Sarbananda Sonowal set to expand Assam ministry before 15 Aug; Topon Gogoi among probables

Speculations are rife that the Sarbananda Sonowal ministry in Assam will soon see an expansion. This will be the first expansion of the state cabinet since BJP wrested power from Congress winning 60 seats in the 2016 Assam Assembly election.

Its alliance partners Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) had won 14 and Bodoland People's Front (BPF) 12 seats respectively.

Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal. Image courtesy @sarbanandsonwal/Twitter

Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal. Image courtesy @sarbanandsonwal/Twitter

The Sonowal ministry so far has eight Cabinet ministers and two ministers of state with independent charge.

According to informed sources, the chief minister along with state health and education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma have flown to New Delhi to consult with BJP president Amit Shah on the probable names to be inducted into the Sonowal ministry.

The possible names include a mix of veteran BJP members and those who have become first-time legislators.

"The chief minister has gone to Delhi on Friday. Discussion on ministry expansion is on his agenda. The chief minister has indicated that the expansion would happen by 8 August. It would definitely not go beyond 15 August as the plan is to send the new ministers to different districts for flag hoisting," a source who is privy to the development told Firstpost.

Among those BJP MLAs whose entry into the Sonowal ministry is more or less confirmed are former All Assam Students' Union president and Charaideo legislator Topon Kumar Gogoi, former state party president and East Guwahati MLA Siddhartha Bhattacharya, Sonai MLA Aminul Haque Laskar and Jagiroad legislator Pijush Hazarika.

This round of expansion is likely to see the entry of eight new ministers with six from the BJP and one each from the two allies.

"I believe in my work. I am still working sincerely in my capacity as an MLA. Just now I have returned reviewing the flood control efforts in Dhekiajuli as part of an MLA panel where we saw large-scale corruption by the contractor. It is a Rs 55 crore project to protect the Missamari cantonment from the raging waters of the Jiagabharu river where the contractor issued a bill of Rs 8 crore but hardly did work for Rs 8 lakh. For me, a field trip of this kind is more important. But yes, I have my fingers crossed," said Bhattacharya.

There was astonishment from different corners when the East Guwahati MLA didn't make it to Sonowal's core team last year.

Gogoi's entry into the ministry, besides adding the Ahom factor, will be another helping hand to Sonowal who like the Charaideo MLA also headed the student organisation before entering active politics.

Laskar, besides being a Muslim — an entity which the BJP cannot afford to ignore — also comes from the Barak Valley where there is already high resentment among people for their minuscule representation in the state ministry. So far, PWD, fisheries and excise minister Parimal Suklabaidya is the only face in the ministry from the region.

Jagiroad MLA Hazarika has a strong backing from Sarma, the most important face in the state cabinet after the chief minister.

However, another Sarma confidant and Sipajhar MLA Binanda Kumar Saikia cannot be ruled out completely. His induction might just cause a scare to Hazarika.

"From the allies, it would be Bongaigaon AGP MLA Phani Bhusan Choudhury and BPF chief and Sidli MLA Chandan Brahma," the source said.

When contacted, Choudhury chose to avoid the matter saying, "I have no information about it. The chief minister might go to Delhi for some other work."

Apart from the names above, there are other names doing the rounds. Prominent among them are Dibrugarh MLA Prasanta Phukan and Batadroba MLA Angoorlata Deka.

"I have no idea. I have not been informed yet. It is the prerogative of the chief minister. I don't know if any date has been fixed. I know nothing more than you do. But it has to be noted that I am the only BJP MLA who has won three times consecutively since 2006. Even the ministers in the present government have not done so. If I don't get any ministry I will confine myself to my constituency and the party. Yes, if I get a ministry I will like it," said Phukan.

Deka stands a chance because she would then be the second woman minister after forest minister Pramila Rani Brahma, who is from BPF.

Sootea BJP MLA Padma Hazarika, who has a good rapport with the people in his constituency, also stands a chance.

"The chief minister has not said anything. We don't have any say. I think it won't be right to comment on it at this juncture," Padma told Firstpost.

While there is a talk that BJP's newest joinee among MLAs Ranoj Pegu also might make it to the ministry, it cannot be confirmed yet. Pegu earlier functioned as the chief executive councilor of the Mising Autonomous Council and represents the Dhemaji constituency in the state Assembly.

"Inducting Pegu would mean that Panchayat and Rural Development Minister Naba Kumar Doley would have to be dropped as there won't be two representatives from the Mising community. But the catch is Doley has been doing good work so far. There is no such obvious ground to drop him," said the source.

The uncertainty was palpable when Pegu did not wish to say further except "I don't know anything" when contacted.

First-time Tinsukia MLA Sanjay Kishan might make it to the ministry as well as he represents the state's considerable tea community.

Dhekiajuli MLA Ashok Anand Singhal, who is cash rich and from the Hindi-speaking community, also has the possibility of entering the ministry while Golakganj MLA Ashwini Ray Sarkar would probably make the cut as a member of the Bengali-speaking community.

Among those who might face the axe are power minister Pallab Lochan Das and irrigation minister Ranjit Dutta.

Das' style of functioning has been under tremendous media scanner as nearly 50 people died at various places in Assam due to electrocution since June this year, and the minister gave scant regard to the grave issue forcing Sonowal to form a one-man inquiry committee headed by a retired Gauhati High Court judge to probe into these incidents.

Dutta's days are probably numbered in the ministry because in March this year the vigilance wing of the state police had recovered over Rs 50 lakh from the irrigation minister's secretary Kujendra Doley putting a question mark on the anti-corruption narrative of the state government. Dutta, however, vehemently denied any involvement with the whole episode then.

The expansion would give some respite to Sonowal and Sarma, who handle a bulk of the ministries between each other.

Updated Date: Aug 05, 2017 10:52 AM

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