States 360º: Assam - Story of a yatra, a jittery CM, and an opposition united

The show of unity surprised the media, which had been feeding on reports that the opposition alliance had collapsed, specially with the TMC contesting elections on its own in West Bengal

Rahul Gandhi addresses a Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra gathering in Assam
Rahul Gandhi addresses a Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra gathering in Assam

Uttam Sengupta

Enfant terrible?

Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has been closely monitoring the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, which passed through Assam this week. The street smart and media savvy Sarma has been mocking Rahul Gandhi as Ravana, and on Wednesday took to X to claim that not even 2,000 people had gathered for the yatra anywhere in the state. "Assam is with Ram, not Ravana," he gloated.

His government refused permission for the yatra to enter Guwahati, and to follow the same route that BJP national president J.P. Nadda had taken just two weeks ago. As justification, the chief minister righteously said there were medical colleges and nursing homes in the city, prompting Yogendra Yadav to snigger that they clearly did not exist two weeks ago when the BJP president held a roadshow.

Three days before the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra was due to start from Manipur on 14 January, Sarma claimed his government was not aware that the yatra would pass through Assam. He had asked the chief secretary and the director-general of police, but both had denied that permission had been sought for the yatra.

“If they seek permission, the government will give its consent,” he asserted condescendingly, adding that permission would be given provided the yatra "did not stray from the national highway and enter the cities”. Moments later, he added another caveat. If the yatra entered cities, it should wind up by 8.00 am. If the yatra failed to follow this rule, he asserted, his government would withdraw security and "do nothing". A few months after the election, however, he would get "them" arrested.

Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma has mocked the 'small' crowds that Rahul Gandhi has been drawing
Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma has mocked the 'small' crowds that Rahul Gandhi has been drawing

Strangely, on the same day that Biswa Sarma claimed his government had no clue about the yatra, the Congress said the Assam government had denied permission for a night's stay (in containers) on public grounds for its leaders. Leader of the Opposition Debabrata Saikia said the party was trying to make arrangements for the containers to be parked on "private farmland" at night.

A school in Dhemaji district, which had agreed to allow the containers to be parked at night on the school grounds, also withdrew permission at the last moment.  A college in Jorhat, too, refused permission to park the containers on its playground.

More trouble was to follow. An FIR was registered at Jorhat against the yatra and its chief organiser K.B. Byju for allegedly deviating from the permitted route and causing a minor stampede. Saikia told the media that the assigned route had turned out to be too small for an unexpectedly large gathering, forcing the yatra to take a "detour by just a few metres". Sarma, he added, was unnerved at the warmth and response the yatra was generating, and was now trying to derail it.

Riled by "BJP women" making a beeline to see Rahul Gandhi, the administration in Lakhimpur ordered block offices to open on a Sunday and mobilise women, promising to disburse loans to each of them. No loan was disbursed and the women were sent off after waiting for hours and filling up forms. But the ploy was partially successful, as the women were kept occupied at block offices when the yatra passed through.

Vandalising posters and buntings, and attacks on Jairam Ramesh and Assam Congress chief Bhupen Bora followed, giving Bora a bloody nose. Gandhi was heckled by BJP supporters chanting "Modi Modi", and BJP’s IT cell chief smugly posted that the Congress leader had lost his cool, when he had actually got off the bus and waded into the crowd to engage with the hecklers, but they declined. Eventually. Gandhi left the spot in the bus, directing flying kisses at the mob.


Seat-sharing a done deal

The United Opposition Forum (UOF), an alliance of 15 opposition parties in Assam, including the Congress, Trinamool Congress (TMC), CPI, CPI(M) and JD(U), all partners in the INDIA coalition, joined the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra in Assam at various places. Their party flags fluttered along with the Congress and the leaders of the 15 parties called on Gandhi to discuss issues confronting people in Assam.

The show of unity surprised the media, which had been feeding on reports that the opposition alliance had collapsed. This was lent credence by Mamata Banerjee asserting on Wednesday that the TMC would be contesting the general elections on its own in West Bengal, raising the spectre of a triangular contest in the 18 Lok Sabha seats that the BJP won last time in the state, if not in all the seats.

In Assam, however, the UOF had decided as far back as December 2023 that it would field a commonly agreed upon candidate in all the state's 14 Lok Sabha constituencies, nine of which were won by the BJP in 2019. Following a convention of the forum at Dhubri then, it was said at least 10 of the 15 parties in the UOF were unlikely to field any candidate for the Lok Sabha. A resolution was passed unanimously to field a consensus candidate.

Significantly, the forum had then conveyed that the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) headed by perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal would be kept out because of its suspected nexus with the BJP. AIUDF is the ‘B’ team of the BJP, it was said, for allegedly helping the BJP to retain power in the state.  

The 15 parties in the UOF include the TMC, the CPI, the CPI (M), Aam Aadmi Party, Janata Dal (United), Assam Jatiya Parishad, and the Akhil Gogoi-led Raijor Dal.


The most corrupt CM?

The sharp attack by Gandhi on Sarma as the "most corrupt chief minister" of India, who could teach a thing or two to other BJP chief ministers, obviously did not go down well with the chief minister. Rarely has he been attacked so sharply in the state as when Gandhi accused him of promoting his wife and children’s companies and business interests.

The CM's son threatened to file a defamation case against the Congress leader even as Biswa Sarma tried to be facetious and said, “Pehle toh yeh mujhse khali darta tha; par ab toh mera bachcha se bhi darne laga hai (until now, he was scared only of me, but now he is scared of even my children)."

“You go to Kaziranga and you will be told that the chief minister has land there; you have paan in the evening, you will be told that it is the chief minister’s paan; you watch TV at night and it will be the chief minister’s TV,” mocked Gandhi, referring to the various businesses of the CM and his family in the state.

In July 2015, when Biswa Sarma was still a minister in the state's Congress government, the BJP released a booklet on ‘Water Supply Scam 2010 in Goa and Guwahati’. The booklet alleged that Sarma, who was the minister in charge of Guwahati, was a key suspect in what came to be known as the Louis Berger scam, involving the American construction management company.

The US department of Justice had filed a case against the company, alleging that it had bribed unnamed officials in Goa and Assam almost $1 million to secure the contract. The chargesheet also mentioned that a ‘minister’ had been paid, without mentioning any name.

When Louis Berger was selected as a consultant in 2008-09, “Himanta Biswa Sarma was the GDD minister and Ashish Kumar Bhutani was the GDD secretary”, the booklet quoted Dhiren Barua, head of the Guwahati Municipal Development Authority as saying. Sarbananda Sonowal, then a Union minister, wondered why Congress chief minister Tarun Gogoi was silent on the scam.

BJP Assam president Siddharta Bhattacharya dismissed reports that Sarma had fallen out with Gogoi and was about to join the BJP. The BJP’s booklet had "literally put an end" to that speculation. A month later, Sarma joined the BJP in December 2015.

Gogoi did order a CID inquiry, but the Congress government lost the election next year, and the inquiry report was buried despite monitoring by the high court. The colourful chief minister of Assam has been accused of various other scams since then, including the Saradha scam, but he has been whitewashed, it would appear.


Left Congress for ‘love’

Two days before Himanta Biswa Sarma joined the BJP, revealed Assam Congress chief Bhupen Borah, Sarma asked Borah to leave the Congress too. Borah, a contemporary of HBS with both starting their political careers together, tried to dissuade him, but Sarma reportedly said he had no choice.

Sarma’s wife (by implication because Borah did not say so explicitly) apparently told her husband that while she loved him, she was not ready to go to jail for his actions. “This is the first time I am revealing this,” Borah told media persons. Two days later during the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, BJP supporters — hired goons, claimed Congress leaders — gave the APCC chief his bloody nose.


Much ado about nothing?

Does anyone need permission to visit a temple? By not allowing Rahul Gandhi to visit the birthplace of Srimanta Sankardeva and Naamghar, Borduwa Thaan in Nagaon, did the BJP and Himanta Biswa Sarma score any political point? It was a juvenile act by the Assam chief minister and the police to have allowed the local Congress MP and MLA to visit the holy shrine, but not Gandhi.

On his return, MP Gaurav Gogoi reported that he found the pujari (priest) waiting for Rahul Gandhi, who was expected at the satra (shrine) at 8.00 am, and nobody else was there. There was no programme either, as they had been told while the yatra was being blocked.

The lame explanation given was that the chief minister did not want any distraction until Prime Minister Narendra Modi completed the consecration of the Ram Temple. There should be "no competition between Bhagwan Ram and Sankardeva", it was said.

Sankarardeva (b. 1449) is an icon in the state, having founded the neo-Vaishnava Bhakti movement that promoted universal brotherhood and embraced people from diverse castes. He also established cultural institutions like namghars (prayer halls) and satras which are centres for congregational prayers. They also continue to play a pivotal role in promoting literature, music, theatre, dance, manuscript-writing, painting and crafts.

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