Himanta & BJP ready to hug
New Delhi, Aug. 23: Dissident Congress leader and former Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma today announced that he would join the BJP in the next few days along with a "good number of MLAs".
Sarma called on party president Amit Shah with Assam BJP president Siddhartha Bhattacharya this evening and expressed his desire to join the party. Shah said he would "more than" welcome him.
A formal announcement is expected shortly after the BJP goes through its quotidian ritual of getting the "consent" of the state party leaders.
Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi today described Sarma's decision to join the BJP as his "personal decision for personal benefit".
Shortly after calling on Shah, Sarma told reporters, "I expressed my willingness to work under the strong leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and national president Amit Shah and they have accepted it."
He announced his decision on his Facebook site: "Following massive calls over the past months from people across Assam hailing from all communities, will be formally joining the BJP for a resurgent Assam and Northeast....urging all of you here to join hands for a resurgent Assam and Northeast."
BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, the central minder for Assam, and Ramlal, the general secretary (organisation), were present at the meeting.
Sarma, who has come under a cloud of suspicion in the Louis Berger scam, had resigned from chief minister Tarun Gogoi's cabinet last year. "I joined politics to make Assam one of the top 5 states. From 2011, Assam has only seen divisive politics, not development," he said.
He told The Telegraph, "It's not just four Congress MLAs, double that number will join me."
However, sources said there were two major caveats to the admission of Sarma into the BJP. One, he will not be the chief ministerial candidate of the BJP. Two, the former Congress minister's followers will not necessarily be given tickets for the 2016 elections.
"It was made clear at the meeting that the chief minister candidate will be from the BJP," BJP Assam unit president Siddhartha Bhattacharya told The Telegraph. Bhattacharya also said Sarma was told that he would not be able to ask the BJP leadership for tickets for his followers.
The candid message to Sarma would be music to the ears of leaders like sports minister Sarbananda Sonowal, perhaps even seniors like Bhattacharya.
Sources said there were lessons from the Delhi elections where imposition of Kiran Bedi turned out to be a disaster, paving way for Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party to post a scintillating victory.
As BJP leaders met Shah this evening, there was suspense over what would be discussed. Sources said even Bhattacharya did not know the agenda. There was speculation that the BJP central leadership was unhappy with the party's performance in the recent polls for the Tiwa Autonomous Council which the Congress swept.
Bhattacharya said the formalities to induct Sarma and other Congress MLAs into the BJP would be completed in the state later this week. "He is a mass leader and will further strengthen the base of the party that has been cultivated in the past year. Let's not ask since when he has been in contact with us. What's important is that he is with us now."
Asked how the BJP would live down the allegations that surfaced against Sarma in the Saradha scam, a source said, "We have done our homework, there is no substance in the charges."
The BJP is playing for high stakes in the Assam polls, due next year with Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and believes it has a "reasonably good chance" of unseating Gogoi.
Sources said Sarma - described as the "second most important Congress leader" in Assam - was a "big catch" and imbued with the potential to enfeeble the Congress's organisational apparatuses. "Our assessment is at any given time, he can spirit away 25 Congress MLAs," the source said.
The BJP's Assam structures have been largely built on the shoulders of inductees from the AGP because its ranks have never thrown up a leader of substance so far.
Sarma would be its first big acquisition from the Congress. BJP sources also said since Sarma had spearheaded a campaign for the chief minister's ouster, he would give their prospective campaign the much needed "ballast" against Congress rule.
Senior BJP leader and Guwahati MP Bijoya Chakravarty today welcomed Sarma's decision to join the party. "Sarma is no doubt a powerful and an effective leader and his joining the party will definitely have a positive impact," Chakravarty said in Guwahati.
Seemingly unperturbed by the development, Assam PCC president Anjan Dutta told reporters at Rajiv Bhawan in Guwahati this evening that no one is indispensable in a party like the Congress. "The Congress's mantra is to remain united and fight the electoral battle. Whether it is chief minister Tarun Gogoi or myself, the party always comes first. We are not thinking the way the media is - that Sarma's quitting is a big blow for the Congress," Dutta said.
He claimed that he has already received phone calls from a few BJP leaders expressing their desire to join the Congress in view of the latest development.
The Congress is going ahead with its national highway blockade tomorrow across the state in protest against its fast-deteriorating condition. The National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited, a central government company, has taken over the maintenance of the highway.
Dutta and Sarma were to "jointly participate" in the blockade in Silchar tomorrow morning but Dutta will now be flying alone.