If the Mama in the Mahabharata was scheming and machivelian, the ‘Mama’ in Dispur, Assam is the very opposite — blunt, to the point and ruthlessly precise. Qualities that can often dull the lustre and actually make one less popular it turns out are the very elements that the common folk love about him. And the more they say hurrah, the more he shoots straight from the hip. That’s Himanta Biswa Sarma for you. Assam’s 15th Chief Minister and the only BJP neta to make it to the top in spite of his non-BJP background.
Sarma’s rise in the North East tells you as much about the Congress as it does about the ruling party. Like IPL spotters who are constantly looking to lure the best cricketers to their franchise, the BJP has left no stone unturned to poach the brightest and the smartest from the opposition to their ranks. Sarma rests at the very top of this pantheon.
It wasn’t an easy ride though. When he quit and joined the BJP in 2015, he was defiant, furious and determined to wipe out the Congress in the state. He was sullen and angry, felt insulted. Why just Assam, he wanted to erase them from the Northeast. As a bumiputra or the one with the most roots in the state, he was the key to the BJP’s electoral strategy and boy, he delivered the state in some style in historic first ever to the saffron party. That’s not all, his greatest success was as convenor of the NEDA (North East Democratic Alliance) where he made sure that the BJP’s imprint would be across the region. It reflected in BJP led or supported governments being formed across the region in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura and Meghalaya.
Earlier both during 2006 and 2011 he had brough relentless energy and drive to catapult Tarun Gogoi as the Congress party’s most successful Chief Minister. As the virtual number two to Gogoi he brough forth the same elan and chutzpah to drive the Congress victory in the state.
Things sadly changed when Gogoi’s son, Tarun, arrived and took to politics in 2011. Sidelined, he revolted and was actually promised the Chief ministership soon after the 2014 national elections. Almost 55 of the 78 Congress MLAs plumped for Sarma but Rahul Gandhi said `nyet` It also didn’t help that he was a great admirer and friend of the late Ahmed Patel. At that point any association with Ahmedbhai was automatic disqualification in Rahul Gandhi’s esteem.
In a perceptive piece soon after he took over last year in May, India Today said: he derives his success in polls and as a trouble shooter from his performance as a minister — his inter-party network, intelligent resource management and unconditional loyalty from his followers (political or otherwise) are stellar. A large number of former Cotton College students, who are non-political and now serve in different fields across Assam, remain his staunch supporters with an emotional connect. Moreover, his handling of the Covid crisis in the state during the first wave catapulted him to Rockstar status. During the election campaign, people jostled to get a glimpse of him, touch him or take a selfie with their favourite “Mama”— a title he got after a young girl penned a poem in admiration of his service to the state’s people during Covid.’’
Actually when the BJP went into the elections in Assam in 2021, they were viewed as a party facing a heavy antiincumbency and a probable trouncing in the polls. It was a backs to the wall campaign .After all the state was at the heart of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act(CAA) It was a state with a Muslim population of close to 40 per cent which meant a demographic disadvantage. And if that wasn’t enough the eight-party alliance cobbled together by the Congress (including the AIUDF, which has a vacuous hold on the border districts and represents the migrant Muslim populace) seemed to have finally found their electoral mojo.
Mama unwilling to give up set up a ferocious 15 hour campaign schedule and literally carried the party’s electoral prospects on his sholders.Literally, it was it was perhaps the toughest battle of his four decade long political yatra.A yatra burnished during the AASU agitation in the early eighties — Sarma as an AASU leader was thrice elected general secretary of the students’ union of Cotton College, then the headquarter of the agitation and cut his political teeth under the under the tutelage of Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and Brighu Phukan Saikia, then chief minister, persuaded him to join the Congress and took Sarma under his wing. It was the late Hiteshwar Sakia who spotted the latent talent in Sarma and inducted him into the Congress. And through the years, he was literally in the core group for three successive Chief Minister — Hiteshwar Saikia briefly and then Mahanta and, finally, Tarun Kumar Gogoi. Ironically, In 2001, Phukan lost as a Nationalist Congress Party candidate to Himanta Sarma (then in the Congress).
Described as Assam’s most educated Chief Minister who has both a doctorate and a lawyer’s degree, Mama who has been a fire fighter for close to a quarter century to multiple Chief Ministers will not just have to douse the fire but lead the team as well. In the year and a half in office, he has been his own man. Many disagree with the shrill tenor that he has adopted, but he believes that it `horses for courses and one has to do what is necessary and ’needed’ at this point in time for Assam.
When he speaks about the Madrasas or sending immigrants home be it to Bangladesh or Bengal he rankles many but also warms the heart of many of his bumiputra nieces and nephews. He has brought the same single minded focus in committing himself to settling the long festering border dispute with all of Assam’s neighbours.
Whether he provides jobs, brings in industry, beefs up infrastructure, improves education and health (two areas he is passionate about), finds solutions to mindless yearly flooding and connects those who view him with distrust will ultimately determine mama’s true stature as a leader. At the moment he seems to be in cruise control.