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As first phase of elections end in Assam, what fate awaits CM Sarbananda Sonowal?
Himanta Biswa Sarma, on the other hand, had a different trajectory.
With the first phase of the Assam polls coming to a close on Saturday, a lot of political fates hang in balance. In the 47 of the total 126 assembly seats, speaker Hitendranath Goswami is locked in a direct contest with former Congress MLA Rana Goswami in Jorhat; state Congress chief Ripun Borah is in the fray from Gohpur; activist and Raijor Dal leader Akhil Gogoi, in jail for his alleged role in the violent anti-CAA protests, is contesting as an independent from Sivasagar. Most importantly, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal is trying his luck from Majuli (ST) seat where he is locked in a direct contest with three-time former Congress MLA and former minister Rajib Lochan Pegu.
For Sonowal, the road ahead looks murky. For one, he is facing a tough opponent in Pegu, who has won three times from Majuli. Sonowal has focussed on the development he brought about, including connectivity and infrastructure, while Pegu has blamed Sonowal for "piggybacking" on the schemes introduced by the Congress in the river island constituency.
Then there are other issues at play, including the palpable rivalry between Sonowal and BJP's northeast pointman Himanta Biswa Sarma for the chief ministerial seat. The BJP has not declared a chief minister candidate this time, leading to speculation that his cabinet colleague Himanta Sarma would be picked for the top post.
Sarma has made his ambitions clear in as many words. Asked about the BJP's decision to not project any CM candidate, Sarma said only the central leadership can answer questions about it and noted he had announced that he would not contest the assembly polls to dispel any confusion about his eying the top seat but changed his mind after the party told him so. To a query about his chief ministerial ambition, he said, "What difference does it make even if I have ambitions. If PM and Amit bhai decide that I will not be [CM], then can I become one? You don't think over things that bring no benefits. If they feel Himanta Biswa Sarma is the right man for Assam, they will give it to me, if they feel Sarbananda Sonowal is the right man, they will give it to him, or if they feel both of them are not good, let's bring another person. So tell me if it is any good even if I or Sarbananda Sonowal keep thinking about or give thousands of press interviews."
Opposition parties like Congress had picked up on the apparent rivalry and made it a campaign issue. Talking about the prime minister's famous statement of "double-engined" government in Assam, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had made fun of it, saying the state currently has "two chief ministers", in an apparent reference to rumours of Sarma and Sonowal acting as rival power centres. "The PM said you have a double-engine government but Assam has two CMs. I don't know which fuel runs which engine," Vadra said.
Sonowal cut his teeth in politics as a student leader, participating in the Assam agitation and carrying forward that streetsmart mentality into state politics—a trait that, according to reports, was highly appreciated by then BJP chief Amit Shah. He was a firebrand leader with the All Assam Students Union (AASU) from 1992 to 1999, becoming a member of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and winning assembly elections from Moran constituency, and Lok Sabha elections from Dibrugarh. He joined the BJP in 2011, after expressing disillusionment with AGP, and his rise has since been meteoric. In 2014 general elections, he was elected as an MP from Lakhimpur, going on to win from Majuli in the 2016 state assembly elections and becoming the chief minister.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, on the other hand, had a different trajectory. Once the rising star of the Congress in Assam, he ditched the Congress and joined the BJP, and soon became Amit Shah’s most trusted lieutenant in the northeast. Sarma handles important portfolios in the Assam government and serves as convener of the 13-party Northeast Democratic Alliance, the northeastern cousin of the NDA. When the Lok Sabha elections were announced, Sarma was hoping to contest from Tezpur. But Shah intervened and asked him to coordinate the BJP campaign in the entire northeast. Sarma was disappointed, but he chose to move on, and took charge of the BJP campaign. His first move was to bring back the Asom Gana Parishad into the BJP-led alliance. The AGP had walked away following the BJP’s decision to introduce the Citizenship Bill. Sarma, in fact, has been one of the key proponents of the bill.
Most of these seats will likely witness triangular contest between the ruling BJP-AGP alliance, the Congress-led opposition grand alliance and the newly formed Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP). Titabor, a high-profile seat that was held by former chief minister Tarun Gogoi of the Congress for four successive terms will likely see a direct contest between Bhaskar Jyoti Barua of the Congress and former MLA Hemanta Kalita. Gogoi, the tallest Congress leader in the state, died last year. BJP ministers Ranjit Dutta (Behali), Naba Kumar Doley (Dhakuakha), Jogen Mohan (Mahmora), Terash Gowala (Duliajan) and Sanjoy Kishan (Tinsukia) are all locked in triangular contest with Congress or its alliance partners and the AJP. AGP Ministers Atul Bora and Keshab Mahanta are in the electoral arena in Bokakhat and Kaliabor. AJP president Lurinjyoti Gogoi is contesting from Duliajan and Naharkatiya, and is pitted against Congress and BJP nominees in both the constituencies.
The ruling BJP is contesting 39 seats and its partner AGP 10. The two allies are engaged in friendly contest in Lakhimpur and Naharkatiya constituencies. The opposition grand alliance is contesting all the seats, with the Congress putting up candidates in 43, and the AIUDF, CPI(ML-L), RJD and Anchalik Gana Morcha (contesting as independent) in one each. The newly formed AJP is in the fray in 41 seats, while there are 78 independents, including 19 candidates of the newly formed Raijor Dal who are also contesting as independents.