‘They know everyone and have everyone's horoscope. If they feel Himanta Biswa Sarma is the right man for Assam, they will give it to me, if they feel Sarbananda Sonowal is the right man, they will give it to him, or if they feel both of them are not good, let's bring another person’
Bharatiya Janata Party leader Himanta Biswa Sarma on Thursday said any "lobbying" before Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Home Minister Amit Shah has no value and that he will go by their decision on whether incumbent Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, he or any third person will head the ruling alliance if it retains power in Assam.
Seen as a strong probable for the chief minister's post after the BJP decided not to name its candidate for the top seat, Sarma also framed the electoral contest between the saffron combine and the Congress-All India United Democratic Front alliance as part of the "civilisational conflict" between the Assamese and 'Miya' cultures in the state.
The Congress and then the All Assam Students' Union and the Asom Gana Parishad fought to save this identity earlier, and now the BJP is fighting to protect the native culture, he said.
AIUDF's chief Badruddin Ajmal symbolises the civilisational conflict, he told PTI in an interview, adding that this fight has been going on in Assam since the days of the contest between the Congress and the Muslim League in 1930s, and the Assamese people have to keep fighting to maintain their living space, or else they will be "devoured".
Asked about the BJP's decision to not project any CM candidate, Sarma said only the central leadership can answer questions about it and noted he had announced that he would not contest the assembly polls to dispel any confusion about his eying the top seat but changed his mind after the party told him so.
To a query about his chief ministerial ambition, he said, "What difference does it make even if I have ambitions? If PM and Amitbhai decide that I will not be (CM), then can I become one? You don't think over things that bring no benefits. At the end of the day I have to follow whatever PM and Amitbhai decide. I have to go by whatever they say without questioning. So why I should put my mind to it.
"Any lobbying before the PM and Amit bhai has no value. They know everyone and have everyone's horoscope. If they feel Himanta Biswa Sarma is the right man for Assam, they will give it to me, if they feel Sarbananda Sonowal is the right man, they will give it to him, or if they feel both of them are not good, let's bring another person... So tell me if it is any good even if I or Sarbananda Sonowal keep thinking about or give thousands of press interviews."
The BJP-led NDA, which had won 86 seats in the 126-member assembly in 2016, will improve on its tally "marginally" and the saffron party "significantly" as it is fighting more seats this time, he added.
The Congress-AIDUF alliance may cost the BJP around six seats in the lower and central Assam but the opposition will lose more seats in upper and north regions of the state as people are "crazy" to stop Ajmal from coming to power, he said.
Sarma has been a member of the state assembly since 2001 and quit the Congress in 2015 to join the BJP. He is seen as the most powerful minister in the Sonowal-led government and as someone who has played an important role in the saffron party's rise in the entire northeast region.
He asserted that he and Sonowal have best of relations and talk every morning.
Targeting his former party, he said the Congress is no longer a cohesive organisation, and claimed that these elections will mark the "final downhill" journey of the party whose footprint has shrunk considerably over the last few years.
"Many Congress people meet me at my home. The party has sold all its A plus seats (having a high winning probability). I can say that on record because this is what people will say after the polls," Sarma alleged.
The Congress will lose six to seven of its strong seats due to its alliance with Ajmal, and cited the example of Nazira seat where, he suggested, the leader of opposition Debabrata Saikia, son of former chief minister Hiteswar Saikia, may lose.
Sarma said had the Congress announced the alliance after the first phase, when the polls will be held in 47 seats with relatively low Muslim population, then it would have been a different ball game altogether.
Targeting Ajmal, he said, "Ajmal symbolises civilisational conflict. Ajmal era will be over tomorrow and some other Ajmal will come. This fight will continue in Assam. This is a question of our identity. We have to keep fighting.... You must see this independently of what is going on between the right wing and the left wing in India. This is a completely different phenomena having nothing to do with national politics.
"In Assam you cannot avoid these fights. Our cultures are different and reconciliation is not easily possible."
'Miya' in Assam is a reference for mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims, who have a sizeable presence in 30 to 40 assembly seats in the state. Ajmal, a Lok Sabha member, enjoys considerable sway over the community, and is accused by the BJP of protecting Bangladeshi infiltrators and pushing his cultural and political agenda on the back of an increase in their numbers over the decades.
Ajmal has often accused the BJP of pushing a fake narrative against him, alleging that the saffron party has been doing so to polarise voters.
Though identity is a key plank for the BJP, the party is also strongly banking on development work undertaken by its government in the state, Sarma said, adding that the Congress cannot counter its narrative by asking about roads and schools as they have been built in large numbers as well.
The Assam government's Covid-19 management and its Orunodoi welfare scheme under which 22 lakh disadvantaged women are given Rs 830 per month have caught the people's imagination, he said. The BJP has promised to increase the amount to Rs 3,000 and bring 30 lakh women under its fold if it is voted to power again.
Three-phase assembly polls in Assam will be held on March 27, April 1 and April 6. Counting of votes will take place on May 2, along with those in four other assemblies of West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.