As most of India were hooked to their TV screens watching the results of the five-state assembly elections on the afternoon of 11th March, 2017; Himanta Biswa Sarma landed quietly at Imphal airport with a small team of trusted protégés. There was a palpable tension in Imphal city as the Congress and BJP were neck to neck as the counting proceeded, but Himanta was confident of the BJP forming government in Manipur. When the final tally came in later that evening, the Congress stood at 28 seats just two short of the halfway mark in the 60-seat assembly, while the BJP lacked behind with just 21 seats. Still, Himanta was confident, with his team calling up friends and family conveying the proud message of a new BJP government in the northeastern region in spite of what the news channels were saying. When asked where did he muster such confidence from, Himanta said, “I always knew it was going to be a close fight considering the various ethnic composition in the state, but it was also a well-established fact that the people of Manipur were tired of the corrupt practices of the Ibobi-led government. Once I saw the numbers, I knew it was an easy game”.
The following day, not only did Himanta stitch up an alliance with National People’s Party (NPP) and Naga People’s Front (NPF) with four seats each but also managed to start breaking into the Congress fold by making one of its MLA defect from the party. The BJP staked claim to form the government by parading the MLAs in front of the Governor late in the evening. By the time the Congress realised, this round was already won.
Political commentators alleged Himanta of horse-trading in the state, which he shrugs off as “friendship”. Having worked in Manipur in the 2012 Assembly elections as an observer sent by the Congress leadership, he was on very good terms with the political fraternity of the state. After his switch to the other side, the friendship came in handy.
On asked whether he misses the Congress which he left in August 2015 after more than two decades, he is quick to respond, “I’m happy where I am. There is direct access to the leadership here unlike in the Congress”. Now his mission as convenor of the North East Democratic Alliance is to ensure a Congress-mukt North East, which going by his track record so far in Assam and Manipur doesn’t look tough. The BJP is already part of the governments in Nagaland and Sikkim, he smiles, “next target is Meghalaya and Mizoram followed by Tripura”.
Before his entry into Manipur, the BJP had no representation in the state assembly; Trinamool Congress with 6 MLAs was the primary opposition party to Congress’ 48 MLAs. After he started frequenting the state in late 2015, two MLAs from the TMC defected to the BJP leading to by-elections which were won with a thumping majority in a Congress-ruled state. That was the beginning of the rise of the BJP in the hill state. As time elapsed, more MLAs even from the ruling Congress started knocking the doors of the right-wing party. But Himanta was selective, he didn’t just go about taking everyone in without determining the permutations and combinations. And those whom he wanted, he pursued using all tactics even to the extent of going to their homes to charm the wives and kids; the Congress lacked such personal connect. Since he gave tickets mostly to Congress defectors, the locals had started terming the BJP as the refurbished version of Congress. But his plan worked. In a span of just one year, the BJP came up to 21 seats and the rest, as they say, is history.
The 48-year old is currently the most powerful cabinet minister in Assam. But it is not a new role for him. After winning his first election in 2001, he toiled day and night for the party. He became the right-hand man of the then Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi in 2006 managing every aspect of the party and the government. He was also loved by the masses for being an efficient statesman, with his victory margin increasing with every election, which made it amply clear to everyone that he will succeed as Chief Minister. But fate had other plans. The organisational elections of NSUI (the Congress’ students wing) in 2012 brought about friction between him and the Chief Minister. Himanta’s candidates defeated the CM’s, leading to an ever-widening rift.
An Assamese MLA who left the Congress following him says, “Even though we had huge public support, it had become a battle of survival for us in the Congress. The party was not willing to listen to what we had to say. Dada (Himanta) could not play second fiddle to Tarun Gogoi’s son who had just entered politics”.
After the Assam election results in 2016, there were whispers in the Congress corridors that letting him go was a grave mistake, but now the whispers are much louder and clearer and can be heard across the width of the north-east Congress fraternity.
On conditions of anonymity, a senior Congress leader from the region remarked, “no plan of ours is going to work unless Himanta joins back. Irrespective of political affiliations, he goes out of his way to help any politician of the region. We cannot compete with that. There is no hope”. If he is indeed right, the cause of the downfall of the Congress in the North-East would be a former Congressman.