After a long wait, the two year old Assam Cabinet was expanded for the first time with the induction of seven new ministers. The Sarbananda Sonowal led ministry, till Thursday, had only 11 ministers including the Chief Minister. In the expanded BJP-led Sonowal ministry, five BJP MLAs, two MLAs, each from coalition partners Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) have made entry as ministers. But it appears that the Chief Minister Sonowal while picking up the ministers has given more emphasis to personal equation rather than performance. The BJP MLAs, who took oath as ministers, are Siddhartha Bhattacharya, who preceded Sonowal as the State BJP president and Guwahati East MLA; Jagiroad MLA Pijush Hazarika, who is known as a close associate of Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma; former All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) general secretary and Sonari MLA Tapan Kumar Gogoi; Rangia MLA Bhabesh Kalita, and former Congress leader and Diphu MLA Sum Ronghang. AGP’s Phani Bhushan Choudhury, who has won the Assembly polls from Bongaigaon constituency for six consecutive terms, a former minister in AGP regime and party working president; Chandan Brahma, former Transport Minister in Congress regime and Sidli MLA have taken oath as ministers. The seven ministers are from various districts of the state, with nod to the coming panchayat polls and bolstering the electoral talent pool of the party with “doers”, albeit with mix of old and young minister. Though the portfolio allocation is yet to happen but going by the past records of few who were included in the ministry it appears that performance was the last word Sonowal looked into the resume while selecting the MLAs. BPF’s Chandan Brahma and AGP’s Phani Bhushan Choudhry both were ministers earlier but their performance was not upto the mark. Clearly it was the compulsion of coalition politics that was the guiding force behind the selection of ministers. Similarly, personal equation with influential ministers in the cabinet also paved the way for many. Take for instance the case of Pijush Hazarika, a two time MLA and a former Congress leader joined BJP with Himanta Biwa Sarma.Hazraika’s closeness to Sarma paid him rich dividends. While Tapan Gogoi student leader turned politician had the blessings of Sonowal. Diphu MLA Sum Ronghang was picked as a representative of hill tribes in the cabinet. Here also performance was not the criteria. It defies all logic that MLAs got entry into the ministry just due to some political considerations, whereas it should have been on calibre and experience. The selection framework laid out by the Sonowal was clearly drawn on the lines of vote bank politics. People were assessed mainly on the electoral value they would bring to the council of ministers.
Though it was reported that Forest and Environment Minister Pramila Rani Brahma might lose her ministry if BPF MLA Emanuel Mushahary is included in the ministry and Batadrava’s BJP MLA Angoorlata Deka might get a berth in the Sonowal ministry, their names were not in the list. The voice of dissent over the cabinet expansion has already begun. Dibrugarh MLA Prasanta Phukan from the BJP has expressed his dissatisfaction and anger over denying ministerial berth in the expanded Sonowal minsitry. Phukan has resigned from several committees and posts that he has been holding.
Sonowal swept to power on a promise of jobs and growth. However, the performance of two year old BJP government in the state clearly amplifies the fact it suffers from a shortage of experience members. It was clear that Sonowal choose an easy way out by sticking to old formula of politics over performance and shied away from an exhaustive vetting and selection process.