The Bharatiya Janata Party’s successful show in the recent Bodoland council polls has reiterated why its chief strategist in the Northeast, Himanta Biswa Sarma, is increasingly becoming indispensable to the party, fast emerging as the BJP’s politically and electorally most astute brain after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
If one looks at the BJP leadership Modi-Shah downward across states, there is barely anyone who reflects such brilliance in political planning as Himanta Biswa Sarma. The minister from Assam who holds important portfolios of finance, education and health stands out for his ability to lead successful electoral campaigns even in tough terrains and for his administrative and governance experience. More crucially, he fits right into the BJP’s polarising politics, despite being an ‘outsider’. Himanta Biswa Sarma, who jumped ship from the Congress in 2015, is perhaps Modi-Shah’s best acquisition in recent years and among their biggest assets today.
The two-phased polls to Bodoland Territorial Council on 7 and 10 December resulted in the BJP continuing its successful streak in Assam, bagging nine of the 40 seats to emerge as kingmaker, up from the single seat it had won in 2015. Himanta Biswa Sarma led the party’s aggressive campaign in the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR), the Covid-19 pandemic notwithstanding.
The BJP juggernaut may seem unstoppable right now, thanks to Modi’s popularity and Amit Shah’s election arithmetic, but at some point, the party will ask itself, who its next electoral mastermind is. And for that, Himanta Biswa Sarma is emerging as one promising answer.
The importance of Himanta
Why is a small council poll significant enough to reflect on Himanta Sarma’s political planning? The Bodo region, much like Assam before 2016, is hardly the BJP’s natural domain. Dominated by tribal and indigenous communities, the Bodo region needed delicate planning for the BJP to make inroads. With the impressive result, in what is being touted as the semi-final to next year’s assembly election, the BJP has shown it needs no ally in Assam and has asserted its presence across the state despite the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) brouhaha.
The BJP had absolutely no footprint in the Northeast to begin with, a region dominated by the Congress and smaller regional parties. Armed with the powerful Modi-Shah combination, Himanta Sarma — the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) convenor — set out to capture state after state, and the BJP managed to come to power in six of the seven sisters in the Northeast, either by winning elections, including difficult battles like unseating the Left from its fortress Tripura, or forging alliances.
In the process, Himanta Sarma established himself as a crafty election manager and a politician who understands the pulse of the voter. He has also become a crucial troubleshooter for the BJP, managing its post-CAA turbulence in Assam and the recent political crisis in Manipur.
Having worked closely with three-time Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, Himanta Biswa Sarma also brings a grip over governance and administration, which is particularly vital with a relatively less experienced Sarbananda Sonowal as chief minister.
As health minister, Himanta’s management of Covid in Assam may have been questionable. But much like Modi and Amit Shah, he has learnt to ensure there is adequate glossing over such lapses, with catchy political rhetoric and smart election planning overtaking everything else.
But in the BJP’s scheme of things, it is important that party leaders project the same worldview — of majoritarian, Hindutva politics. And Himanta Biswa Sarma has managed that successfully with his constant rhetoric, and most significantly his clever manipulation of the ethnic question opened up by the National Register of Citizens (NRC) into a communal binary.
He may not be a product of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), perhaps his biggest disadvantage in advancing in the BJP, but he has started ticking all the boxes to appease the Right-wing ecosystem. As I have argued before, Himanta has the same dangerous and sharp approach to politics and elections that Amit Shah does, making him an asset for the BJP’s national leadership.
Himanta vs the others
When you look at the BJP leadership at the national level, the importance of Himanta Biswa Sarma becomes more pronounced.
Nationally, the BJP has an underwhelming bench strength, both politically and administratively. Its younger lot lacks experience, mass resonance and political skill, a fact not lost on anybody.
The party’s strong regional leaders in the Hindi heartland — Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh and Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh — all lost their respective elections in the winter of 2018. Chouhan may be back as CM, but that is hardly to his credit.
In Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the BJP is struggling to find an able second rung. In Madhya Pradesh, Jyotiraditya Scindia’s entry has been a big boost to the party, particularly because he managed to deliver what he promised. However, there is a difference between having a grip over one region of one state that has anyway been a BJP stronghold — in Scindia’s case, the Gwalior-Chambal region — and managing to deliver an entirely new, unexplored region to the party like Himanta has.
Moreover, Scindia is still cautious and conscious of adopting the BJP’s polarising language.
In Gujarat, Modi still holds sway and the local leadership, including Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, is underwhelming. Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra is young and prominent, but could not deliver the state in the last assembly election. Delhi and Punjab have no big BJP names.
In the south, in the only state where the BJP is in power — Karnataka — the party is reeling under factionalism under a chief minister who will be past his political prime very soon. MP Tejasvi Surya is a Hindutva-wielding young, fiery leader being actively promoted by the party, but he is yet to show much political or electoral skill.
The big name, of course, is Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, and all eyes are on him ahead of the 2022 assembly election. The problem with Adityanath, however, is that his governance record has been shaky at best, and his politics relies entirely on a divisive brand of Hindu-Muslim politics than any real political strategising or smart election management.
Himanta Biswa Sarma can thus emerge as the biggest challenger to all his party colleagues owing to his political skills. He may not be as talked about as Adityanath or other Hindi heartland names, but he is the one BJP leader after Modi and Amit Shah to watch out for.
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