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Sarma hints at quitting ministry

- Assam CM admits crisis in party has brought governance to a standstill, partymen on tenterhooks

Guwahati, May 24: The infighting within the Assam Congress Legislature Party is set to take a serious turn with health and education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma hinting at quitting the Tarun Gogoi ministry.

“You can draw your own conclusion,” Sarma told The Telegraph today after dropping broad hints about quitting the ministry, most likely by June 1, the day the party is planning to celebrate the Congress-led government’s third year of its third term.

In an interview to a television channel last night, Sarma had said he had some tasks left such as the announcement of matric results, order for provincialisation of schools and issues related to de-recognition of medical colleges. “These issues will be settled by May 31. After that I don’t know whether I will be there (in the ministry) or not,” he added.

Sarma also questioned the campaign strategy adopted for the Lok Sabha polls, which saw the Congress down to three seats from seven in 2009.

“Instead of flagging the achievements of the health and education department, the state government mainly focused on its plans. We did not play up our strength. It seems it was not played up because these departments were handled by me, but these were after all the achievements of our chief minister, our government. Why didn’t we take credit for these?” he asked.

A former Congress MP, trying to put things in perspective, said since Sarma has openly revolted against Gogoi, it would be untenable for both to continue in the same ministry.

“Since the high command has asked Gogoi to continue despite his offer to resign, Sarma has no option but to quit to appear more credible in the eyes of his followers and those watching him. The Congress in Assam is headed for utter chaos because of this intense power struggle. A lot of external factors, including a new NDA regime at the Centre, will also come into play. You have to see the unfolding political situation in its entirety,” the senior Congress leader warned.

Sarma had yesterday called Gogoi useless and had said he would not serve under him and was not afraid of getting sacked, before setting a 5pm deadline for Gogoi to call any of the four senior MLAs named by him if he were to save his government. After Gogoi called, the MLAs belonging to Sarma camp decided to temporarily shelve their Raj Bhavan visit.

Sarma’s quit threat has left party circles wondering and worried just as his threat to go to Raj Bhavan with his MLA supporters to convey their lack of faith in Gogoi’s leadership had left the party on tenterhooks yesterday.

Members of the Gogoi camp said they were closely watching his moves. “We don’t know what he has up his sleeve. One moment he is talking of reconciliation, the next moment he wants change. There is a lot of contradictions in the statement he made yesterday,” one of them said. “The chief minister has informed the high command that he would continue only if he gets a free hand to contain dissidence,” he added.

Party insiders said Sarma’s options now include working for the party or floating a new party or splitting the party and becoming the chief minister. Gogoi, too, would not like to run a lame duck government, making the situation quite unpredictable, they said.

Gogoi did not react to media queries after his meeting with caretaker Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi this morning. “I will not react to anything,” he said when asked about Sarma’s open criticism of him.

In the evening, Gogoi asked party legislators and ministers camping in Delhi to leave the capital. The directive came a day after Sarma accused him of staging a resignation drama in Delhi by asking some legislators and ministers to raise a clamour for his continuance.

The developments have understandably left party leaders worried. Said Haren Das, chairman of the media department, “As a humble soldier of the party, I can only say that we have become the laughing stock, cutting a sorry figure in public. If these issues are not resolved in a mature manner and promptly it will be difficult for us to retain power in 2016. Our leaders should think about the around 20 lakh members who are insecure about the future of the party in the state.”