Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma Faces Political Turmoil Amid BJP’s Electoral Setbacks in Northeast

The key architect of BJP’s northeast strategy grapples with dissent as election results prompt soul-searching.
Amit Shah and Himanta Biswa Sarma at a roadshow in Silchar
Amit Shah and Himanta Biswa Sarma at a roadshow in SilcharX

New Delhi: The aftermath of the Lok Sabha elections presents a complex scenario for Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma — a key architect of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s strategy for northeast states. Despite his significant role in national campaigns, the performance of both the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the region has left much to be desired. Now, Sarma finds himself grappling with a tumultuous mix of emotions, as evident by his recent statements following the 2024 Lok Sabha election results.

In his home turf of Assam, the BJP managed to maintain its 2019 tally but fell short of making substantial gains. While Sarma was not directly involved in campaigning outside of Assam in the northeast, the electoral outcomes in the region have raised questions about his effectiveness in delivering results within his own domain.

Furthermore, the NDA suffered losses in Manipur, where it failed to retain the seats it had won in the previous election after considerable effort.

The NDA secured 16 seats, three fewer than the 19 it won in 2019. Despite winning the same number of seats as in 2019 — nine in Assam and two each in Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura — the BJP’s count decreased from 14 to 13.

During a press conference in Guwahati, immediately after the results, the chief minister remarked, “In Meghalaya, Nagaland and Manipur, a specific religious community emerged as a formidable opposition to the NDA. This factor played a pivotal role, given the substantial influence this community holds in those states. It is not merely a political setback; it is a reflection of the sway wielded by this religious group, which transcends conventional political divisions.”

He continued, “Typically, this religious community refrains from direct involvement in politics. However, this time, they actively participated, even in Assam, openly opposing the NDA.”

In the northeast, the BJP encountered setbacks, particularly in Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland — the states predominantly influenced by Christianity.

In Manipur, where ethnic tensions have simmered for over a year, the BJP and its ally, the Naga People’s Front (NPF), suffered significant defeats. In the Outer Manipur tribal-dominated constituency, the NPF candidate K Timothy Zimik was decisively defeated by Alfred Kanngam S. Arthur of the Congress.

Meanwhile, in the Inner Manipur constituency dominated by the Meitei community, JNU Professor Angomcha Bimol Akoijam secured victory over the BJP’s candidate Thounaojam Basantakumar Singh, who also serves as a minister in the state government.

In Meghalaya, the newly formed Voice of the People’s Party (VPP) triumphed over the Congress in the Shillong constituency — defeating incumbent MP Cincent Pala.

In addition, in the Tura constituency, Saleng A Sangma of the Congress defeated Agatha K. Sangma of the National People’s Party (NPP), former Union Minister and sister of Chief Minister Conrad Sangma.

Meanwhile, in Nagaland, the Congress staged a remarkable comeback — winning the lone seat. S Supongmeren Jamir of the Congress defeated Dr Chumben Murry, the candidate backed by the ruling alliance in Nagaland.

It appears that the Assam chief minister is still entangled in the religious debate, a characteristic trait of many BJP leaders.

Following the voters’ rebuke and the campaign strategy’s failure, it seems that some members within the party are also turning against him.

Jorhat, one of the three Assam seats that the Congress won, marked the most significant upset for the BJP. Gaurav Gogoi, son of former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, secured victory in the seat. After this significant win, BJP MLA Mrinal Saika openly criticized the party’s campaign tactics.

While congratulating Gogoi, Saikia attributed the loss in Jorhat to the “arrogance” displayed in the BJP’s campaign.

Saikia, a former member of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and a two-time BJP MLA from Khumtai, within the Kaziranga (formerly Kaliabor) Lok Sabha constituency, took to social media to express his views. “Special congratulations to Gaurav Gogoi for your amazing win. This result holds great significance for Jorhat in many ways. It underscores the fact that money, excessive publicity, an abundance of leaders and arrogant speeches do not always ensure electoral success.”

In response to Saikia’s congratulatory yet critical remarks, Sarma hinted at the possibility of Saikia defecting to the Congress.

This setback is particularly significant for Sarma, as the Jorhat seat had become a personal goal for him during the campaign.

Chief Minister Sarma had personally spearheaded the BJP’s electoral campaign in Jorhat, investing significant effort to prioritize the fight in the constituency. During the campaign, he emphasized Jorhat’s historical ties to the Ahom Kingdom, highlighting its substantial Ahom population.

Throughout the campaign, Sarma led numerous rallies and public meetings in the constituency — aiming to secure victory for the BJP.

However, the unforeseen defeat has now sparked rare dissent within the BJP, particularly due to the perceived setback faced by Himanta, who also holds the helm of the NDA alliance in the northeast.

Guwahati Plus has quoted the Assam chief minister as saying, “Mrinal Saikia did not extend congratulations to Narendra Modi for his victory, but he did offer his congratulations to the opposition party's winner, Gaurav Gogoi. Based on his actions, I believe his tenure as a BJP member will be short-lived.”

Saikia promptly responded to the chief minister on social media, stating, “I joined the BJP inspired by these great leaders, who taught us to respect others and give due respect to people irrespective of their political affiliation.”

“I learned today from HCM Himanta Biswa, sir, that congratulating someone from the Opposition is a crime nowadays,” the post added.

Sarma’s Journey as a Key Player for BJP in the Northeast

Since his pivotal move to the BJP in 2015, a decision that played a crucial role in the party’s historic triumph in Assam the following year, Himanta Biswa Sarma has been hailed as a strategic mastermind.

In the lead-up to the 2016 Assam assembly elections, he showcased his prowess as the BJP’s most reliable behind-the-scenes strategist.

This led to the defection of nine Congress MLAs to the BJP, significantly bolstering the party’s electoral prospects. This strategic shift paid off handsomely, as the BJP clinched its first-ever electoral victory in Assam, a state long considered a stronghold of the Congress.

Acknowledging Sarma’s invaluable contributions, the then BJP president, Amit Shah, entrusted him with the pivotal role of convenor of the newly established North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA).

This coalition, akin to a miniature version of the NDA, brought together almost all of the northeast’s regional parties under a unified umbrella, cementing the BJP’s influence in the region.

Sarma’s strategic acumen continued to yield dividends as the BJP orchestrated the defection of 43 Congress MLAs in Arunachal Pradesh, paving the way for the formation of a BJP-led government in the state.

This remarkable achievement was followed by the BJP’s historic victories in Manipur, marking its first government in the state and the ousting of the long-standing Left Front in Tripura — a state where they had held power for decades.

A wave of political change swept across the northeast, with Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram also witnessing the formation of NEDA/NDA-led governments.

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