AROUND THE REGION
The need for a local face
One of the lessons that the Narendra Modi- Amit Shah will learn from the Bihar debacle is the need to project a local leader in state elections . Failing which , a national party like the BJP risk losing out to a regional coalition like the Maha Gatbandhan. The BJP miscalculated the importance of projecting a strong local leader even when they had a tried and tested Sushil Modi (Sumo). State polls in India are not US presidential elections and Nevada and Nawadah are not the same.
The over projection of Narendra Modi (Namo) as the BJP's face did not work against Nitish Kumar , a succesful Chief Minister by all counts. Turning round Bihar, where George Fernandes once said the state was withered away (quoting Marxist famous lines), has been no mean achievment.
Namo needed to pit Sumo against Nitish, atleast after his foe-turned-ally Laloo Prasad Yadav had made it clear the suave chief minister will continue in his position if the Grand Alliance won the polls. By leaving no doubt on who will be the chief minister , Laloo and Sonia-Rahuil Gandhi laid the basis for a historic victory . It was the smartest thing to do for a broad coalition -- voters generally fear instability over leadership crisis in coalition and that was set to rest well in advance.
On the other hand , the NDA left voters guessing. Amit Shah's 'parachute management of the polls' was in stark contrast to the well-grounded Bihari vs Bahari (outsider) campaign unleashed by the shrewd Laloo , who is much more clever than anyone ever gets to believe. He knew his record of governance as Chief Minister and the wisest thing was to project's Nitish's track record as CM rather than his own 'jungle raj' days. Under the circumstances, he knew he could not be king, so play the king maker.
What does this mean for the BJP in Assam and West Bengal !
In West Bengal, they dont have a face. Rahul Sinha is no match for the mercurial Mamata Banerji who has outdone the CPI(M) in the electoral game by perfecting the Marxist tactics on ground. Sinha is considered a light weight. Scores of BJP heavyweight scouts tried to work on the option of a strong Bengal face -- they even tried Sourav Ganguly who was smart enough to refuse. So in West Bengal, the BJP does not have a strong local face and the likes of 'Draupadi' Rupa Ganguly are only capable of lending colour to the proceedings without bringing any real heft to the BJP stable.
In Assam, the BJP has an obvious and strong local face. Union Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal had emerged as a 'jatiyo bir', a real big Asomiya hero after piloting the legal challenge to the IMDT Act. The former AASU president is no newcomer to the party, having joined it quite a while ago. So he is no newcomer like Tapan Kumar Gogoi or Sankar Prasad Ray. The positive impact he made on the Assamese psyche by his success in IMDT campaign is not his only political capita. He is capable of working out a viable broad based ethnic coalition in Assam that could leverage the anti-infiltration issue for BJP rather effectively. In a field of veterans like former union minister Bijoya Chakrabarty or Rajen Gohain, Sonowal stood out as the bright young BJP option to a increasingly aging Congress leadership who could only promise continuity but little else.
It is precisely then that the BJP brought in Himanta Biswa Sarma and his flock of anti-Tarun Gogoi rebel legislators . Sarma is a master poll strategist and manager and wonderful raising funds but he is no foreigner to corruption allegations and controversies, which he have refuted. Now you can't expect Sarma, who has entertained chief ministerial ambitions for a while, to play second fiddle to Sonowal. If he has joined the BJP, that is because he wants to be chief minister. His spat with Tarun Gogoi dates back to the chief minister inducting his son Gaurav into politics. All this is known. The long and short is that Himanta Biswa Sarma's induction now leaves the BJP with two, not one strong contender for the top job. If Sarma's induction is to the break the Gogoi camp and strengthen the BJP, it will have the reverse effect. His poll management capabilities are never in doubt but can Amit Shah expect to use someone like Sarma pilot a poll victory and then not ask for his pound of flesh. His supporters would obviously point to his efficiency and ability to plan but Sonowal's supporters insist the former AASU leader is no novice to handle organisational issues and that his positive image far outweighs the controversial persona of Sarma.
So again, in Assam, the one state in the East where the BJP is in a position to do well, it has created two strong local faces which is recipe for trouble. And if the BJP had hoped to effect a Hindu coalition of Assamese, Bengalis and tribals by coming up with the recent order on refugees, it seems to have gone wrong. The Assamese who resent illegal migration do not see it as a religious issue. It is more ethnic than religious. So the Modi government's order to legitimise the stay of Bengali Hindu refugees from Bangladesh has understandably provoked much reaction from Assamese groups like the AASU and the AGP. In Bengal, the BJP starts from a huge disadvantage. In Assam they have created some problems out of the blue.
(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and now works as Senior Editor of Dhaka-based bdnews24.com. His books on Northeast " Insurgent Crossfire" and " Troubled Periphery" are well acclaimed. His forthcoming book " Agartala Doctrine" is being published by Oxford University Press.)