While in Guwahati the other day, I was talking to a friend’s mother. She used to teach Bangla at the prestigious Cotton College and as the conversation gradually drifted towards politics, we found ourselves discussing Assam’s just appointed Chief Minister, Dr Himanta Biswa Sharma.
The lady, who retired as the Principal of the college, recalled an incident when her departmental head was hesitant in putting together a wall magazine in Bangla, emanating from the bitterness created during the Assam agitation. Even the college magazine had discontinued its Bangla section for many years ever since the movement, originally aimed against illegal migrants, took an anti-Bengali turn.
Apparently, at that point, the students decided to take the matter into their hands. They approached the General Secretary of their students’ union –a very young Himanta da, then a part of the All Assam Students Union which had spearheaded the agitation.
Himanta Da reportedly was aghast. He eventually told his fellow students from the Bangla department something to the effect like — “guys, just go ahead and I will handle whoever messes around with your wall magazine”. The wall magazine still survives, apparently.
For the uninitiated, this is typical Himanta Biswa Sharma, or HBS – bold, decisive and always game for capacity building. And yes, if that means bulldozing the system to get things done, trust me, Himanta da won’t chicken out.
Cut to 2020. As a first-time MP, I was dealing with a pandemic situation in a valley that was clearly not equipped to face it. The lockdown had just been announced. I had the advantage of being a medico and well, I guess I understood the pandemic better than many. Hence, I was worried. Well past midnight, maybe around 2 am, I get a call from Himanta da. “How do you assess the Covid situation?”, he asked me. I narrated my apprehensions. He calmed me down, “I am coming tomorrow by 7 am. We will work it out.”
He landed and by 9 am, we were in Silchar Medical College Hospital(SMCH), my alma mater and the most advanced hospital in Assam’s Barak Valley. Shortly, we had a blueprint in place and a ramped-up infrastructure plan down to the minutest detail.
And if you ask me how much detailing can boil down to, I will tell you exactly how much. If you aren’t a medical professional, it’s unlikely that you ever heard of the ‘donning and doffing’ procedure – a process where medicos and para-medicos step in and out of PPE kits taking care to avoid any contamination. But Himanta da not just knew this..he also was particular that the process should be done meticulously.
This was, of course, just one aspect. Issues considered petty to be discussed at the ministerial level- you know, things like the food menu for doctors, duty hours et al – also figured in his agenda. No wonder, therefore, that his specially constituted 30 teams – each team comprising six doctors – were not just inspired but also delivered exemplary service across the seven odd medical colleges of the state during the initial COVID period.
In fact, overall, his COVID management strategy had become so much of a hit that this time around, when there was a delay in the formation of the government in Assam and the COVID situation(second wave) was worsening, people remotely connected with politics or even those against the BJP were extremely critical as to why Himanta da was not being authorised to control the situation!. Needless to say, Assam’s people gave him that authority in full measure and today, he is back, leading the charge from the front as the Chief Minister.
For somebody who had campaigned against me while in the Congress and ensured that I lost an Assembly election in — (trust me, he can be a ruthless opponent but on that, some other time!!), I was amazed to discover another side to Himanta da during the Durga Puja in 2017.
Silchar, my constituency, is a part of Assam dominated by Bengalis and hence, our Durga Puja celebrations are massive. Himanta da had never experienced it and on my invitation, decided to come. “But you have to stay overnight to soak in the experience,” I insisted. I knew he was very religious but he also was very busy.
I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed at one go. Starting the day by offering anjali at a puja mandap, we covered altogether 75 puja pandals that day! The crowds loved it, we couldn’t have been happier and Himanta da was thrilled, almost like a teenager.
I recall an incident when my father, then a BJP MLA, had narrated how he had a verbal duel with Himanta da, at that time a Congress minister, during a privilege motion inside the Assam Assembly. Both lawyers, the debate was sharp and naturally, full of legal points which they liberally hurled at each other. Later, deeply satisfied at the quality of the debate, my father – sharing with me whatever had transpired over dinner – had wished, “I really wish such bright people would come and join our party some day.” And look at destiny – despite 20 years as a Congress minister, 52-year old Dr Himanta Biswa Sharma – 6 years after his BJP entry – is now a BJP Chief Minister!!
(Rajdeep Roy is the Member of Parliament from Silchar, Assam)