In May last year, 52-year-old Himanta Biswa Sarma became the chief minister of Assam. After more than two decades in the Congress party, Sarma joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in August 2015. Senior journalist Ajit Datta traces the journey of Sarma’s rise in politics.
Himanta’s critics like to perceive him as a modern-day Talleyrand, a blatant opportunist who remains a permanent fixture in the region’s power structure, irrespective of political ground realities. This is too simplistic an understanding of the situation. On several occasions, Himanta was asked about his smooth transition from the Congress to the BJP and the perils of not having an RSS background. He has candidly admitted that the transition was also that of political culture for him. On the question of the RSS, though, there is unexpected familiarity. ‘They were part of the agitation [Assam Agitation],’ he says. ‘We have worked with them since then. I have known them since my student days.’ Indeed, some media reports have carried stories about how he was seen in RSS shakhas as a teenager and how the Sangh had helped with his brother’s education back in the day.
With second-generation Assam Agitation leaders such as Sonowal and Himanta at the helm of the BJP’s first government in Assam, journalist Shekhar Gupta once opined that it was not these leaders but the Sangh that had been opportunistic. Days before the government took charge in 2016, he wrote, ‘How they sowed the first seeds of their ideology, co-opted the massively popular Assam movement, converted its ethnic chauvinistic impulse into an anti-Muslim one, built a launchpad for the BJP and then conjured up a local leadership is the stuff of political folklore.
RSS ideologue and historian Ratan Sharda disagrees with this assessment. ‘The RSS realized the threat that illegal immigration posed much before the Assam Agitation came about,’ he says. ‘The resolutions passed by the RSS are testament to that. From the beginning, the RSS was clear about the fact that persecuted minorities from Partition should find a home in India—in Assam and other states. It was never an ethnic issue for the RSS. The RSS found common ground with the agitation because it opposed economic immigrants. Even the AGP took a secular turn later, but the RSS remained steadfast in its objectives. It is natural that people have stopped trusting these half-hearted options, especially with the emergence of leaders such as Ajmal on the other side.’
‘Yes, we are fighting as Hindus for the first time,’ says a senior journalist from Guwahati on condition of anonymity. ‘You see, this is a land that warded off Mughal invasions 17 times. Their culture could not permeate the region, so we never got the chance to assert our Hindu identity. As illegal immigration increased, we have begun to see ourselves for who we truly are.’
Indeed, the RSS can hardly be accused of co-opting and converting the movement. It is evident that instead of chasing short-term political gains, the RSS worked for decades with unparalleled foresight. Leaders such as Sonowal and Himanta cannot be accused of opportunism either. Their careers are a reflection of circumstances, their journeys to the BJP a realization of changing realities. This being a transition that their constituencies have undergone, Himanta’s passionate championing of Hindu causes cannot be seen as an anomaly. Perhaps a politician in any other part of India making such a turn would be considered a hypocrite, but Himanta belongs to a place and period in history where such a transition is part of the natural course of events. It is no wonder that ever since the BJP took charge, he has been at the forefront of what are described as the ‘core issues’.
He has defunded the madrasas, publicly junked the idea of a ‘Miya Museum’ in Guwahati and was the main brain behind drafting a law to counter Love Jihad. But most importantly, he has led the charge on both the CAA and the NRC, using an approach that is distinctly Hindu as opposed to being ethnic.
Among BJP supporters, Himanta has gained many admirers for his ideological clarity. It can also be argued that he was rewarded with Assam’s top job when the party returned to power in 2021 only because of it. Many would disagree, though, and point out that between 2016 and 2021, his influence and support had grown too big for him to remain a mere Cabinet minister in the state. The BJP has traditionally refused to let such factors arm-twist the leadership into making appointments. It is highly unlikely that the post of CM, which is considered sacrosanct and reserved for people fostered in the Sangh ecosystem, would have gone to a man who spent decades in the Congress party had he not enjoyed the BJP leadership’s trust. Although Sonowal, too, was not from the Sangh stock, Himanta’s appointment to the post in 2021 raised many eyebrows because of his long affiliation with the Congress party and because he was a mass leader who enjoyed widespread political clout. ‘From day one, I have been guided by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah,’ says Himanta. ‘We have worked under PM Modi’s general guidance and Amit Shah’s day-to-day guidance.’ This is significant, considering it is in stark contrast to the palace intrigues of Himanta’s old party, where he had to often wait for many days just to have a conversation with the leadership. From Himanta’s statements after he joined the BJP, it is evident that the party’s top duo have taken a special interest in fostering local leadership and building a conducive atmosphere for its growth.
(This is an excerpt from the book “Himanta Biswa Sarma: From Boy Wonder to CM by Ajit Datta”, published by Rupa Publications. The excerpt has been published after due permission from Rupa Publications.)