The joke in Assam these days is about the difference between BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma and god. The BJP leader's critics and fans both have the same reply: God doesn't consider himself Himanta.
If not god, Sarma is certainly turning into a legend. Everywhere you go in Assam, his myth merges with the person, blurring the lines between faith, fiction and fact.
Sarma is all things to all people. For rivals the traitor who betrayed the Congress for his ambition. For supporters the superman who decides the outcome of every election in Assam. For the common man the puppeteer with deep pockets who controls almost every politician and party with his pursestrings. For the BJP, the man who would win Assam for it. And for friends and fans, the kingmaker waiting to be the king.
Sometime in August 2015, recounts one of his friends, Sarma was summoned to a meeting in Delhi by Rahul Gandhi. Behind closed doors, five men had a conversation that was to change Sarma's life and Assam's politics.
For two decades, Sarma, a minister in the Assam government, was considered a trusted lieutenant of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. In Assam's politics, it was said, Gogoi had two extra hands: senior ministers Rockybul Hussain on the left and Sarma on the right.
The audacious among the Sarma fans, however, pooh-poohed it as an affront. They claimed Gogoi was actually Sarma's right hand man, the mask that hid the de-facto chief minister.
Sarma fell out when he realised that Gogoi was planning to pass on his legacy and the chief minister's chair to his son Gaurav, when the scion was given a Lok Sabha ticket. "If the son follows the father, when will I become the CM," Sarma is reported to have asked his followers.
The query soon landed at Rahul Gandhi's doors. So, a meeting was called in August to discuss Sarma's future. Gogoi and CP Joshi, the party general secretary in charge of Assam, were also present.
Sarma, says an insider, told Gandhi about how he had strategised the Congress win in the 2011 Assembly election, claiming credit for alliances, candidate selection and campaign coordination.
Rahul, the story goes, shrugged his shoulders and reportedly replied: So what?
Joshi, says the insider, wanted Sarma to be named the party's campaign committee chief, Digvijay Singh was also keen on grooming him as Gogoi's heir. But Rahul Gandhi's reply, say his friends, convinced Sarma that he had no future in the Congress.
A few months later, Sarma had a secret meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And a month after that meeting, on a Sunday, he was at BJP chief Amit Shah's residence, ready for a new innings.
With an answer to Rahul Gandhi's query: So what?
First, Sarma took away nine Congress legislators with him to the BJP. Then he prevailed upon the Bodo People's Front (BPF), an erstwhile ally of the Congress, to break the ties and strike a fresh alliance with the BJP.
Soon after elections were announced, says a BJP insider, Sarma prevailed upon his party to make another strategic decision: ally with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), giving the national party the cover of a regional partner.
"...it’s Mr. Sarma that the BJP’s central leadership and candidates are turning to for crisis management, feedback and ear-to-the-ground counsel. He is touring first-phase constituencies extensively on a four-seat helicopter exclusively assigned to him, mostly canvassing in Upper Assam but making a few sorties into the Barak Valley as well," says The Hindu, underlining Sarma's growing importance and stature.
Off the record, Congress leaders accept that Sarma has done incalculable harm to their party. He has co-opted several senior leaders, engineered defections and resignations, and financed rebels in several constituencies to harm the Congress.
When the Congress released its list of candidates for the first round, scheduled for 4 April, many were shocked to find the name of Sarat Saikia, a three-term incumbent MLA from Mahamora in Sivsagar district, from the list. Party insiders say Saikia's replacement Suruj Dihingia was propped up by Sarma to ensure the BJP doesn't face a tough candidate. Saikia, as a bonus for Sarma, has now joined the BJP.
Many such incidents, allegations and myths are being spun around Sarma, making the election a grudge match between him and the Congress.
"He is the Virat Kohli of this match. Till he is batting for the BJP, nothing is impossible," says Girish Chandra Lahkar, 54, a BJP supporter in awe of the politician turning into a legend.
Another supporter, one of his numerous personal friends, Ashok Kumar Jalan, a Marwari businessman, says Sarma is winning it for the BJP on his own. "Every day he addresses several rallies, darting from one corner to the other. He works hard, sleeps just for a few hours, manages funding, coordinates campaigns, stitches micro-alliances," Jalan gushes.
Guwahati-based entrepreneur and analyst Shyam Kanu Mahanta argues that Sarma has turned the election on its head over the past few days. "There was a time when the Congress appeared to be surging ahead. But, Sarma went from village to village to turn the issue of Bangladeshi immigrants into the core theme of the election. The 'Indians vs Others' debate has pushed everything else into the background," he says.
Sarma's growing popularity, however, could be worrying even the BJP. Even his ardent supporters claim Sarma did not leave the Congress just to watch someone else become the king, in this case the BJP chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal. Like Macbeth, he is said to be impatiently waiting for his moment.
Rumours suggest before giving the go-ahead for his inclusion in the BJP, the party carefully evaluated allegations that Sarma was involved in West Bengal's Sarada scam and Goa's Louis Berger bribery case. His next move will depend on what the BJP saw in those files.
Sarma's supporters claim he already has the support of the AGP and BPF. If the BJP gets a clear majority, he will bide his time, perhaps contest for the Lok Sabha from the seat vacated by Sonowal, relocate to Delhi possibly as a minister and then make his next move after a few years.
But, in case the BJP falls short of a clear majority, nobody is ruling out the possibility that Sarma could go to the BJP high-command and seek a bigger reward for himself.
All bets are off if the BJP leaders too respond with a 'so what!'
Updated Date: May 18, 2016 20:18 PM