One year on, how Sarbananda Sonowal has fared as Assam CM
He is fortunate to be heading the state when there is a strong feel-good factor.
- Total Shares
In the past one year, the first BJP government in Assam has made all the right noises, and some undesirable ones too. The party came to power on the promise of protecting maati (land), bheti (home) and jaati (the indigenous people) from illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
Back in 2014, Narendra Modi (as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate) had thundered that illegal immigrants would have to pack their bags after May 16 — when results of the Lok Sabha elections were declared. Immediately after taking oath as chief minister last year, Sarbananda Sonowal rushed to the office of the state coordinator of the National Registration of Citizenship in Guwahati, which is entrusted with the task of preparing a list of legal citizens in Assam. He wanted to send out the message loud and clear — his government’s top priority is to rid the state of illegal immigrants.
Some action too followed — such as the eviction drives in Mayong and Kaziranga. Nobody left Assam, though. Only the locations of encroachers changed. Nobody was even sure if those evicted were illegal immigrants or legal citizens.
Meanwhile, the process of preparing the list of citizens got entangled in legal trouble — after the court questioned the validity of some documents supporting citizenship claims, the entire process was thrown out of gear. The Supreme Court will take a decision after the summer break if the cut-off year for citizenship will remain 1971 as stated in Assam Accord or will be shifted to 1951, as in the rest of the country.
If the Supreme Court decides to change the date to 1951, the state may head towards a civil war, as a large proportion of the population will be stripped off citizenship. It will also turn the entire exercise of preparing the NRC futile.
Samujjal Bhattacharya, Sonowal’s closest friend and adviser of All Assam Students Union (AASU), wants 1971 as the cut-off date while the CM’s deputy, Himanta Biswa Sarma, has openly declared that he wants the date to be changed to 1951.
The AASU is at the forefront of the decades-long battle against illegal immigrants in Assam. Despite this uncertainty, Sonowal has declared that the NRC will be ready by December.
The common man in Assam would love to believe him as Sonowal has, till now, "delivered" on the promise of zero-tolerance to corruption. For instance, he has ordered the removal of illegal check gates on national highways. The police under him have busted a racket that was selling government jobs though Assam Public Service Commission (APSC). The chairman of the APSC has been arrested and is now languishing in jail. Three officers, who allegedly bought their positions, have been arrested and several others are likely to be in the net.
Assam cabinet minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Officers in other departments such as agriculture and excise and police have also been arrested on various charges of corruption. All these are making good headlines for the chief minister who also holds the home portfolio.
The government, however, seems to be actively working on consolidation of Hindu votes for the BJP, and this mission is led by finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. To defend the Central government’s decision to grant citizenship to religious minorities persecuted in the seven neighbouring countries, Sarma in the recent past said that "Assamese Hindus needed Bengali Hindus to counter the Muslims from Bangladesh".
In his zeal to please his political masters in Delhi and Nagpur, Sarma forgot that the people of Assam were against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. It doesn’t matter if they are Hindus or Muslims.
Sarma also declared that government-aided madrasas have to remain open on Fridays. Eventually, he scrapped the Madrasa board and merged it with the state education board to promote “modern learning”. This certainly was a bold step and he must be complimented.
Another such controversial yet bold step includes the government’s draft population policy, which says that persons with more than two children will not be eligible for government jobs or any kind of government service and cannot contest elections to panchayat and civic bodies. The proposal was widely welcomed in Assam though it was clear that the target group is immigrant Muslims who usually have more than two children.
With this policy, he made a splash. Also, the news of roping in Priyanka Chopra as the new brand ambassador of Assam tourism, kept him in the limelight. While the move will certainly give Assam the much-desired publicity, the government's first priority should be building infrastructure for tourists.
On that front, Sarma, who happens to be the tourism minister as well, is yet to take off. In fact, infrastructure development is the biggest challenge for the Sonowal government and this is where the jobs are. Of course, the government has raised the revenue by 27 per cent, but that increment should now reflect in better roads.
The river Brahmaputra has got two new bridges since Sonowal came to power, but these were sanctioned under the previous Congress government. The Namami Brahmaputra festival created the right buzz for the mighty river, but that awareness too must translate into exploration of its true potential.
Sonowal is fortunate to be heading Assam when there is a strong feel-good factor across the state — son of the soil, Papon, managed to rope in the biggest superstar of the century, Amitabh Bachchan, to pay tribute to the Brahmaputra. While one Assamese is airing views on TV every night from a studio in Mumbai, another one is making news from Kashmir.
The chief minister must channelise the positive environment to make Assam one of the most-developed states in the country.
With completion of one year, he seems well-settled (in his job). Now, it's time to shift into high gear.