as medical assistance and Rs. 1.5 lakh towards building pucca houses, and free education for the girl child from college through university.
Invoking Lachit Borphukan, the Ahom general who defeated the advancing Mughal Army on the Brahmaputra at Saraighat in AD 1671, he says this election is, to all intents and purposes, the last battle of Saraighat, with the BJP, the AGP and the Bodoland People’s Front standing for jati, mati, bheti on one side and the forces of Chief Minister Gogoi, flanked on either side by Mr. Ajmal and Rockybul Hussain (the Minister for Agriculture), on the other.
The Dhemaji speech schema is revisited in subsequent rallies through the course of the day at Dhakuakhana in Lakhimpur district and Behali, Biswanath Chariali, Rangapara and Borsola in Sonitpur district, with on-the-spot improvisations and local customisation. In Dhakuakhana, Mr. Sarma hits out at Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi for claiming that a BJP government in Assam would take orders from Nagpur [the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], charging that a Congress-All India United Democratic Front government would take orders from Bangladesh.
In Behali, which also has a sizeable population of Muslims and Nepalese, Mr. Sarma eschews the Ajmal opening and makes only a quick reference to Nagpur-Bangladesh. At Bishwanath Chariali, he makes a specific outreach to tea garden workers, promising them higher and regular minimum wage — with a stray reference to cows.
At Rangapara, prompted by some youngsters in the crowd, he mimics Mr. Gogoi’s baad diya hai (leave it, pal), oft-used by the Chief Minister to deflect criticism of his government, and says unlike his one-time mentor, he believes in politics of hridoy (heart), not hoardings. At Borsola, he mentions Khilonjia (indigenous) Muslims in his sons-of-the-soil pitch.
It’s past 8.30 p.m. when the Borsola rally, the day’s last, winds up. Evident through the day is the fact that the BJP’s campaign convener is a star in his own right. People line up all around the bamboo barricade that makes for the chopper enclosure when Mr. Sarma touches down and leaves, and he obliges admirers with a rushed run touching extended hands, stopping occasionally to seek an elderly person’s blessings. At Rangapara, the crowd exhorts him to trek the 500 metres from landing point to stage. At Borsola, where a serpentine queue of motorcycle-borne supporters awaits his arrival, he is lifted onto an open van for a five-km bike rally to the venue.
The median in the message
Between rallies, and from one chopper and car ride to another, I ask Mr. Sarma about his transition into the BJP (“I haven’t had time to think, it was get-go with the elections from Day One”); about if the Congress knows its long-time strategist’s moves inside out (“The Congress is itself deviating from its winning strategy, which is that the campaign must have a positive message”); about how he sees the BJP alliance’s prospects (“This is my fifth election; I can sense a wave when I see one — and this is); about the BJP’s campaign message (“Identity and aspiration [for development]”); about his equation with Mr. Sonowal, originally from the AGP (“We go back a long way, I was general secretary of the Guwahati chapter when he was AASU [All Assam Students’ Union] president”); and about why the BJP is targeting Mr. Ajmal (“He represents a threat to our indigenous culture with his communal politics”).
Post-Borsola, I ask if his invocations, especially the imagery of a Gogoi being flanked by Mr. Ajmal and Rockybul Hussain do not amount to a communal pitch too. “Rockybul’s religion is not the issue, he represents the corrupt face of the State government. I am not saying it, but there were allegations that as Forest Minister, he had a nexus with rhino poachers. As for Ajmal, Assam’s Muslims have a greater responsibility to reject his politics.”
It’s assessment time for Mr. Sarma on the long road back to Guwahati. Turnouts at Dhemaji and Behali were modest, but it was a throng at Dhakuakhana, Biswanath Chariali, Rangapara and Borsola. The response is prompting a rethink. Mr. Sarma wants to trim his appearances in the Barak Valley to squeeze in more time to visit constituencies such as Bihpuria, Naoboicha, Gohpur which he hasn’t visited thus far. Is the tide turning, the BJP’s message finally striking a chord? In Assam, one can only be sure about the Brahmaputra changing course.
[Source:- The Hindu]