Amid the raging coronavirus crisis that has engulfed the world, on May 24, 2020, Assam celebrated a muted political milestone for the state as well as the entire North-east region. On that day, four years back, an electoral history was scripted in the state when a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government was sworn-in for the first time ever in Northeast riding on an unprecedented Modi wave, opening floodgates for a new form of governance that has seen its ripple effect in almost all the states of India’s Northeast.
The milestone meant completion of four years of the BJP-led coalition government, under Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, a person who is quite unlike most of his political counterparts, in action and demeanour. In this report Northeast Today looks back at the Assam government in these past four years with Sarbananda Sonowal as the leader, and see how the state has made all round progress amid its numerous challenges and the way ahead.
To protect the Jati, Mati, Bheti (Identity or nation, Land, Ancestral base) was the campaign slogan of the BJP during the state assembly elections of 2016. Assam, fighting the influx of migrants from Bangladesh for a long time, had reached a tipping point by that time. Not only was her land taken away but also native speakers of the Assamese language were seen to be diminishing. The fear of losing its identity had gripped the common psyche of the people of the state. Corrupt practices by those in previous governments had also compounded this problem, leading to a flagging economy and disillusionment among the youth and general population. The people were yearning for a change. Sarbananda Sonowal was the person, who the people of the state voted into power with huge expectations and trust. A former student leader and union minister, Sonowal has long been adoredby the Assamese people and was given the title of a Jatiyo Nayak (Hero of the nation) for ensuring repeal of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal ) (IMDT) Act in the Supreme Court.
His ethnic Assamese identity, combined with his organisational skills from the student’s union days and a clean slate on corruption, ensured that he become the most sought after leader for the people of Assam. When he took on the reins of power, his task was assiduous, to form a team of high performing individuals yet keep no frills of power at all. That he has been successful to do so, without coming into the media glare, is what makes this person and the government led by him a unique study. As a leader and politician, Sonowal has been always successful and popular, which his counterparts or even close one would envy. People of Assam bestowed trust upon him for decades, for which he was projected as the Chief Minister candidate during the Assembly Election campaign of 2016. This had an enormous impact on the masses of Assam and worked in favour of BJP in winning the hearts of the people. His colourful political career spans for almost two decades from 2001 to 2020. In this two decades in politics, he has always maintained his dignity and politeness, a rare quality to be found in his contemporary politicians.
Sonowal became an MLA for the first time from Assam’s Moran constituency in 2001. In his next political step he entered the national political scenario, when he became an MP from the prestigious Dibrugarh Lok Sabha constituency in 2004. In 2014, he headed the Assam BJP’s campaign for Lok Sabha Elections and was elected as an MP from Lakhimpur Lok Sabha Constituency. He was appointed as Union Minister of State-Independent Charge. In 2016 he came back to regional politics and the rest is history.
How did Assam do under CM Sonowal in past 4 years?
So, this question might well be answered by looking into the biggest problem that Assam has faced over the years and the promises this BJP-led government had made to the people before coming to power. Migrants or specifically illegal immigrants from Bangladesh have been the most complex challenge the state has faced in nearly a century. Starting from the 1930s, this issue has dominated the political landscape of Assam and the modern history of the state. The burgeoning population of migrants that led to a skewed demography was the root cause of major upheavals such as Assam Movement and decades- long insurgency.
The Assam Accord signed in 1985 was a document that guaranteed protection of indigenous people of Assam, but the ‘guarantee’ remained on paper and never honoured by successive governments at the Centre and the state. The pendency of the problem led to Assam becoming the only state to undergo the process of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC). A staunch campaigner of ‘Jati, Mati, Bheti’, Sarbananda Sonowal, even before setting foot in his office at Janata Bhawan after his swearing-in as the CM, visited the NRC office and took stock of progress of work. To cut a long story short, the present government in Assam is the first that has optimally utilised its resources to prepare a complete NRC, a process monitored by the Supreme Court. More than 50,000 employees of the state government were involved. The matter of honouring the clauses of the Assam Accord is also one that the people of Assam are emotionally attached to. The recognition and respect given to the indigenous people of the state by this government is unprecedented. Historical sites, satras (ancient monasteries), temples and national parks were encroached and settled on by the illegal immigrants. Sonowal’s government has evicted them all and given the land back.
CM Sarbananda Sonowal calls Assam the land of three Ps – Potentiality, Possibility and Prosperity. These are also to be aligned with the four pillars of his government i.e. a corruption free, pollution free, illegal immigration free and terrorism free Assam. The land of three Ps also resonates with the vision of the North-east as new growth engine that PM Narendra Modi has envisaged. The strong focus had ramifications, bringing development to Assam and the North-east. But when we look at the four years of Sarbananda Sonowal-led Assam government, the results are much more visible. We have already looked at the completed NRC process and how that has become a turning point in the state’s fight against illegal immigrants. Now, to the biggest achievement – war against corruption.
One of the key highlights of Sonowal’s tenure is that his government has cut off the roots of corruption that had taken hold of the bureaucratic system, by putting behind bars even the head of the Assam Public Service Commission. No compromise or favouritism came to play as numerous senior officials, businessmen and politicians were arrested in the past four years. After several decades, the youth of Assam restored their trust on the government, whereby they believed that merit will finally fetch them jobs and give them due respect. This war is continuing, and it is left to see how far Sonowal can go in pursuance of his dream to clean the system. Clampdown on poaching and huge thrust on conservation efforts have resulted in drastic fall in the rate of killing of the one horned rhinoceros, the pride of the region. It is considered a success story for the world of conservation to emulate.
Assam, once infamous for insurgency, has also witnessed a new dawn. The historic Bodo Accord was signed with the NDFB ending decades of bloodshed. Most of the militant groups active in Assam have also given up arms and the very few remaining are in negotiation with the government for joining the mainstream. Peace prevails, and brings with it a new surge of prosperity and development. In the month of February 2018, Advantage Assam, a global investors’ summit, was held in the state capital Guwahati. Captains of the industry from India and outside attended the event and brought in investments amounting to thousands of crores.
The North-east had never seen such a grand event which not only left the people fascinated but also opened the floodgates of investment to the region. Sonowal has always projected Guwahati as the hub of SE Asian connectivity and the efforts towards that front has shown visible results. While the city is now connected to Singapore, Bangkok and other destinations, it is their proximity that gives more hope. Sonowal’s focus on agriculture and its allied sectors has been a major gamechanger for the state as youths have started a farm revolution. Agriculture produces from Assam are now being sold in markets of Dubai, London and Abu Dhabi. Road connectivity has reached even the remotest places, something unthinkable in the near past. An avid sports person himself, CM Sonowal’s focus on the area also made Assam and especially Guwahati, a sporting powerhouse and international venue. Among various high profile events being held in the city in the past four years, the U-17 FIFA World Cup takes the cake and bolsters the city’s growing reputation as the Sports Capital of India. During this period, athletes like Hima Das have shone on the world stage and become a household name.
Challenges and New Hope
The challenges before CM Sarbananda Sonowal were huge and so were the expectations. In these four years, Assam had to face two of its worst phases of floods in many years. With the floods hardly over, Assam was rocked by the anti – Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests which soon burgeoned into a nationwide movement. Then came Covid-19 global pandemic. The true strength of a leader emerges in times of adversity. A deeply spiritual person, Sarbananda Sonowal’s devotion to the almighty and to the people he served has ensured that he remains connected to the ground.
Perhaps no other CM has visited each and every corner, interacted and shared food with the common man and walked on the roads in even the remotest places like he has. Hence, in every adversity, the people of Assam have always stood like a rock behind him. His mentality of doing everything with the Team Assam spirit and bridging the age old Barak-Brahmaputra divide has given motivation to his Cabinet to work harder for the people of the state. The Team Spirit fueled by Sonowal is quite evident in the state’s fight against Covid-19 that already has earned national applaud. Quietly, Sonowal has monitored each and every aspect of the Covid-19 fight, leading the police force in providing 24×7 service as and when necessary, talking and meeting health workers regularly on the frontlines, ensuring food supply to all the villages of the state by going to every godown and motivating the people to keep on fighting the deadly virus.
In retrospect, as we look back, there are perhaps some areas where Sarbananda Sonowal, with a young team, could have fared better. But, there are many other things no other Government has achieved before. For instance, the tea garden workers of Assam consider CM Sonowal to be one of their own. The sacred river island Majuli, vying for a place in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, is today rejuvenated and finding back its lost glory and serenity. From economic growth to spiritual growth, we can say that Assam, led by CM Sarbananda Sonowal is witnessing one of its golden periods in history and the way forward can only be filled with hope and aspiration. When politics and politicians around him are full of rage and criticality Sonowal stands like an island with his calmness and soothing personality untouched by the ocean of dirtiness. As if he is the river island Majuli, untouched, unaffected by the ups and down with impatient water around it.
CM Sonowal at a glance
The present Chief Minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal is the 14th chief minister of Assam. He represents the prestigious Majuli constituency in the state legislative assembly. Sonowal was born on 31st Oct 1961 at Mulukgaon, Dibrugarh (Assam).
He did his Bachelor’s Degree from Dibrugarh University and LLB from Gauhati University. Sonowal is regarded as a Jatiya Nayak (Hero of the Nation) of Assam, a title conferred to him by the All Assam Student Union (AASU) for his contribution to the people of Assam. He acted as the president of AASU from 1992 to 1999.
Sonowal has great love for physical fitness and sports. Many don’t know that he won the Mr. Dibrugarh Strongman title when he was a student. One interesting fact about his childhood is that he was elected as Safai Mantri (the cleanliness in charge) when he was in class three and four.
Political Timeline :
In 2001, he became MLA for the first time from Assam’s Moran constituency.
In 2004, he became a MP representing the prestigious Dibrugarh Lok Sabha constituency.
In 2011, he was appointed as National Executive Member of BJP. Later he was entrusted with the responsibility of State Spokesperson and General Secretary for Assam BJP.
In 2012, he was appointed as the State President of BJP, for Assam Pradesh.
In 2014, he headed the Assam BJP’s campaign for Lok Sabha Elections and was elected as MP from Lakhimpur Lok Sabha Constituency. He was appointed as Union Minister of State-Independent Charge.
In 2016, he became Chief Minister of Assam from BJP on 19 May of the year. He was elected from Majuli Constituency in Assam Legislative Assembly. During campaign, he was projected as the BJP’s Chief minister candidate, which worked as a miracle for the party to win the election.
Advisor to CEM, NC Hills Autonomous Council, Dima Hasao, Haflong, Assam and formerly Executive Member, NCHAC.
Since the formation of State Government in Assam by BJP in 2014, it has been working hard with a responsive and people-friendly approach for the all-round development of the state.
Special initiatives of the state government with the support of the Central Government in the field of education, health, physical infrastructure, tourism, trade and commerce and other key sectors have resulted in the rapid socio-economic development of the state. Though, the pace of development has temporarily been slowed down due to the present Covid-19 Pandemic, I hope that it would accelerate soon once the present public health crisis is mitigated. It is to the credit of the BJP led State Government that it has managed to contain the community transmission of the highly infectious disease i.e. Covid-19.