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 for him, the transition was also that of political culture. 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 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 disagree 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 as well as 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 but 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 through the 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 then 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, very 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. He was also rewarded with Assam’s top job when the party returned to power in 2021 only because of it. Many would disagree though, and point to the fact 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 generally 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 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. 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 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 special interest in fostering local leadership, and building a conducive atmosphere for its growth.
(Excerpt from the book, Himanta Biswa Sarma: From Boy Wonder to CM, written by Political Analyst Ajit Dutta, and Published by Rupa Publications.)