The electoral defeat in West Bengal has suddenly opened a can of worms for the BJP in the Northeast.
In Assam, the BJP failed to gain a majority on its own, winning 60 of the 126 seats. Its allies AGP won 9 and BPF 4 seats, but the competition for the post of chief minister is getting bitter.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, BJP’s lead strategist in Northeast as the convenor of the pro-saffron Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA), seems determined not to loose out on his lifetime ambition for the top job.
“He accepted Sarbananda Sonowal as Chief Minister for the BJP’s first term in Assam, but having delivered successfully in meeting all the challenges, it is only natural that the party rewards him with the top job,” said a senior BJP MLA close to Sarma.
He claimed that 43 of the 60 BJP MLAs are firmly behind Sarma and are keen that their leader is made the CM to consolidate the party’s gains. The 9 AGP and 4 BPF MLAs are also firmly behind Sarma, he claimed.
The Congress and its ally AUDF with 29 and 16 seats between themselves, respectively, may not be unwilling to draw Sarma out of the saffron fold if he manages 20-odd BJP MLAs who are originally Congress turncoats like him.
Congress sources in Assam say the party, smarting from nationwide reverses, is waiting for the BJP to make a leadership choice and not take a premature jump into the fray.
But if Sarma is not considered for the CM’s post, and he revolts, many possibilities will open up.
One, he could form a regional party with 30 plus MLAs and form a government with the support of Congress, AUDF, AGP and BPF. He has resources to do that, his loyalists say.
Two, he could return to the Congress with 20 to 30 MLAs, be elected the CM and then move to draw in the AGP and BPF to form a broad-based coalition government in Assam.
Three, he pushes the party high command to accept a compromise candidate from the ranks of his loyalists and emerges defacto CM by pushing out the incumbent Sonowal and a possible third candidate Dilip Saikia, Mangaldoi MP and BJP national secretary.
Sarma began his career as a leader of the All Assam Students Union, and was inducted into the Congress by late CM Hiteswar Saikia. He moved to the BJP after Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister.
Despite his turncoat past and his being implicated in many scams, Sarma is a go-getter, first rate electoral strategist, fund raiser and brilliant at making and breaking coalitions.
He is seen as Delhi’s Man Friday whenever the BJP has had problems with its allies or in forming governments anywhere in the Northeast.
In neighbouring Tripura, BJP CM Biplab Deb has faced fierce dissidence with rebel legislators camping in Delhi on scores of occasions seeking his ouster.
The dissident camp is led by former health minister Sudip Roy Barman, a military school cadet and engineering graduate, who like Sarma is originally from the Congress. Barman is the son of former Congress CM Samir Ranjan Barman and nephew of High Court Justice Sujit Barman.
Since most BJP MLAs are originally Congress turncoats who moved to the saffron camp resenting the Congress-Left alliances, Sudip Roy Barman had to be kept at bay only by the high command’s determination to retain an RSS pracharak at the top.
Roy Burman claims the support of 25 of the 36 BJP MLAs and could well follow Sarma’s lead in Assam if he revolts. Roy Burman could return to Trinamooll Congress where he parked himself with his supporters briefly after leaving the Congress and before joning the BJP.
He could also team up with royal scion Pradyot Kishore Manikya whose TIPRA party has swept the state’s tribal automomous district council polls and its merger with two other tribal parties leaves the BJP quite vulnerable in a state where 20 of the 60 seats in the Assembly are reserved for Scheduled Tribes.
“If Himanta Biswa Sarma is not given the top job and he revolts, he could make things very difficult for the BJP top brass in the entire Northeast beginning with Assam and Tripura,” said Samir Das, an author on Assam politics.
“It is best they take Sonowal to Delhi where he was Union Sports Minister before becoming Assam CM. Or else one could brace for cascading effects,” he added.
The BJP top brass is already facing fierce criticism in West Bengal where former state president Tathagata Ray has hauled up the party’s poll managers for ‘wasting the chance of a lifetime’.
Ray, a former Governor in three northeasterm states and a top technocrat, has pulled up the four BJP minders — Kailash Vijayvargia, Arvind Menon, Shiv Prakash and state president Dilip Ghosh — for a whole host of ‘mistakes’, including giving nominations to many actresses and Trinamool defectors, most of whom lost miserably.
His acerbic tweets even questioned the educational background of some party leaders, including Dilip Ghosh.