AN UPHILL CLIMB
India Today|May 17, 2021
The new incumbent has the unenviable task of managing the Covid upsurge and balancing the state’s finances
Kaushik Deka

On May 2, within hours of a clear trend emerging in favour of the BJP-led alliance in Assam, intense speculation began as to who the next chief minister would be. In fact, choosing the right candidate to helm the state became more challenging for the BJP leadership than winning the state for the second consecutive time. The significance of the decision can be gauged from the fact that the party’s central leadership remained mum on the issue for more than 72 hours. They had to choose between two strong contenders—incumbent chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and finance, education, health and PWD minister in his cabinet, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who single-handedly managed the party’s electoral campaign, from ticket distribution to logistics to setting the poll narrative.

It was not an easy call for the BJP. Sarma’s electoral strategy was the X factor in the party’s victory. Besides, the BJP was aware of the damage a disgruntled Sarma could wreak on the party. In fact, he joined the BJP in 2015 because Rahul Gandhi was reluctant to replace Tarun Gogoi with him as the chief minister. From that date, he became the architect of the Congress wipeout in the northeast. At the same time, the BJP does not have the legacy of removing an incumbent chief minister when the party has returned to power with the same number of seats as last time.

Now that the decision has been taken, the challenge for the saffron party is to make the other fall in line. The BJP, which lost out to the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC in West Bengal despite a high-profile campaign by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself and Union home minister Amit Shah cannot afford any instability in Assam, the gateway to the northeast. In fact, any sign of a factional fight within the Assam unit would have a cascading effect on the other five northeastern states where the BJP is in power either on its own or in alliance.

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