How to win elections and other lessons for Rahul Gandhi: Himanta Biswa Sarma at India Today Conclave 2018
'Who is Sonia Gandhi to say she will not allow Modi to come to power?'
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Hell hath no fury like a neta scorned. And who better than the Congress and Rahul Gandhi would know what a spurned man's revenge could do to the party and its presence in an entire region of seven states.
Speaking at the India Today Conclave 2018, Congress leader-turned-its-slayer in the Northeast, Himanta Biswa Sarma, opened up about his political journey from being former CM Tarun Gogoi's most-trusted man to Hindutva poster boy of the Northeast.
The man, who brandishes Rahul Gandhi's "snub" like a dagger, admitted that his defection to the BJP was more revenge-driven than his faith in the Modi wave. But now, it's more about the development of the region.
"I should be very frank, I joined the BJP after a series of humiliations. There was revenge in my mind in the beginning, but not any longer. We are not here for revenge, we are working to remove regional disparities, to develop the Northeast."
While the BJP needs just one more state – Mizoram – to make the Northeast Congress-mukt, it was Sarma who scripted the party’s spectacular foray one after another into the region. Sarma, who joined the BJP just a year ahead of the 2016 Assam Assembly elections, helped the saffron party form a government in Assam for the first time, then a "back-door entry" in Arunachal Pradesh, and a government in alliance with smaller parties in Manipur in March 2017. He repeated the success recently in Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland.
With an uncanny ability to stitch up alliances, Sarma put together an association with the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura, which proved to be a major game-changer in 20 tribal-dominated seats (the IPFT won eight of the nine seats it contested and the BJP won 10) in the state.
Sarma, who has made it a "habit to unseat the Congress", then managed to "win" Meghalaya and Nagaland without actually winning – the BJP won two seats in Meghalaya and 12 in Nagaland. It cobbled up alliances with regional parties following hung verdicts in the two states.
In his unsparing counter-snub to the Congress, Sarma though had an important message for Rahul Gandhi and Co: "Preparation plays a big role in winning elections."
When asked if hurriedly cobbled-up alliances have exposed the BJP's politics of opportunism, Sarma said: "It was a conscious decision taken by Amit Shah to work with everyone. We want to respect and give space to regional parties and leaders. We have friendships with all regional parties and that is why it took us just 30 minutes to cobble up an alliance in Meghalaya."
.@himantabiswa takes a sharp dig at #SoniaGandhi says who's she to disallow PM Modi to come in power at 2019Watch India Today Conclave LIVE https://t.co/u1t1yTL0DD#LetsConclave18 #IndiaTodayConclave18 pic.twitter.com/4Pk1I4ZYaO— India Today (@IndiaToday) March 10, 2018
Coming back to the Gandhi family, Sarma said the Congress has lost the people's support because of its "feudal" attitude. When told about UPA chairman Sonia Gandhi's "we won't let them [Modi and NDA] come back" comment made on Friday at the conclave, Sarma agitatedly retorted: "Who is she to say 'I'll not allow Modi to come to power'? She should rather say I'll go to the people and not allow Modi to come back. See, that is the problem with Congress and their feudal mindset."
The minister said when he left the Congress, it was with a deep sense of anguish, "it was guided by revenge". However, he claimed the reason why he continues to be with the BJP is because of its ideology. "There is no feudalism, no master-servant relationship. That is why I continue to be in the BJP."
When nudged about being the perennial number 2 in Assam politics (it is believed one of the reasons why Sarma left the Congress was because he was denied the CM chair, but despite being the game-changer for BJP he remains a "second fiddle" to CM Sarbananda Sonowal), Sarma said: "In the BJP, there is no number 1 or number 2. Numbers don't matter because it's a democratic system within the BJP."
The minister, who during his Congress stint famously called Modi a “terrorist” and said "blood of Muslims flows through the water pipes in Gujarat", was all praise for PM Modi's "inclusive politics of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas". When reminded of his statement at the conclave session, he said: "I was in Congress for 23 years. Have you [any regional leader] ever dined or had breakfast with Mrs Gandhi to discuss a serious political issue? No. But you go to Amit Shahji's dining room, you get immediate access, there is no feudal culture. I was accustomed to that Congress culture."
Asked to draw comparisons between Rahul Gandhi and Amit Shah, he said, "Rahul is a student of nursery in politics while Amit Shah has done his PhD".
When asked if the Congress ever tried to woo him back, he said: "No, in fact, I reached out to them to join the BJP. Except Sonia Gandhi and Rahul, I asked everyone. Every time I meet them, I tell them 'I wasted 23 years of my life, you please don't repeat the same mistake'. And that's why perhaps every individual Congress leader in the NE who mattered is in the BJP today."
On praising Nehru on his birthday last year (November 14), Sarma smiled and said: "We always acknowledge an individual's contribution to nation building, but problem comes when they [Congress] want to monopolise [take all the credit for nation building]. I have problems with his policies, not with the individual."
Any message for Rahul Gandhi?
"Well, you cannot improve the entire health sector by just connecting MRI machines. He is 50, but still has time to learn politics. About India and its values. And not be guided by revenge, but with a sense of service to the nation."