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‘As A Politician, I Am Happy To Have The Correct Platform To Grow’

In a freewheeling conversation with Suman K. Jha, Sarma opens up on life outside Congress and more

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Himanta Biswa Sarma dons many hats with aplomb. He handles multiple portfolios in Assam, including the all-important finance portfolio. Organisationally, he looks after BJP’ expansion plans in all the north eastern states. He has also been associated with the evolution of GST in the country —  he headed one of the GoMs (group of minsters). In a freewheeling conversation with Suman K. Jha, Sarma opens up on life outside Congress and more. 

Edited excerpts :

With the recent by-polls reverses, do you think 2019 has got a little tougher for the BJP?
Congress has shown no signs of revival in any of the states, barring one election in Rajasthan. I think BJP is getting stronger; it’s ruling 21 states today. Our chief ministers (CM) are doing good. The fight will be between Narendra Modi and the Congress.

So you see the party coming back to power in 2019?  
I think in 2019, Narendra Modi will come back with a strong majority. The Indian economy is growing; the country is asserting its authority in the global scenario; it will not lose a strong, determined leader.

And the people now believe in stability. They will by then (in 2019) prefer a definite direction. People will remain with Prime Minister Modi.
The party had reached a saturation point in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh. Rajasthan and Gujarat. So there is a certain kind of anti-incumbency in these states. Do you feel the party is trying to make up for seats in the northeast? 
You have rightly said that the BJP started its innings with nine or 10 core states. It has come to a saturation point in states such as Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat. Now in these areas you can’t improve beyond a point. Suppose you win these seats in 2019, in 2024 you may not win some of the seats. So for BJP to establish itself as a pan-national party, it was imperative to expand towards east and south.  When Amit Shah took over as BJP party president, he asked party workers to be strong in south, north, and east. Today we have completed our mission in the northeast. In the eastern region, we are there in Bihar and Jharkhand, and now trying to expand our base to Bengal and Orissa. I know our tally will significantly improve in Bengal and Orissa.

Now another focus area is south. But because of our coalition compulsion in Andhra Pradesh, we could not spread out fully in the south. We did not have the opportunity to grow in the south because of friendly governments in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. But now with Chandrababu Naidu’s exit, we have an opportunity to expand in Andhra Pradesh.

In my view, in 2019, a significant number of seats for the BJP will also come from the southern states, from eastern India, and the northeast.

I strongly believe that in the northeast, BJP’s tally will improve from eight to 19.

Today jobs are hard to come by. Farm crisis remain grave. Ho do you look at the overall governance picture nationally? 
It is not that jobs are not being created. We have to see what was the number during UPA II and what is it today. I think everybody will acknowledge that today inflation is under control, economy is growing, and now there’s GST. So the country is now ready for the big leap forward.

India will be one of the most sought after countries. But we have to have patience for the interim period. We had a very bad governance during UPA II.

Now, what are the main challenges that you foresee for the party in the run up to the 2019 elections?
I am very frank and have always been. You have seen what Modi and Amit Shah can do. In Assam we have passed because of Modi’s policy. People have voted for us. But now that we have a government, here onwards, it is the CM and his team who are completely responsible for more. So I think, if all the BJP CMs work sincerely on the ground, and even if they don’t implement any new scheme, it is okay as long as they implement at least the PM’s schemes. That way, I think their position will improve. But if governance is compromised, the responsibility has to be taken by our 21 CMs.
You have spent a good chunk of your life with the Congress. How  is life different with the BJP?
The BJP is made up of  first-generation politicians. They are leaders in their own rights; they have grown on their own, without parental reference. They are simple people. If you go to them, you will know what middle class wants. When you go to a Congress leader, it is like a master-and-slave arrangement.

The other difference is, no party memeber of BJP says ‘I am loyal to  the family’. At the end of meetings, we say ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ — you are trained to be loyal to your country. I am not saying that Congress people are not loyal to their country, but they are divided. If at some of point they have to choose between India and Gandhi, it will be a difficult choice for them.

With the BJP in the northeast, we can take any decision, and we don’t have to fear the high command. But with the Congress, you cannot take any decision without clearance from the high command, or the family.

In Congress too, I was involved in north eastern politics. When we entered into alliances, we would tell our general secretary, who in turn would  meet Sonia Gandhi to seek her approval.

In the BJP, any decision that comes from Amit Shah, is final. We know that. But we are still asked to wait for two hours. Because in these two hours, he discusses with the PM, with Rajanath Singh, Nitin Gadkari, Sushma Swaraj. All the important people are taken into confidence.

After his recent intervention, people are saying that Rahul Gandhi is no longer the ‘Pappu’ he is perceived to be? Do you think he has evolved? 
I think he cannot evolve. At the age of 48 years, if somebody has a definite character, at 50, you can grow. But you cannot change overnight.  I do not want to use the word ‘Pappu’, but I don’t know what sign of maturity have people seen. When the northeast results were announced, any political party, mainly the party in opposition, should have stayed alert because you have one government at stake in Meghalaya, but when the results were announced, you suddenly went abroad. You should have stayed in the country, guided and encouraged your CM. But you just disappeared!

Whether it is Goa or Meghalaya, the BJP has been able to stitch coalition even when it was outnumbered by the Congress. How did you achieve that? 
For that, you need a definite strategy and assessment of the ground. The BJP realised long ago that it was not going to form the government on its own in Meghalaya.

So we planned in advance. Even if there wasn’t going to be enough numbers for BJP, we could still be the moral authority. We deliberated with the regional parties six months before. You would probably know that six months ago, we had a meeting of NEDA (North-East Democratic Alliance) in New Delhi, which Amit Shah addressed. In that meeting, we invited all regional political parties of Meghalaya. We laid the foundation of the coalition back then.

Likewise, when Amit Shah visited Goa, he realised that the party was not going to get absolute majority. So he identified and started talking to people during the elections. While we were contesting with them, Amit shah started negotiations with potential allies. And by the time when election results were announced, our coalition was already built. So that advance anticipation of our capacity to accommodate regional allies turned the tide in our favour.

The World Bank says India has the highest GST rates. Your comments.
The World Bank must acknowledge that India is not Britain or Australia. The Indian GST is alright. The only thing is that we have to counter the propaganda machine. You are not paying any extra tax during the GST regime. You are not paying anything if you join sales tax and excise. Your tax burden has not increased.

Don’t you think slabs are very high? 
Which one? If you see from the common man’s point of view, the 28 per cent slab was the rate for the last many years. Show me a single item where the incidence of tax has gone up after you calculate excise and sales tax. If we reduce tax from 28 per cent to 18 per cent, who will compensate that money? From where will the development work happen? Today, the propaganda unleashed by a vested section of people helped by my Congress friends, has done tremendous damage to the country. GST was never designed to give you tax concessions; it was to give you a systematic improvement, easy payment, etc.

Lastly, you handle multiple portfolios in Assam and you were the party’s  chief architect in NE’s victory. What is your ambition in life? 
As a  politician, I am happy to have the correct platform to grow. Your soul is happy.  As of now, I have a huge responsibility of looking after eight states from the organisational point of view. I have a huge responsibility of keeping the coalition intact in the northeastern states. So my plate is full as of now. But in a national party, it is the prerogative of the president or party leadership to assign you any role. As of now, my job is cut out. I am working in the northeast up to 2019.

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Himanta Biswa Sarma Magazine 31 March 2018 assam

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