Two kings can't rule one kingdom. As campaign for the second phase of Assembly elections in Assam touches fever pitch, BJP's convener of the election management committee for the Assam elections and former Congress minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, is waging two wars with one sword — to wipe out Congress from Assam and to 'claim' what he and his followers believe is rightfully his — the CM's post.
Even though the saffron party has announced Union minister Sarbananda Sonowal as it's chief ministerial candidate, if party insiders are to be believed, the BJP in Assam is already divided into two camps — Sarma and Sonowal.
Sarma versus Sonowal
Chief minister Tarun Gogoi's blue-eyed-boy-turned-arch rival, Sarma joined the BJP in August 2015 after a major fallout with Gogoi. While Sarma's chief ministerial ambitions were not hidden, the BJP made him the campaign committee convener in November. The saffron party after its Delhi debacle (remember Kiran Bedi) had refrained from declaring a CM candidate in Bihar. However, it was forced to declare its CM face in Assam after Sonowal reportedly threw a fit fearing that Sarma will spoil his chances. The BJP, which till recently had no prominent faces in Assam, saw in Sarma a big catch who could turn the tide in its favour. Sarma loyalists claim it's the former Congress MLA's strong political acumen and mass appeal that has managed to bring the BJP — which for the first time has emerged as one of the two main players in Assam elections — to the forefront in state politics.
"It's Himanta Biswa Sarma under whose leadership the BJP will win (if at all) the elections in Assam," claims a senior BJP functionary and Sarma supporter. Even though he refused to come on record fearing disciplinary action from the party high command, the Sarma supporter suggested that the decision to field Sonowal from Majuli too has a catch. The Mishing-dominated Majuli constituency, which is a reserved ST seat, has for the last three terms chosen Congress's Rajib Lochan Pegu, who belongs to the Mishing community. "If Sonowal fails to win Majuli, he will be forced to return to his job as Union sports minister and give way to Sarma," he adds.
Four months on, Sarma, who is credited with leading the Congress campaign and winning 78 of the 126 seats in the 2011 Assembly polls, has emerged as the star campaigner for the BJP after having successfully turning the issue of 'Assamese identity versus illegal Bangladeshi immigrants' as the main poll plank this election season.
Sonowal, on the other hand, has slowly faded into the background despite being the chief ministerial face. Mostly found busy devoting his energy to Majuli (which went to polls in the first phase on April 4), Sonowal, many within the party believe, failed to register his presence across the length and breadth of the state. Unlike Sarma, who is considered as the main troubleshooter (a titled he earned even during his stint with the Congress), Sonowal's visibility seems to be limited only to campaign hoardings where is seen sharing an equal space with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah (besides alliance partner AGP's Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and others).
For instance, even though Sonowal addressed a series of rallies at Sarukhetri, Barpeta, Sipajhar, Kamalpur and Hajo in lower Assam on 7 April, trying to woo the minorities, it was again Sarma who stole the limelight with his presence in Gauripur assembly constituency in minority-dominated Dhubri district. He, along with Bodo People's Front chief Hagrama Mohilary, assured the people that the BJP-BPF-AGP alliance would ensure development sans discrimination. While campaigning for BPF candidate Bonendra Kumar Mushahary, Sarma warned the voters against "the Congress-AIUDF ploy".
No love lost
The 'cold war' between Sarma and Sonowal, however, is not limited to campaign rallies and their success. Aides close to both the leaders confirm that the 'rivalry' between the two dates back to their All Assam Students' Union (AASU) days. Like many others in the BJP, Sonowal had vehemently opposed the entry of Sarma into the BJP only to come round later. Sarma, however, denies any differences with Sonowal. "I have known Sonowal since class 5. There are no differences between us," Sarma had said just after joining the BJP in 2015.
What's more, Sarma has been asserting that he is "happy about the fact that Sonowal is their CM face", but poll pundits dismiss it as just another instance of election-time posturing.
While rumours are rife that Sarma is waiting to strike at the right moment (once the BJP-AGP-BPF alliance comes to power in Assam), analysts warn his growing importance in the BJP is definitely a reason enough to give Sonowal the jitters.
"Sarma is playing his cards very well. He didn't rebel against Tarun Gogoi to settle for a second spot (he was already no. 2 in Gogoi Cabinet). It is anyone's guess how long he would be willing to play second fiddle to Sonowal," says veteran journalist and political analyst Subir Bhaumik.