By Tamanna Inamdar
Tamanna Inamdar is the Senior Editor/Lead Anchor at Bloomberg Quint.
He is the man credited with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s seemingly unstoppable march into the northeast.
In 2015, Himanta Biswa Sarma who had been a Congress MLA for 15 years in Assam, quit the party to join the BJP. The following year the BJP formed its first majority government in the state of Assam. The victories have continued with the BJP bagging three more northeastern states in the latest round of state elections.
Speaking to Bloomberg Quint, Himanta Sarma says stitching up the alliance in Meghalaya took him just “ten minutes” because the party was prepared months in advance.
I flew from Agartala and went to Dr. Donkupar’s house along with Conrad and it took just 10 minutes to stitch the alliance because we discussed this from last 3-4 months.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, Finance Minister, Assam
The elections in Meghalaya threw up a hung house with the Congress emerging as the largest party with 21 seats but falling short of a majority of 31 seats. The BJP with two seats managed to stitch together an alliance of regional parties to stake a claim. Sarma says though he is “humiliated” by the Congress party he has not made political moves with a “sense of revenge”.
He does, however, have some advice for his erstwhile party – think beyond the Gandhis.
My advice will be, think beyond Gandhis. In 21st century, India’s principal opposition party cannot be seen to be a family-run party.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, Finance Minister, Assam
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q. NDA now rules six out of seven states in the Northeast. What is your winning formula?
Ans. In the northeast, we don’t go by politics and go by just what is happening in reality. After independence, people have seen a rapid expansion of road and railway networks, internal highways, air connectivity. People have seen unprecedented developmental activity in last 2.5 years under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. So, that has created huge confidence among people. For people like us who are interested in doing a thing in the northeastern region for the party, our task becomes very easy. We can go to villages and tell people, look at this road and what was the condition three years ago and how it looks like today. I will attribute PM Modi’s aggressive development agenda for this political victory and political expansion of the BJP.
Q. Is it also a personal victory for you? Is it also a sense of revenge fueling this energy to make sure that Congress loses out in these states?
Ans. If you talk about Assam election and election in 2014, it may have been my driving force because I was humiliated and angry. So, I tried to contribute more as far as the Assam election is concerned. But in politics, you don’t carry revenge. I am working as BJP’s ordinary worker.
Whatever responsibility has been entrusted to me by my party president, I am trying to do it. There is no sense of revenge. I am just working on what I have been asked to do.
BJP chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal (center) along with Senior BJP leaders Ram Madhav (right) and Himanta Biswa Sarma (left) celebrating the party’s thumping win the Assam Assembly polls at BJP Party head office in Guwahati on Thursday. (Photo: PTI)
Q. Was it a challenge for you to switch over to the BJP in terms of ideology after being a member of the Congress for so long?
Ans. In Assam, we had transformed the Congress party during those 15 years to a different level. We opposed the Muslim communal agenda of Badruddin Ajmal while we were in Congress too. In Assam from 2001, we have followed different principles than what national leaders used to follow. In some way, because the organization was new, the structure was new, and I was not exposed to the new organizational structure which the BJP has. So, in the initial 2-3 months, I did face problems. But Amit Shah and Ram Madhav were so helpful. I am grateful to both of them. They have made my entry and existence in BJP so easy that today I feel that I have wasted my 23 years in Congress.
Q. In Meghalaya, the Congress has said that by proxy the BJP has pushed to form a government with only two seats. They have said that you are pushing instability in the northeast, considering Conrad Sangma has spoken about a separate Garoland. How would you respond to this charge?
Ans. In the mainland, many people don’t know about the northeast. So, Congress is spreading these rumors. It is not about two seats. Congress has won 20 seats and NPP has won 19 seats. So, BJP is lending support to a government formed by the second largest political formation which has got just one seat less than the Congress. So, this false propaganda is being spread by the Congress party because many people in the mainland are not exposed to the northeast. Today, they are trying to say that BJP is trying to push a proxy government. Conrad Sangma on his own might has secured 19 seats, just one seat less than the Congress. I have never heard even once in my political career that Conrad Sangma has even asked for a Garoland. So, from where is this allegation coming?
Q. How did you succeed where the Congress failed?
Ans. If big people will come from Delhi, people of the northeast will not fear and surrender before the big leaders. Every state has its own pride. Today the people who have joined and come together, they are friends of the BJP for the last three years. We are members of North East Democratic Alliance. We have the best of relations. We have discussed during pre-poll and said during elections, we knew that this kind of hung verdict will come. So, the architecture was ready. I flew from Agartala and went to Dr. Donkupar’s house along with Conrad and it took just 10 minutes to stitch the alliance because we discussed this from last 3-4 months.
Q. Would you call it fair, ethical to dump the NPF now in Nagaland?
Ans. It is not about fair or unfair. Before the election, we met NPF leaders and we have requested them to give us 20 seats based on our organizational strength. NPF said that we can’t give you 20 seats and we can only give you 2-4 seats. We have internally assessed our strengths and we found that we have good strengths and we can expand. So, we sent Kiren Rijiju to personally meet NPF President Shurhozelie in Kohima and we have requested him like a good partner that the situation is such, so give us 20 seats and if not 20 at least give 15 seats. He said we can’t. So, we have decided to part ways as friends. I am on the best of terms with Shurhozelie, Zeliang. Today, also when I came from Kohima I made it a point to call Mr. Zeliang and even today we are friends. But the problem is we have gone to the people of Nagaland in alliance with NDDP and this alliance got the mandate from the people. So, how can we dump NDDP and come to NPF as a post-poll ally?
Q. What about your alliance with NPF in the state of Manipur?
Ans. That will remain intact because, in the Election Commission, NPF Manipur is a different political entity. NPF Manipur is not a wing of NPF Nagaland, although generically they are together. But our understanding with NPF Manipur is independent of what is happening in NPF Nagaland. So, that alliance will continue and remain for next four years.
Q. What is the next target? Do you already have a strategy in place for Mizoram?
Ans. The north-eastern region has eight states and in seven we have a government of NDA as well as Northeast Democratic Alliance. So, the last state where Congress is in power is Mizoram. Our people are in Mizoram so that we can have a government in Mizoram by Nov. 8.
Q. The BJP is becoming all powerful. Do you think this is a risk factor for BJP that as you get stronger other parties will try and group together for their own survival?
Ans. That acknowledges how popular Narendra Modi is today. SP and BSP came together in UP and it goes to show how popular Narendra Modi is. So, coming together of BSP and SP is an acknowledgment of the growing popularity of BJP. Our workers in UP will counter any alliance and come up with a victory. I think this is just a matter of time that Phulpur, Gorakhpur and everything will be won by the BJP.
Q. You have been quoted saying that Manik Sarkar should now go either to West Bengal or Kerala or Bangladesh. Did you say that and why did you say that?
Ans. This is not a post-election speech. For post-election speech, probably, I will go to Tripura and I will meet Manik Sarkar, pay my respect to him. But this is a speech during an election. This is the speech I have rendered in his constituency because in his constituency a 14-year girl was raped and murdered. I requested Manik Sarkar to visit the house of that family and pay some amount as a compensation. But he refused to visit that family. That’s when I said that due to this kind of negligence and crime, you have to face the law. If you avoid the law, you have the option to flee to Bangladesh, Bengal or Kerala. So, these are normal, routine political speeches.
Q. You have been quoted saying cancer is caused by past sins. Do you believe that as health minister?
Ans. These are the words of the people who want to see that politically I go on the defensive. Because I am involved politics in Assam. Nobody in Assam has questioned me on this issue. In Assamese television, everyone was trying to understand what I said and what I was trying to say. If somebody catches hold of a wrongly-translated copy and keeps on harping on it in the national media, then how can I help it?
Q. In your opinion, what’s the primary difference between the BJP and Congress?
Ans. The difference is very simple. I have been in the Congress party for 23 years. But we are not allowed to enter Sonia Gandhi’s residence at any point. But look at Amit Shah’s residence. You can go, walk in, have food in his dining room, walk into his drawing room, sit down in his garden in his official quarter. Look at the humbleness with which Amit Shah travels in IndiGo which has general passengers. The BJP is a party which is rooted in India’s culture. BJP ministers have families like you and me. They are common people. But when it comes to the Congress party, they behave like Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have come from a different planet.
Q. Could you elaborate on that point?
Ans. They behave like feudal lords. Can you find any chief minister of any Congress-ruled state having lunch with Rahul Gandhi in his residence throughout his career? Normally, you invite your friends to your home and I go to your family, this is Indian culture and ethics. They always believe in master and servant relation. So, I believe that democracy needs opposition, but that opposition should not dwell on feudalism and should not be based on master and servant relationship. India is a massive democracy. A stronger balanced opposition will evolve out of that Indian democracy. Congress has outlived and if not Congress the Gandhi family has outlived its utility.
Q. Even Congress supporters are commenting that perhaps the biggest blunder for the Congress party was letting you go or not managing to retain you before the Assam elections. Could they have done this differently?
Ans. I have not made any difference. It is the victory of people of the northeast and Prime Minister’s development agenda. As a humble political worker, I just tried to discharge my responsibility. My humble request to everyone is that don’t make it a point that I had made the difference, or it is because of me that the BJP has won. I don’t believe in all these things. I believe that this is a victory for the development agenda. My only request to the BJP leadership is to please carry on your development agenda and be more proactive. Northeast deserve much more, please continue the development activity and we will be happy.
Q. How do you look at the BJP’s different policies in different parts of the country? They have no problem with beef in the northeast, but the beef ban is a big issue in other parts of India.
Ans. India is a country which has diverse cultures. India is a diverse country and the beauty of India is we acknowledge the diversity. In some regions, beef eating is considered taboo but in some parts of the country, mainly in the north-eastern region, this is not considered as a taboo. You don’t have to impose the culture of UP, Bihar or Maharashtra on the north-eastern region and vice versa. Rather, you have to celebrate the diversity. That is why our country is called India, that we can celebrate the diversity. No single policy which is applicable to UP will be applicable to the northeast, except the basic principle of our Constitution or basic point of India first. Beyond that, you have to allow the diversity.
Q. What about the concept of individual freedom?
Ans. If some person from the north-eastern region lives in Karnataka then he must respect the culture, tradition of Karnataka. He cannot impose the culture or ideology of the north-eastern region of Karnataka. But in his home, he will celebrate that culture. But in his social behavior, he should celebrate the culture of Karnataka.
Q. Where do you see your political career going within the BJP?
Ans. I personally don’t see anything. I have no expectations, no demands, and no request. So, I don’t see anything big for me in the near future. I am content. Rather, I have 12 portfolios. I am going to request the chief minister to take some of the portfolios from me because I cannot carry that kind of responsibility.
Q. What will be your advice for your erstwhile party?
Ans. My advice will be, think beyond the Gandhis. In the 21st century, India’s principal opposition party cannot be seen to be a family run party. Congress has to democratize itself. Congress has to allow grassroots workers to go up even to the post of President. 20 years ago, there may be some utility of the Gandhi name. But today that tag has become a burden for them and they must define themselves as a normal political party. They must allow upward growth irrespective of their closeness to the family or not. People should be differentiated on the basis of their merit and the aura of Gandhi should disappear because there is no aura existing at all.
Featured Image Credit(s): Visual Hunt
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