Tinsukia, Assam: It's so hot and humid when the sun is out that you have to scramble for your summer wear. And if from nowhere a shower strikes, there is another dash — this time for warm clothes. The unpredictable behaviour of the weather in upper Assam aptly fits the mood of the state during elections.
Assam votes for a new Assembly on 4 and 11 April — just before the state ushers in the much-awaited spring festival of Rangali Bihu and dances to the tunes of dhul, pepa and gagana. As the political parties gear up for the final week of campaigning ahead of the first phase, Firstpost caught up with Union Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs and BJP chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal during his blistering campaign trail in the upper Assam industrial district of Tinsukia.
Sunday was hardly a sabbatical for Sonowal as he had to dash off to Silchar in Barak Valley in the morning where Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally. And in the evening Sonowal, who looked like a curious mix of being jaded and spirited at the same time, was in Tinsukia to help local BJP candidate Sanjay Kishan end the long domination of Congress MLA Rajendra Prasad Singh. The formula was pretty straightforward though: Lambast the state government under Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi for corruption and go gaga over Modi's corruption-free governance of 20 months.
"During its 15-year-rule, the Congress corrupted the entire governance system right from Dispur to the panchayat level. As a result, the common people were the worst affected. They were forced to believe that during this government's rule, no work can happen if palms are not greased," Sonowal told a 200-odd gathering of BJP workers and other at Durgabari in Tinsukia. "The poor were forced to go below the BPL benchmark forcing them to lose their dignity," the Assam state BJP chief said.
Blaming the state's backwardness on the graft and injustice of the present government, the Union minister, who is fighting the election in the world's largest riverine island and nerve-centre of Assamese culture — Majuli — said, "People are fed up now. They want change, parivartan to escape from the clutches of corruption. The Gogoi government has not given a utilisation certificate for an amount of Rs 12,000 crore since 2004. When asked, Gogoi always says Centre didn't give money. Corruption weakens people."
Reminiscent perhaps of Modi's campaign trail before the 2014 Lok Sabha election?
He also invoked former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to garner votes juxtaposing successful schemes of NDA-1 with that of not-so-cool schemes by the Gogoi government.
It was amply clear that the BJP is seeking support from the youth in large numbers. To woo the youth, there's few better ways than to lure them with employment.
"The state has 26 lakh unemployed youths. We will create jobs and absorb as many of them," Sonowal said. Later on, the minister said that government and industry will have to work together hand-in-hand so that the employability of the youths go up and a trend in entrepreneurship can be inspired.
As soon as the Durgabari meeting was over, the minister rushed off to another venue — the Pensioner Bhawan at Bordoloi Nagar in Tinsukia.
What better chance to speak to Sonowal than when he had some sense of peace in his SUV as it sped away from a maddening crowd literally climbing on top of each other to shake a hand, click a close up of the man who could well be the next chief minister? In the vehicle, he opened up on tricky issues, the first of which was the perennial problem of illegal infiltration from Bangladesh.
"We are totally focussed on the upgradation of the National Registration of Citizens. After this documentation, the people without valid citizenship will be visible. Then action will be taken accordingly. As of now, it is very difficult to detect people without proper citizenship. Our government will protect all those people whose citizenship is genuine ," Sonowal told Firstpost.
What was distinctly visible in this campaign was that BJP had prepared stock replies on all those vexing issues where it has been accused on taking a U-turn from its stand in the last Lok Sabha Election. One such issue was the Lower Subansiri Hydel project, which threatens a large swathe of land downstream with fatal floods, and the BJP had opposed the completion of the dam tooth-and-nail, exactly two years ago.
"The expert committee has given the go-ahead. We have spoken to all stakeholders and everyone is on the same page. The dam would be completed as per the guidelines issued by the expert committee," the BJP's chief minister hopeful said. Ironically, on 11 March Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti adviser Akhil Gogoi took on the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation and the power ministry for ignoring safety of the people downstream.
Away from the sharp U-turns, there was another topic but not far away from the water troubles were floods and erosion.
"My roadmap to control erosion and flood... flood is a normal phenomena. By dredging the river Brahmaputra and its tributaries, we hope to develop a centralised stream. Now it is multiple stream and it is difficult to control erosion. Once we have the central stream, water will flow through one stream and help us control erosion and boost navigation in a cheaper way," he said.
What about the great Central thrust where PM Modi entrusted responsibility on his cabinet ministers to take turn to visit the Northeast and understand its issues? Roughly some 200 such visits including Assam have taken place, although the ground reality doesn't show much to showcase such frequent high-profile visits.
"In the last 68 years after Independence, no prime minister ever took such an initiative. This whole process has been largely taken to expedite the development process in the region," he said. When it was immediately pointed out that the present government at the Centre had curtailed the special status to Assam, pat came the reply from Sonowal. "It was done at the recommendation of the 14th Finance Commission." The underlying message is it was constituted by the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance government. The minister did say that Assam will secure Rs 1,57,000 crore as grant-in-aid for the 2015-20 period.
Sonowal's competition with former Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma is well-known, although both maintain in public that 'all's well' between them. When asked what portfolio would Sarma get given his illustrious track record as a minister in the Gogoi government, Sonowal chose to skip it but not without adding, "I will make a very good and formidable team that would deliver on schemes."
The SUV is taking its last turn before it reaches Pension Bhawan, as Sonowal began to adjust his attire and got ready to narrate the recap of the BJP dreams in Assam. One line however said it all in the meetings: "You gave Congress 55 years. Give us five years and we shall deliver Assam out of the darkness particularly from the 15 years of Gogoi's misrule."
I wondered if he could, as I left for my home in Dibrugarh in a 15-year-old Maruti 800 with the driver grumbling at the dilapidated condition of National Highway 37. He said, "Modi should have travelled yesterday on this road." As it turned out, the prime minsiter did not, opting instead to fly to Tinsukia in an Indian Air Force chopper. As my bones battled the jerks while the tiny wheels negotiated through potholes, there was a fleeting thought about whether Sonowal would feel the same in his SUV, but then I soon chose to enjoy the April rains lashing the window.