Assam health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, BJP’s key strategist in the northeast, returned to his residence at 2 am after campaigning but was ready at 7 am. Scores of party workers gathered at Sarma’s bungalow in Guwahati while he spoke with Akhilesh Singh. Excerpts from the interview:
Do you see Congress-AIUDF combine cornering seats as some of the new parties erode your Assamese vote base?
A: AIUDF and Congress had contested Lok Sabha elections on 1:1 basis. People of Assam know AIUDF leader Badruddin Ajmal is not Assamese. He is an Indian, but not Assamese. You have to make a distinction.
So in Assam, right from 1935, late Gopinath Bordoloi started fighting with Sarshadullah Khan. So, Muslim League vs Congress fight went on till 1982 under the aegis of Congress. This is a real battle in Assam, which we call civilisational conflict. When Indira Gandhi came, she changed the direction. So, the battle was fought by AASU and AGP from 1979 onwards.
Now, it is BJP. So this civilisational fight, cultural conflict between ‘miyan’ (Bangla speaking Muslims) and Assamese are not in the least created by BJP. This is independent of what is going on, right wing and left wing in India.
But where will this conflict end?
A: They (miyan) have to change their mindset. Assamese people give birth to 2-3 people, they give birth to 12-14. As a result, we are losing our space. They have to change themselves. They go to madrasas. We go to normal schools. We cannot change, we cannot go to madrasas. They have to change.
Now, Assamese is a language, one has to study it. You cannot create your own language. Ajmal is only a symbol. Sarshadullah was it in 1935. Ghulam Usmani in 1979 and Ajmal today.
BJP came to office in 2016 with Hindu Assamese voting overwhelmingly for it. What if Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Raijor Dol chip away at that vote?
A: The two are insignificant. They will never touch our traditional vote. In 2016, when Sarbananda Sonowal brought up regionalist people in the fold, people started thinking BJP is AJP and vice versa. BJP is a new version of AJP, this is what the people thought. But the LS elections and panchayat polls showed that these are two separate ideologies and ideas.
You have been a crowd puller as one can see in your rallies. Some people see you as the most popular leader, a possible CM this time.
A: It doesn’t matter. First of all, even if I am ambitious and Amit bhai (Amit Shah) says no, you will not become… then what can I do. I have been in politics for 20 years. I have learnt that where there is nothing to be gained, there’s no use spending energy. Whatever Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit bhai say, happens.
Whatever they say, without question, I shall follow. If I could gain something by lobbying in pursuit of that ambition, I would do it (chuckles). They have my full record.
So, for Assam, if they feel Himanta is the right man, they will give it to me. If they feel Sonowal is the right man, they will give it to him.
You said this time also that you were not keen on fighting elections.
A: I had said so in the beginning so that there is no confusion. But the high command said, you must fight. The CM and I share a great rapport. Whatever arrangements are made, there will be no tussle between him and me. Whatever perception outsiders have, the CM and I have a phone call every day at 7 am and begin our work only after that. We are on very friendly terms.
Assam was one of the worst-hit states by the anti-CAA/NRC protests. However, it is not seen as a major issue in the polls. BJP is also silent on CAA during the campaign despite highlighting it in West Bengal.
A: People don’t want to hear of it. See, this is human psychology. When Covid-19 hadn’t started, then it was CAA-NRC all the way. But when we were in lockdown and whatever publicity CAA had garnered, people felt new people are coming in from Bangladesh.
People thought this Act is not intended to regularise those in our villages, but those who are coming from outside. So, we started explaining to people, the safety protocols for Covid-19 as well as the nuances of CAA. This is why most people don’t want to talk about CAA-NRC.