It is hardly surprising that Sarbanda Sonowal is back in the saddle to lead the BJP’s charge in the 2016 assembly elections. The surprise had come last year when he was hauled out of State politics, ostensibly to be rewarded for the BJP’s best ever (if unexpected) show of seven Lok Sabha seats from the 14 up for grabs in Assam. Sonowal’s decision to go it alone in the 2014 general elections paid handsome dividends; the BJP proved it no longer needed to ride piggyback on its erstwhile ‘big brother’ AGP. Having persolly wrested the Lakhimpur parliamentary seat from the Congress, Sonowal had the strongest claims to land a berth in the Union ministry. It is another matter he was filly left with the lightweight Sports and Youth Affairs portfolio. Was the BJP top leadership grooming Sonowal in Delhi with one year of his three-year term as State BJP president still remaining? After all, Tarun Gogoi too cut his teeth as a junior minister in the rasimha Rao government before he took over reins of the State Congress in the late Nineties and led it to victory in 2001. Familiarity with the corridors of power in New Delhi stands a chief minister in good stead in Dispur. Standing in for Sonowal for the past one year, Siddhartha Bhattacharya began well with the perceived support of the Sangh Parivar hardliners. However, he failed to take the party old guard along with allegations of ‘high-handedness’ dogging him throughout. Bhattacharya has taken credit for the vertical split in the State Congress, but the dissidence orchestrated by Himanta Biswa Sarma began much before Bhattacharya took over. What he did was to position himself advantageously for this ‘fruit’ to fall into his lap, with ten dissident Congress MLAs crossing over. The North Cachar and Tiwa autonomous councils did go the BJP way during Bhattacharya’s tenure. Though both were engineered through large-scale defections, the BJP is at least fancying its chances of figuring higher in the perceptions of tribal voters in Dima Hasao and Tiwa areas.
After the mauling in Bihar, at least one lesson must have been driven home to the BJP tiol leadership. It simply cannot afford to fritter away the Modi ‘mystique’ in state electoral battles. The faceless Bihar BJP could not draw voters while questions were asked why the Prime Minister was scaling himself down to contest regiol leaders like Nitish Kumar and Laloo Yadav. The upshot is that there is now growing talk of an anti-NDA tionwide coalition centred around Nitish Kumar, who has made no secrets of his prime ministerial ambitions in the past. A chastened BJP now seems to be on the lookout for strong state level leaders in West Bengal and Assam. There is little likelihood for the party to find a leader of sufficient stature to take on Mamata Banerjee by next year when that state will go for assembly polls. It is easier in Assam with Sarbanda Sonowal’s successful track record in heading the State BJP from 2012 to 2014. After AGP’s Padma Hazarika and ba Doley crossed over to don saffron, Sonowal with his AGP background can act as a nucleus to draw in more disaffected regiol leaders in the coming days. His earlier credentials as an anti-IMDT Act crusader and now as an acceptable tribal leader, are expected to position Sonowal better with the electorate the BJP is targeting. Despite not ming outright anyone as chief ministerial candidate, the BJP tiol leadership has thought it fit to put Sonowal also in charge of its campaign magement committee in Assam. Appointing Himanta Biswa Sarma as convenor of this panel is significant too, given his thorough grasp of Congress organisatiol politics, known rapport with tribal leaders and influence in the State administrative apparatus. It remains to be seen whether the ruling Congress can apply the Bihar formula here, with Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and other Congress leaders waxing eloquent on a ‘grand alliance’ in their anxiety to prevent splitting of minority votes. The process has reportedly gathered steam under JD(U) mediation from Nitish Kumar’s swearing-in ceremony at Pat, attended among others by Gogoi and AIUDF supremo Badruddin Ajmal. Ironically, Tarun Gogoi himself may be the biggest obstacle for such a grand alliance to come about, given his dismal record of administering the State in three wasted terms. Will leaders like Ajmal and Prafulla Kumar Mahanta agreee to share the same platform with Gogoi? To see beyond Tarun Gogoi to save its Assam stronghold will be the biggest headache now for the Congress high command.