From BBC to Amritpal to Shinde case: How Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma has emerged as BJP’s man for all seasons
By Yudhajit Shankar Das: The Assam Assembly on Tuesday passed a resolution against the BBC over its controversial Gujarat documentary, seeking action against the British broadcaster for its “malicious and dangerous” agenda. Khalistani leader Amritpal Singh’s uncle and aides have been lodged in a jail in Assam. Part of the solution to a political hot potato, originating in Punjab, was found over 2,700km away in Assam. This along with a growing list of instances, be it the Pawan Khera episode, the Jignesh Mevani arrest and re-arrest, the hosting of the Eknath Shinde loyalists during the Maharashtra political turmoil, point to one single thing — the emergence of Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma as the troubleshooter-in-chief.
But why has Himanta Biswa Sarma emerged as the man for all seasons for the BJP and the Union government?
Ajit Datta, a political commentator who has written Himanta Biswa Sarma’s only biography, points to three key reasons.
“The first is that when it comes to politics or administration, he has proven to be fail-proof. Any assignment can be given to him, and one can be sure that he will deliver it successfully come what may. The second is that he has no qualms whatsoever about any assignment given to him, be it high-profile or low-profile. He is as comfortable and clear-minded going to villages and dealing with peasants, as he is dealing with his bosses in Delhi,” says Ajit Datta.
TURNING DISADVANTAGE INTO ADVANTAGE
The third reason that Datta points out as a strength is the geographical distance from Delhi, long considered a disadvantage for Assam and the Northeast until a few years ago.
“It is a massive advantage for the BJP to have such a talented administrator and political operator in a region like the Northeast. The region is far away from all the action in Delhi, UP, Punjab, or Maharashtra. The party, therefore, has leveraged this distance and his reliability for ends ranging from politics to law and order,” says Datta.
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This is also the reason, Datta points out, why there is more dependence on Himanta Biswa Sarma than on any other leader, be it Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath or Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
“For many contentious issues, the party/government is happy to leverage the distance between the Northeast and the other parts of India with a lot of political action. It is lucky to have Himanta there,” explains Datta.
With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stature growing as a global leader and Home Minister Amit Shah having to turn to a fix-it-all person, Himanta has emerged as that go-to person who can both firefight and deftly handle a delicate situation.
HIMANTA THE TROUBLE-SHOOTER
“Himanta Biswa Sarma is a dynamic leader and chief of NEDA, so he is a undoubtedly a potent force. The Northeast region is complex and it’s important that a leader has a grasp of geography, economics and history, which he does. This combination of qualities makes him a reliable resource,” says Rami Niranjan Desai, Northeast India scholar and Distinguished Fellow at India Foundation, New Delhi.
Under Himanta’s leadership, the Assam Assembly on Tuesday passed a resolution against the BBC over its Gujarat documentary. Assam became just the second state among several BJP states that passed such a resolution. Gujarat, the subject of the documentary, is the only other state to have passed a resolution against the BBC.
“Himanta is generally more proactive and outspoken than most leaders. He has wasted no time in taking the initiative and acting when emotions are running high against the BBC across the country,” says Himanta’s biographer Datta on Assam’s anti-BBC resolution.
That Himanta has emerged as the key troubleshooter is evident from the instances where he stepped in and mitigated the Centre’s and BJP leadership’s woes.
The lodging of Amritpal Singh’s relatives and aides in Assam’s Dibrugarh jail is another case in point.
“It is a question of strategy and law and order. The further the accused are taken away, the better it is for law and order,” says India Foundation’s Desai.
The move came close on the heels of the March 3 meeting where Union Home Minister Amit Shah nudged Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann to act sternly against radical elements. Over 2,400 personnel of the Central Armed Police Forces were sent to Punjab.
Though Himanta Biswa Sarma also dismissed it as a “police-to-police contact”, the lodging of Amritpal’s aides in an Assam jail is more than that is anybody’s guess. It is a testament to the Central leadership’s confidence in the law and order situation under Himanta. It is a general perception in Assam that the police have become more proactive since Himanta became the chief minister.
In February, the Assam Police swung into action to arrest Congress leader Pawan Khera in a case of “insult” to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Pawan Khera was deplaned as he was on his way to Raipur at the behest of the Assam Police.
The issue seemed to have cooled down after Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted: “The accused (Congress leader Pawan Khera) has tendered an unconditional apology. We hope that keeping the sanctity of public spaces, no one will use uncivilized language in political discourse hereafter.”
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In July last year, a resort in Guwahati played host to now Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, who rebelled and led a team of Shiv Sena MLAs. The eight-day stay in Himanta sanctuary was crucial to the toppling of the Uddhav Thackeray-led MVA government and the formation of a BJP-Sena government.
On April 20, 2022, BJP-baiter Jignesh Mevani, an Independent MLA from Gujarat, was arrested by the Assam Police after a complaint was filed in Assam over a tweet against PM Modi.
Mevani was rearrested by Assam Police moments after he was granted bail in the tweets case. The arrest on April 25 was for allegedly molesting and abusing a woman police officer.
DOES IT WORK FOR ASSAM?
Himanta Biswa Sarma has been very popular since his days as the health and education minister of Assam.
He is a sought-after star campaigner for the BJP. Sarma had already emerged as a go-to guy during his stint with the Congress under then CM Tarun Gogoi. But it was after his joining the BJP that he grew into a full-blown national leader.
“Himanta already had a presence outside Assam when he was the Congress party’s main trouble-shooter for the other Northeastern states. In the BJP, he headed the NEDA formally, worked in West Bengal during the 2019 elections, functioned as a trouble-shooter for many national issues, and campaigned in all state elections after becoming the CM,” says Ajit Datta.
But how do these incidents of Himanta firefighting on national issues go down with the people of Assam?
“They, of course, look at him with pride. The position of strength that he comes from and his contribution… has brought Assam to the key position,” says Rami Niranjan Desai.
And does this troubleshooting role of Himanta, in any way, benefit the people of Assam?
“It puts Assam perceptionally in the focus of the country and in a position of strength. But the larger picture lies with the fact that the present dispensation has focused heavily on the region and chosen leaders that are reliable, bringing not just Assam but other states psychologically closer to the Centre,” adds India Foundation’s Desai.
Himanta Biswa Sarma has always been in the thick of action. As Assam’s health minister, he paid surprise visits to government hospitals and punished missing doctors. During the pandemic, he used to cover about 1,000 km a day, traversing across Assam to check the state’s Covid preparedness. So, it was a given that Himanta wouldn’t shy away from fire-fighting anytime his party needed him and emerge as one of BJP’s leading trouble-shooters.