Assam Elections: How Himanta Biswa Sarma Deflated Congress Calculations On CAA

Assam Elections: How Himanta Biswa Sarma Deflated Congress Calculations On CAAHimanta Biswa Sarma
Snapshot
  • In late 2019, it seemed that the anger against CAA in Assam would bring down the BJP government in the state.

    Here's how Himanta Biswa Sarma led the campaign which turned around the indigenous Assamese's perception of the law.

Till even a year ago, effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, state Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma were being burnt in many places in Assam.

Assam had been on the boil ever since the Citizenship Amendment Bill was introduced and taken up for discussion in the Lok Sabha in early December 2019.

The Assamese feared that the Bill, which was passed by Parliament and became an Act on 11 December 2019, would trigger an exodus of lakhs of Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh into Assam, thus causing more demographic changes in the state.

Assam erupted in anger and the state witnessed violent protests followed by total shutdowns. The state appeared to be sliding back to the stormy days of the seven-year-long Assam agitation when life was completely disrupted.

The influential All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and many civil society organisations as well as prominent personas from the literary, academic and cultural spheres came out in open opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act.

The Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) latched on to the raging protests and calls were given to boycott BJP leaders and functionaries and defeat the BJP in the 2021 Assembly elections.

The BJP in Assam was, naturally, put on the back foot and it appeared that the saffron party would face imminent defeat in the Assembly polls.

Loss of Assam would have dealt a huge blow to the BJP’s long-term plan of emerging as the prime political force in Northeast India and would also have meant a loss of face for the party’s central leadership.

Amidst the gloom that had set in the saffron camp, the party’s chief strategist for the region and the state finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma assured the party’s central leadership that the anger against the CAA could be dissipated and the situation salvaged.

Sarma, widely acknowledged in the entire region as a clever political strategist, told the BJP central leadership that the widespread anger that was prevailing at that time against the CAA was based on misinformation and was being fuelled by opposition parties and anti-BJP groups and individuals.

The BJP central leadership, primarily Home Minister Amit Shah, with whom Sarma shares a good rapport, gave the Assam finance minister a carte blanche to douse the anti-CAA flames and script a turnaround in the party’s political fortunes.

Sarma correctly prescribed and started overseeing a massive campaign to educate the masses about the CAA and explain to them that fears about Assam being swamped by Bengali Hindu migrants from Bangladesh was completely unfounded.

Sarma himself led the campaign from the front and in all rallies and meetings, emphasised that the existential threat that the Assamese and other indigenous communities of the state face comes not from Bengali Hindu migrants from Bangladesh but from Bengali Muslims.

He cited statistics and anecdotal evidence to prove to the masses that illegal Muslim migrants from Bangladesh have overwhelmed many districts and turned them into Muslim-majority ones by their sheer numbers.

Sarma cited the abnormally high birth rate among Bengali Muslims, the influence that radical Islamist clerics have over them, the forcible occupation of forests and government land and land belonging to mandirs and satras (Vaishnavite monasteries) by the Bangladeshi-origin Muslims and the gradual but large-scale displacement of indigenous people from areas where the Bengali Muslims turn into a majority to prove to the indigenous people, including the Assamese, that the Bangladeshi-origin Muslims pose a threat to them.

Himanta Biswa Sarma also boldly went against the tide and told the masses that only if the population of Hindus increased in the state can the threat posed by Bengali Muslims be blunted.

He asserted that only Bengali Hindus can provide the heft to the struggle by the Assamese and other indigenous communities of the state to preserve their lands, culture, religion and identity.

Under Sarma’s supervision, BJP workers embarked on a massive outreach programme all over the state. A silent door-to-door campaign to reach out to Assamese households and families of other indigenous communities was launched.

The nationwide lockdown from end-March 2020 took the steam off the anti-CAA agitations and protests while facilitating the BJP’s massive outreach campaign.

The lockdown and the pandemic also provided a golden opportunity to Sarma to put his widely-acknowledged governance skills to good use.

Sarma, who also holds the health portfolio, led the battle against the Covid virus from the front. Apart from ensuring that the entire healthcare infrastructure in the state got geared up to tackle the pandemic, he also personally devised and supervised the state’s strategy to tackle the pandemic.

Unlike neighbouring Bengal and some other states, Sarma also established complete transparency in Assam’s Covid fight and oversaw total enforcement of lockdown restrictions.

Assam’s handling of the pandemic not only won Himanta Biswa Sarma many laurels, but also boosted the government’s, and the BJP’s, image among the masses.

By September, when lockdown restrictions started getting relaxed, the anger against the BJP and its top leaders appears to have been dissipated.

The Congress failed to read the writing on the wall and continued to use the CAA as a prime weapon to attack the BJP with.

The Congress failed to realise that by the end of 2020, CAA had become a non-issue in Assam.

A few organisations and individuals had also floated political parties primarily on the anti-CAA plank to take on the BJP.

These parties — the AASU-sponsored Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP), political activist Akhil Gogoi’s Raijor Dal (RD) and journalist Ajit Bhuyan’s Anchalik Gana Morcha (AGM) which is now part of the Congress-led alliance in Assam — continued to campaign against the CAA.

The Congress, and all these parties, felt that the lockdown had only put a lid on people’s anger against the CAA and this simmering anger could be re-ignited to counter the BJP in the polls.

Based on this assessment, the Congress joined hands with Maulana Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF to consolidate Muslim voters and ensure that the Muslim vote does not get divided between the Congress and the AIUDF, thus helping the BJP.

The Congress knew that an alliance with the AIUDF would not be viewed kindly by the Assamese and other indigenous communities of the state. But Congress leaders reckoned that the anger against the CAA, and consequently the BJP, would overwhelm any negative fallout of its alliance with the AIUDF.

And that is where the Congress went wrong. Sarma was quick to latch on to the Congress-AIUDF alliance and portray it as a betrayal of (late chief minister) Tarun Gogoi’s wishes.

Gogoi, who was chief minister for three consecutive terms till 2016 and is widely respected, was averse to a tie-up with the AIUDF despite Maulana Ajmal’s repeated overtures.

Gogoi correctly assessed that an alliance with a party formed to protect the interests of Bangladeshi-origin Muslims would cost the Congress the support of the Assamese and other indigenous communities of the state.

The BJP launched a high-decibel campaign against the Congress-AIUDF alliance, highlighting the fact that the AIUDF was a party of Bangladeshi-origin Muslims who wanted to gain complete political control over Assam.

Sarma, and all BJP leaders and campaigners, spoke relentlessly against the AIUDF and Maulana Ajmal (who cannot speak Assamese at all) and claimed that if the Congress-AIUDF alliance came to power, Assam would get completely overwhelmed by Bangladeshi-origin Muslims.

As a result, by the time electioneering gained momentum in Assam, not only was there no perceptible anger against the CAA and the BJP among the Assamese, resentment against the Congress for joining hands with the AIUDF had started gaining momentum.

Also, thanks to a lot of work done by the BJP-led alliance government in the state, especially in the infrastructure, health, education, agriculture and livelihood fronts, the anti-CAA sentiment got replaced by a strong pro-incumbency.

“The CAA is no longer an issue in Assam. The Assamese and other indigenous people of Assam were misled by false propaganda about the CAA and now they realise that the real danger to their identity, culture and very existence comes from Bangladeshi Muslims who the Congress has joined hands with for selfish and petty political interests,” Sarma told Swarajya.

BJP national vice-president and the prabhari for Assam, Baijayant Panda, told Swarajya that the BJP is batting on a very strong pro-incumbency pitch. “CAA is a non-issue. Good governance, exemplary handling of the pandemic, achievements on many fronts along with the fantastic work done by the Modi government at the national level has created this pro-incumbency pitch,” he said.

Panda, a former Lok Sabha MP from Odisha, said that the promises made in the BJP manifesto, especially the concrete measures the party has listed to end the sufferings caused every year by the floods, has captured the imagination of the people.

The manner in which popular anger and the widespread protests against the CAA that rocked Assam has been completely depleted, how that anger has been converted into visible pro-incumbency and how the incumbent party has aggressively turned the tables on the Congress and other opposition parties provides a valuable lesson in political management.

But the strategist who scripted this turnaround — Himanta Biswa Sarma —says the credit, instead, should go to the party’s central leadership and the thousands of BJP workers who went from door to door to negate the misinformation about CAA.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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