Infiltration and allies: Not an easy road ahead for Assam CM Sonowal

Sarbananda Sonowal on 24 May became the first BJP chief minister in Assam. The grand ceremony, where Sonowal and his cabinet ministers took oath, heralded the BJP's entry into the northeast.

The 54-year-old Sonowal, who started his political journey as the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) president, joined the Asom Gana Parishad in 2001 and left it to join BJP in 2011. In the run-up to the assembly elections in Assam, BJP projected Sonowal as the face of the party in the state and as the chief ministerial candidate. The party centered their campaign with infiltration of immigrants from Bangladesh as their major poll plank. In fact, Sonowal was quoted as saying that stopping infiltration would be a major challenge for him.

Sonowal has a difficult road ahead. The saffron alliance has made a slew of promises which can be really daunting to achieve. Most of it rides on the shoulder of Sonowal as not only he has to deliver on the major promises made during the election campaign, he has to keep the BJP's alliance partners Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) happy.

Sealing Indo-Bangladesh border

Eleven years ago, Sonowal had filed a petition challenging the controversial Illegal Migrants' Determination by Tribunal (IMDT) Act, which was later scrapped by the Supreme Court. After winning the elections, Sonowal said Assam's borders will be sealed in two years to check infiltration from Bangladesh.

"Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had given a two-year time frame for permanent sealing of the border. We will work towards finishing within that time frame the border sealing work, including the riverine border," he had told PTI in an interview. He had added that after the updated draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam is published, the government will identify the citizens and the infiltrators.

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal along with senior BJP leaders Ram Madhav (right), Mahendra Singh and Himanta Biswa Sarma. PTI

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal along with senior BJP leaders Ram Madhav (right), Mahendra Singh and Himanta Biswa Sarma. PTI

Incidentally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign, had announced that illegal immigrants will be sent back to Bangladesh. According to The Indian Express, the previous Congress-led government in Assam had delayed updating the NRC, which is a register containing names of citizens in Assam who are in the electoral rolls between 1951 and 1971. After Modi came to power, the process of updating the register began once again.

BJP's alliance partners

BJP's five-party alliance, including AGP and BPF, managed to oust the 15-year-old Congress-led government. According to reports, the new ministry is likely to have 10 MLAs from the BJP, three from the AGP, two from BPF and one from the Gana Shakti Party. Before the swearing-in ceremony, the BJP held meeting with its partners to iron out the the ministerial equations. But Sonowal and his party should be prepared if its allies clamour for more ministerial seats.

Sonowal versus Sarma

Himanta Biswas Sarma, who was once former chief minister Tarun Gogoi's blue eyed boy, was touted to be the chief minister of the northeastern state after he joined BJP in 2015. Sarma fostered hope of becoming the chief minister under Congress leadership. However, soon after Tarun Gogoi's son Gaurav Gogoi joined the Congress, Sarma along with his nine supporters joined the BJP.

While Sarma's chief ministerial ambitions were not hidden from the saffron party, 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 chief ministerial face in Assam after Sonowal reportedly threw a fit fearing that Sarma will spoil his chances.

In fact, while the elections were underway in Assam, reports said that the BJP in Assam was divided into two camps — Sarma and Sonowal. With Sonowal as the Assam Chief Minister it remains to be seen whether Sarma, who is known for his political acumen, will provide the necessary support to Sonowal. Sarma took oath as a cabinet minister as well on Tuesday.

Aides close to both the leaders told Firstpost that the 'rivalry' between the two dates back to their AASU days.

In fact, Sonowal was opposed to Sarma's entry into BJP. "I have known Sonowal since Standard V. There are no differences between us," Sarma had said just after joining the BJP in 2015.

However, the newly-elected leadership has to keep an eye on Sarma's growing popularity within the party. Only time will tell if Sarma is willing to play the second fiddle in the Sarbananda Sonowal-led government.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: May 24, 2016 20:54 PM

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