Interview — Himanta Biswa Sarma — finance minister of Assam
Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, 49, is being lauded as Bharatiya Janata Party’s Northeast pointsman. When Sarma left the Congress party to join the BJP, he was appointed convener of the North East Development Alliance. His primary task was to bring disparate regional parties on board to fight the Congress, as the BJP was struggling to make its presence felt in many north-eastern states.
While the Congress had sidelined Sarma in 2015, the BJP saw huge potential in the beleaguered leader. Desperate to make Assam its base for expansion in the northeast, the BJP sniffed the right opportunity and overnight, from being former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s trusted lieutenant, Sarma became BJP president Amit Shah’s blue-eyed boy.
His expertise led to BJP forming its government in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura. In fact, pushing for an alliance with the IPFT (Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura) was a coup that proved to be a game-changer in the recently concluded Assembly elections in Tripura, that demolished the Left citadel after 25-years of rule.
On March 12 Sarma presented the state’s first ‘e-budget’ at the Legislative Assembly in Guwahati. While legislators were provided tablets with details of the budget, the media was given USB sticks, doing away with the traditional practice of printed booklets.
Sarma speaks to Gulf News, underplaying his contribution in scripting success stories for the BJP.
GULF NEWS: Assam has acquired the distinction of being the second in the country after Andhra Pradesh to present an e-budget. How does that help?
HIMANTA BISWA SARMA: The finance department had called for suggestions from the public regarding the budget provisions, and on basis of the feedback the digital budget was developed, which will be available for the masses on Google app. We have taken great steps in making it future ready and citizen-friendly, so that it is easy to use provisions of sustainable development goals.
You are being referred to as the ‘Chanakya’ of the Northeast. Who do you consider your political guru and who are you now influenced by?
I should not be equated with Chanakya, the great Indian philosopher. I joined politics when Congress party leader Hiteshwar Saikia was the chief minister of Assam. I learnt the ABCD of politics during that period. One also learns gradually by meeting and interacting with people. As for now, I have to report to BJP’s general secretary Ram Madhav and find Amit Shah to be a very hands-on person, who keeps track of entire India. Most decisions come from him.
Would you say your role in the present elections was the high point of your political career?
I intend to continue in politics for another few decades, in which one might see many ups and downs. So, one cannot really pinpoint a high point.
From being the Congress’ trusted lieutenant to becoming an authoritative figure in BJP, how do you define your Assam journey?
I joined BJP in 2015 to take revenge on the Congress because it humiliated me in many ways. After leaving, when I started meeting people in the BJP, I realised that it was absolutely different from the Congress party. Here (in BJP), one could go and meet senior leaders. I appreciate its ideology, its commitment towards people and how it functions. BJP has a non-feudalistic mindset where the servant-master relationship does not exist. There is a sense of individual pride and freedom. All this led me to believe that I had wasted 23 years of my life in Congress.
Your appointment as BJP’s Northeast strategist helped the party in dethroning the Left Front in Tripura. What’s your winning formula?
I cannot give credit (for the win) to myself. Our strategy in the Northeast was not drawn overnight. Immediately after the Assam elections, we started preparations for elections in northeastern states. Ultimately, it was the people who voted for the BJP, impressed by its philosophy and development activities carried out in the state at the behest of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Northeast has seen unprecedented growth in the last three years. Apart from the macro-level, one has to also do micro-level adjustments. In Tripura, the merger of Trinamool Congress with BJP and alliance with IPFT (Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura) were two strategic decisions that paid off.
Will a breakthrough in West Bengal be the next big news, and will it be easy to dethrone chief minister Mamata Banerjee?
I think BJP can come to power in West Bengal in 2019. But while our idea is not to dethrone anyone, we would certainly like to see the formation of BJP in Bengal.
People in Northeast are a mix of different cultures and ethnic groups. After the beef ban, concerns were raised in various quarters over its diktat. How did your party manage to pacify the people on what to eat and what not to eat?
The Northeast is a mix of people — some who eat beef and some who do not. In a region with diverse communities and ethnic identities, we approached and convinced people by clarifying that development was our main motto and beef was a non-issue.
At times, north-eastern people are racially targeted in other states leading to anger and reservation towards the heartland. What steps should be taken to stop this alienation?
There needs to be a better understanding regarding diverse cultures and facial characteristics of people coming from different parts of the country, so that they are not treated like aliens. Cultural exchanges between states, especially among the youth, could play an important role. Also, law enforcement agencies need to be strong, and stringent punishment in cases of violence against anyone should send a strong message to those who want to promote racial discrimination.
• Himanta Biswa Sarma was born on February 1, 1969 in Jorhat, Assam.
• On completing school, he joined Cotton College, Guwahati, finishing his post graduation in political science — 1992.
• Obtained a law degree from Government Law College and Ph.d from Guwahati University.
• Practised law at Guwahati High Court — 1996-2001.
• Joined the Congress and served as Member of Assam Legislative Assembly from Jalukbari constituency — 2001-2015.
• Held important portfolios including agriculture, planning & development, finance, health and education.
• Joined the Bharatiya Janata Party — 2015.
• Won the Assembly elections for the fourth time and sworn in as Cabinet minister — 2016.