Assam bypolls: BJP big guns Sarbananda Sonowal, Himanta Biswa Sarma face litmus test

New Delhi: Bypolls in Assam slated on 19 November is likely to be the BJP’s litmus test on the issue of Citizenship Amendment Act. The ruling NDA’s move to pass the amendment has faced stiff opposition from various groups in Assam.

(R) Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and (L) Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. Image courtesy Sarma's Facebook page

(R) Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and (L) Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. Image courtesy Sarma's Facebook page

Winning the bypolls may be deemed as a green signal by the BJP to accept the much-debated bill. On the other hand losing might make BJP think twice on it.

Assam is heading for bypolls on in the Lakhimpur parliamentary constituency and Baithalangso Assembly constituency.

"In recent time BJP has seen a downfall in its popularity graph in Assam due to the move taken by BJP-led NDA government at the Centre to grant Hindu Bangladeshis Indian citizenship by a new amendment in the Citizenship Act. Hence this election may be like testing the waters about how to go ahead with the bill, for the party," says Naba Thakuria of Patriotic People’s Front Assam.

Assam has a strong trend of linguistic identity politics by dint of which Asom Gana Parishad rose to power in the state twice.

Pressure groups and political parties subscribing to the ideology of linguistic identity politics have along been demanding that Bangladeshis those who have infiltrated into Assam are to be extradited irrespective of their religious affiliation.

BJP’s stance to grant citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis have been stiffly resisted by these groups.


Lakhimpur Lok Sabha constituency had no representation after Sarbananda Sonowal, its representative rose to be the Chief Minister of Assam. The vacancy in the Baithalangso assembly constituency occurred after its MLA Mansing Rongpi resigned from Congress to join BJP.

In the 2014 general election, the Lakhimpur Lok Sabha constituency saw more than 50 percent of its voters swinging in favour of BJP candidate Sonowal, who is seen as an Assamese national hero for his effort to repeal IMDT Act, which was seen as a legal protection to Bangladeshi infiltrators.

Whether the voters in Lakhimpur constituency will support the BJP the same way this time as it did in 2014 General Election, especially when Sonowal’s heroic image is weaning after the Citizenship Amendment Bill was placed in Lok Sabha, is an important question for the party. For the party is soon going to face another election in Manipur early next year, and the amendment to the Citizenship Act is opposed by many in that state also.

"Certainly this election is going to be a litmus test for BJP. This is the reason why the party is trying to woo the voters by declaring mega projects," says Apurba Kumar Baruah, an Assamese intellectual.

Recently Nitin Gadkari, Minister of Road Transport and Shipping announced projects worth Rs 1 lakh crore in roads and transport sector of Assam, which this time is going to be the BJP's election plank for not only in the bypolls but also in all the other upcoming assembly elections in the northeastern region.

Assam Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma recently declared to establish a Hills University in a bid to win the voters in the Boithalangsu constituency, an assembly seat in the Karbi Anglong Hills.


The upcoming bypolls puts the popularity of Chief Minister Sonowal as a national hero and that of Sarma as a born achiever in a re-test.

The miracle of 2016 assembly election in which BJP asserted its glory in Assam, happened mostly because of the perception the voters had about these two leaders.

The success of the central leadership of the party lies in roping in Sonowal with his clean image and Sarma with that of a doer.

But recently both the leaders had to burn the midnight oil to do the homework just to retain their support bases. For a number of decisions taken by the new dispensation led by them faced stiff protest from the public.

Hence the party is not willing to risk a possible victory by fielding fresh candidates and has filed tried and tested ones.

Pradan Baruah, an MLA whom the BJP has fielded as its candidate in Lakhimpur was a Congress veteran who changed sides to join BJP along with Sarma before 2016 assembly election. Rongpi, who is BJP’s candidate for the Baithalangso assembly constituency won the seat as a Congress candidate in 2016 assembly election but soon resigned from both his party and post to join the saffron party.

Analysts say that despite all the odds BJP’s position is still advantageous than that of the Congress.

"The Congress party still finds it difficult to put its pieces together after BJP’s smashing victory in Assam. The party leaders had to ponder for a long time to decide on the candidates for the election since it was not left with too many options," says Thakuria.

On Saturday, the party announced the name of Hema Hari Prasanna Pegu, a lesser known political leader as its candidate for the Lakhimpur constituency and former minister Rupam Ronghang for the Baithalangso constituency.
Analysts say that the party’s candidature is weaker than BJP and puts it in the backfoot. Moreover, the recent declaration by Gadkari to provide the state with a fund of 1 lakh crore in the transport sector is seen as a meaningful promise from the saffron party by the voters.

The promise is likely to go down well with the people in Lakhimpur and Baithalangso since both the constituencies suffering from chronic infrastructural deficiencies.


Published Date: Oct 29, 2016 09:12 pm | Updated Date: Oct 29, 2016 09:37 pm



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