After exactly 20 years of active public life as an elected representative, senior Assam politician Himanta Biswa Sarma is all set to take oath as the state’s new chief minister, having first got elected in 2001 from the Jalukbari constituency which he has managed to retain till date.
We explore his political innings and how he rode differently at different times, but kept his vision of occupying the top political post in the state intact.
Himanta was always a man who knew how to be on the right side at the right time – be it in power with the All Assam Students Union (AASU) during the Assam agitation days, the Congress when it was in power under then chief minister late Hiteshwar Saikia, or the crossover to the BJP in 2015 after the party came to power at the Centre and the Modi wave was at its peak.
Likewise Himanta was also able to forge friendships with different politicians who were poles apart from him in ideology and political positioning – from former Assam chief minister Prafulla Mahanta and former Assam home minister Bhrigu Phukan (both of the regional party AGP) during the Assam agitations days; former Congress chief ministers Saikia in the early 1990s and Tarun Gogoi in 2001, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi post 2015 and former BJP chief minister of Assam Sarbananda Sonowal, also his arch rival during his stint in the Congress.
Related news: How Himanta Sarma convinced BJP to be Assam’s next CM
However, he was always known as a strategist since his college days and had managed to win the Cotton College union body election for a record three terms (a coveted record which was equaled only recently). Impressed by his popularity among students, then Assam chief minister Saikia had his eyes set on Himanta and convinced him to join the Congress.
However though he was given ticket to contest the 1996 Assam assembly election from Jalukbari, his current constituency, he lost against AGP’s Bhrigu Phukan, his former mentor. Jalukbari was known as Phukan’s fort and Himanta worked hard and toured the constituency extensively for five years before getting elected from the seat in 2001.
The ever-ambitious Himanta, however, faced difficulties in getting closer to then Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi, before finally finding a way to make his acquaintance through MSVK Bhanu, the then commissioner and secretary to the chief minister. Bhanu was Gogoi’s Man Friday and was known to him since his Delhi days when the latter was on central deputation.
Gogoi, who was already facing stiff resistance and dissidence from the other Congress stalwarts like Devananda Konwar, Sarat Borkotoky and Pawan Singh Ghatowar over the post of the chief minister, and demand over plump portfolios, accommodated a majority of the Congress MLAs as ministers to quell dissidence and gave portfolios to many newly-elected MLAs to minimize any possibility of grouping. Himanta was among the ones who got a ministerial berth as a junior minister – he initially got agriculture, before being entrusted with the irrigation and fiancé portfolios. After the Constitution was amended in 2003 by the then BJP government and it was made a law that the Council of Ministers shall not exceed 15 per cent of the total number of members of the House of the People, Gogoi got the desired opportunity to sideline many senior politicians and promote junior ones. Thus the axe feel on the senior dissenting politicians, and a simultaneous rise of fortune of the younger ones, including Himanta was seen.
Himanta perhaps was able to read Gogoi’s shrewdness and quickly learnt that the chief minister was there to stay – so he quickly became an arch loyalist of Gogoi and slowly made his way to becoming the Number 2 in his cabinet. He was promoted as a Cabinet minister in 2006, his second term, and got several plump portfolios and this continued in his third term as well.
He, however, left the Congress to join the BJP in 2015. Two different reasons are given for his quitting. The first one attributes Himanta’s exit from Congress to the fallout between him and Gogoi in 2012, after the latter’s son Gaurav Gogoi, present Lok Sabha MP from Koliabor, joined the Congress formally. Himanta had accused Gogoi of projecting his son to take over the state leadership. According to the second one, Himanta, aware of the growing unpopularity of the Congress in the state had anticipated its defeat and had in advance started negotiations with the BJP way before joining the party in 2015.
By 2016, when Himanta joined the BJP-led government under Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, it was evidently clear that he was eyeing for the top post five years away, and in the 2021 Assam assembly election, he ensured giving candidature to many of his loyalists including those who had crossed over from the Congress and had even campaigned for them round the clock – physically, digitally and even getting top leaders from Delhi to campaign for them.
Himanta’s gamble worked, and despite initial reluctance to remove Sonowal, the party’s national leadership had to cave in to his demand – Himanta will become the 15th chief minister of the state.
The success of Himanta’s gamble is evident from the very fact that none other than the incumbent chief minister Sonowal was the person to propose his name for the top political post.