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North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) convener Himanta Biswa Sarma was on Sunday named the next chief minister of Assam, pipping incumbent Sarbananda Sonowal to the top post, after being elected unanimously as the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislature party.
The chief minister-designate later called on governor Jagdish Mukhi at the Raj Bhawan and staked claim to form government. The governor will administer him the oath of office on Monday, people aware of the developments said.
The decision to pick Sarma as the Assam CM was taken at the first legislature party meeting of the 60 newly elected MLAs of the BJP held at the state assembly after days of backroom lobbying in Guwahati and official meetings in Delhi following the announcement of assembly poll results on May 2.
Sarma’s name as the BJP’s legislature party leader was announced by Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar who, along with the party’s national general secretary Arun Singh, was the central observer for the meeting.
“I asked other MLAs if they had any other names in mind. No other name was suggested. Since the name of Sarma, a senior minister in our state government was the only one that was proposed, he is unanimously chosen as the legislature party leader,” Tomar said after the meeting.
Sarma’s name for the post was proposed by Sonowal and seconded by BJP state president Ranjeet Kumar Dass. It was also supported by newly elected MLA from Halflong, Nandita Golosa.
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On Saturday, the two main claimants to the top post, Sonowal and senior minister Sarma, were summoned by the party leadership to Delhi, where they held several rounds of meetings with BJP national president JP Nadda and others. Both leaders returned to Guwahati late on Saturday night in the same flight.
BJP office bearers in the know of the developments said the leadership decided in Sarma’s favour after the discussions in the Capital. Sonowal, who was part of the first Narendra Modi government at the Centre, is likely to be accommodated in the Union Cabinet again at a later date, they said on condition of anonymity.
“With fragrance of Assam in my heart and love of my wonderful people in my veins, I offer my deepest gratitude to you all. I would have not been what I am had it not been for your pious faith in me. On this day, I vow to work with and for each one of you with greater passion,” Sarma tweeted after the formal announcement on Sunday.
At the BJP legislature party meeting, Sarma praised Sonowal for proposing his name for the CM post and thanked him for giving him several important responsibilities that allowed him to work for the people of Assam.
“I am confident Sarma will lead the state efficiently. I am also sure that with his long political expertise, in the coming days, he will be able to make Assam one of the leading states in India,” Sonowal said at the meeting.
Both Sarma and Sonowal later went together to the Raj Bhawan where the former formally staked his claim to form the next government. The oath-taking ceremony will be held at noon on Monday in which few ministers from allies Asom Gana Parishad and United Peoples’ Party Liberal are also expected to be sworn in, people aware of the developments said.
“Many congratulations to Himanta Biswa Sarma on being elected as the next chief minister of Assam. Our only vision must be to work in tandem to make Assam one of the most developed states in India,” Assam Congress president Ripun Bora tweeted.
Earlier on Sunday morning, Sonowal went to the Raj Bhawan, where he submitted his resignation to the governor before proceeding with Sarma in the same vehicle to take part in the meeting of the newly elected legislators.
Sunday’s development marks a major landmark in Sarma’s sharp rise within the BJP, a party which he joined in 2015 after parting ways with then Congress chief minister Tarun Gogoi, in whose cabinet he was a minister for three consecutive terms since 2001.
Watch | BJP ends suspense, announces Assam CM name; Himanta Sarma gets top job
Sarma played a crucial role in the BJP forming its first government in Assam in 2016 and was allotted four important ministries — finance, health, education and public works department (PWD) — in the Sonowal cabinet.
As convener of NEDA, the conglomeration of anti-Congress regional parties in the Northeast, Sarma was also responsible for the BJP forming governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura, and becoming part of the ruling coalition in Nagaland and Meghalaya in the past few years.
Despite criticism from some, Sarma earned mass support with the way he handled the Covid-19 crisis, visiting patients in hospitals, overseeing setting up of Covid care centres and ensuring proper care for those infected.
He carried forward that goodwill during the assembly election campaign, addressing rallies in all parts of the state and conducting road shows where thousands turned up to watch him.
Sarma also exercised influence in the selection of candidates and actively campaigned for most, ensuring another return to power for the BJP. People aware of the matter said he enjoys the support of at least 40 of the new MLAs, a big reason that tilted the balance in his favour for the CM’s post.
“Sarma is the most aggressive voice of Hindutva in Assam politics. He helped in polarisation of votes in this election by targeting Badruddin Ajmal’s party All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and Congress for their poll tie-up. Sarma was also the one who conceptualised and implemented competitive populist schemes that helped the BJP reach out to all sections of voters,” said Akhil Ranjan Dutta, professor of political science, Gauhati University.
“Sarma’s elevation to the CM’s post shows the BJP leadership is keeping an eye on the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. As convener of NEDA, he would play a crucial role in the BJP’s fortunes in Assam and all other states in the Northeast,” he added.
The delay in the announcement of the CM’s name and formation of the next government despite a clear mandate at a time when the state is witnessing a rapid rise in new Covid-19 cases and deaths had led to criticism of the BJP by opposition parties.
The Assam assembly has a total of 126 seats. While the BJP got 60 seat this time, same as its figure in 2016, its allies Asom Gana Parishad and United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) won 9 and 6 seats, respectively, taking the alliance’s total to 75 seats.