In 2001, Himanta Biswa Sarma defeated Bhrigu Kumar Phukan of the NCP. Post that stunning victory, there was no turning back for him.
In a few hours, their “mama” will be coronated as the 15th chief minister of Assam and they can now perhaps look forward to their cherished Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycles. During one of his cycle rallies in the heat and dust of the campaigning for the recently-concluded Assembly elections, which the BJP-led NDA won, male college students thronged then health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and asked, “Mama, when will you give us Bullet motorcycles.” Pat came the reply, “We will do something soon.”
The clamour for the macho motorcycle had a gender-based history—the Assam government had earlier distributed scooties among girl students who secured first divisions in their higher secondary examinations. Sarma latched on to “mama” and out came a lilting music video in praise of him. It became a roaring hit. “Mama” (mother’s brother) was now all over the place, he was everybody’s “mama”. His political acumen was once again on full display.
A SELF-MADE LEADER
Himanta Biswa Sarma doesn’t come from a family of politicians. He is self-made in the arena and has had to plough a lonely furrow to reach where he is today, a steadfast ambition driving him all the way. In the BJP, Sarma blossomed into a leader of national repute, surpassing even his immediate predecessor on the hot seat, Sarbananda Sonowal. Assam, or for that matter even the Northeast, was now more firmly entrenched in the national consciousness and for the media, in particular, he became the go-to man for any education on a region few can claim to have fathomed completely more than 70 years after the country attained Independence; the seven states, or seven sisters, that lay beyond the chicken’s neck were merely an annexe to the mainland and of not much consequence.
Sarma’s leadership qualities came to the fore when he assumed the mantle of general secretary of the Cotton College Union Society, a premier institute of the Northeast, in Guwahati thrice in the late eighties to the early nineties (1988-89, 1989-90 and 1991-92). He did his post graduation in 1992 in political science from the college. He was also a member of the All Assam Students Union (AASU).
Soon after, Sarma joined the Congress after then chief minister Hiteswar Saikia saw in him traits that matched his, a sharp grasp of politics and the willingness to work hard. Then came the 2001 Assembly elections and the party under Tarun Gogoi, who would go on to become the chief minister for three successive terms, pitted him against none other than Bhrigu Kumar Phukan of the NCP, and a former home minister in the AGP government, from Jalukbari. Sarma defeated him, stunning the state as the Congress returned to power unseating the Asom Gana Parishad or the AGP. There would be no turning back for him.
A year later, he entered the ministry and continued to hold important portfolios till July 2014 when the Congress was in its third term and the next elections were still about two years away. Sarma had pinned his hopes on leading the party in the 2016 elections given that Gogoi was not getting any younger and he had done his bit for the party, winning applause from the high command. But that was not to be. That Gogoi’s son Gaurav, now a Lok Sabha member from Assam, joined the party in 2012 also had Sarma worried about his future.
According to reports, while Sonia Gandhi and late Ahmed Patel had assured Sarma that he would be made the next chief minister, it was Rahul Gandhi who shot down the idea. That was the last straw. He resigned from the ministry on July 21, 2014 and from the Assembly on September 15 the following year. He formally joined the BJP on August 28.
THE RISE AND RISE OF SARMA
His detractors, however, would say that Sarma joined the BJP as he was allegedly under the scanner in a couple of cases, including the Saradha scam; at least one BJP leader had hinted before he joined that he would be in jail if the party were to come to power. Even before, in the early 90s, Sarma’s name figured in the murder of a Congress leader allegedly by the ULFA. He was then with the AASU.
Be that as it may, Himanta dived headlong into preparations for the elections in 2016, by which time some of his close MLAs from the Congress had also switched over to the BJP following him. The BJP-led NDA –AGP and Bodoland People’s Front were the two allies— won the elections and Sarma grew in stature within the party. He went on to become the convener of the newly-created North-East Democratic Alliance. Soon enough, the Congress government in Arunachal Pradesh went the BJP way as did the ones in Manipur and Tripura. He also played a stellar role in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections helping the BJP win nine of the 14 seats in Assam.
It was now time for elections again, but Sarma had already declared he would not contest. He gave in finally at the request of the party’s central leadership and the NDA went on to win yet again. Was there a bargain that he would be made chief minister if the BJP were to retain power? Yes, goes the grapevine.
“Mama” was elected leader of the BJP legislature party unanimously on Sunday, a week after the results were declared on May 2 and amid mounting suspense, clearing his way to become Assam’s next chief minister.