In a country populated by politicians and hopefuls battling it out for party tickets, staying relevant is a life skill. This is a lesson that Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has clearly taken to heart.
Over the years, Sarma has built something of a reputation for himself. Not for his good works or able administration, but for off-kilter statements to the media or on social media.
One day, he might compare Rahul Gandhi . The next, he may hit out at a former US president by his state police will prioritise going after the “many Hussein Obamas in India”. Or he might for the rising price of vegetables in Assam.
The result? A handful of headlines and thousands of followers on social media. His Twitter followers spiked from 50,000 to 20 lakh in the last seven years.
And across states, the Congress-turned-BJP leader makes it to newspapers for all the things he says. Most recently, he warned farmers that he was cracking down on “fertiliser jihad”. A sinister plot, we assume, hatched by Muslim farmers in Assam against...Hindus?
But this is par for the course for Sarma. In fact, it’s a reputation he’s cultivated over the years.
From loud to louder
Sarma’s journey in politics began with the All Assam Students’ Union when he was still in school in the early 1980s. When the movement concluded with the signing of the Assam Accord, he skipped into college politics at Guwahati’s prestigious Cotton College. He was elected to the post of general secretary three times of the All Guwahati Students’ Union, the strongest district-level unit of AASU.
When his AASU association ended for reasons unknown, Sarma joined the Congress, where he remained until he switched to the BJP in 2015. He had once a “hardcore” Congressman who “religious fundamentalism”. He was occasionally blunt back then – “blood” flows through Gujarat’s pipes – but his vocal pronouncements were far more restrained.
But there were signs. In 2014, when Sarma and Congress CM Tarun Gogoi clashed within the Congress party, Sarma resigned as minister from Gogoi’s cabinet. That’s around when he began engaging with random Twitter users. When someone asked if he was hurting Gogoi by rebelling against him, Sarma infamously replied, “Who care.”
That’s not to say Sarma wasn’t already a controversial figure. He was in a “Rs 1,000 crore scam” and had been in the Louis Berger water supply scam.
Sarma joined the BJP in September 2015. There was marked change in his public persona, perhaps to fit in with his new party and its parent organisation, the RSS. He he’d “regularly” attended an RSS shakha in the 1970s and started using so-called Hindu philosophy to make his points.
In 2017, for example, Sarma said at a function that people due to “karmic deficiency in past life”. When he was criticised on Twitter, he doubled down.
He later he had “only repeated what is in the Gita”.
This was also the year when he took issue with Rahul Gandhi feeding biscuits to his dog.
The BJP’s new boy has also toed the party line in losing no opportunity to vilify Muslims. He’s specifically of Muslims when they’re involved in crimes and against those from his state who attended the 2020 Tablighi event in Delhi. In 2021, when “illegal” Bengali-speaking Muslims were evicted from Gorukhuti, he as an act of “revenge”. More recently, in June, he “fertiliser jihad” to describe the state’s Bengali Muslims.
This is also how he focuses on Assam “identity”, pitching it against Miya Muslims – even targeting their and . He’s also used this to pitch for how Assam’s delimitation exercise will help the state’s “indigenous” communities in the electoral process.
He’s even of “openly challenging Assamese culture and language and the composite Indian culture”. During the assembly election in 2021, he said the BJP didn’t need the community’s votes as Miyas are “very very communal and fundamental”.
Back in 2016, during discussions surrounding the Citizenship Amendment Bill, Sarma asked the people of Assam to choose between two groups, “the 1-1.5 lakh people or the 55 lakh people” – to Muslim and Hindu migrants in his state.
On a broader level, Sarma has called his erstwhile party, the Congress, the . In the same breath, he said his state was facing “threat of infiltration from Bangladesh” on a daily basis. In February this year, he said Rahul Gandhi and Waris Punjab De leader Amritpal Singh speak the same “divisive language to disintegrate the sanctity of Akhand Bharat”.
He’s also previously spoken out on the Uniform Civil Code.
Sarma also often launches a no holds barred attack on those who criticise his policies.
Two years ago, he the rise in “encounters” in Assam under his watch, saying it should “be a pattern” if someone tries to escape
During the pandemic, his government decided to gift a radio set to every Covid patient, possibly to . When leading daily Asomiya Pratidin described this decision as “bizarre”, Sarma accused its owner of “blackmailing people”.
This list is, of course, far from exhaustive. But this is Sarma’s shtick – and he’s standing by it.