The BJP-led Assam government completes one year in office on 24 May. The patched-up alliance includes the Asom Gana Parishad, which tested power twice, and the Bodoland People’s Front, led by rebel-turned-politician Hagrama Mohilary. Sarbananda Sonowal is the state’s first tribal chief minister.
Few believed that the BJP would come to power with a convincing victory. The Congress and the All India United Democratic Front led by perfume baron Baddrauddin Ajmal did their best to stop the saffron surge but they did not join hands to fight against the BJP.
Even some self-styled poll managers had predicted the victory of the Congress-AIUDF candidates, on the basis that the electorate in the state is traditionally anti-BJP. The saffron and the regional party allies together grabbed as many as 86 of the 126 assembly seats.
The positive image of Sonowal, who was once president of the powerful All Assam Students’ Union and aggressive campaigning by the BJP’s central leadership, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, helped the party to get the green signal from the Assam electorate. Despite being the chief minister, Sonowal has not changed his personality.
As an ordinary citizen he saw the people’s ordeals when a VIP’s convoy passed through city thoroughfares. So he opted for a small security convoy with no sirens. Today, his car stops at every red light signal. Only recently has his security cover been strengthened.
Sonowal’s first impressive declaration after assuming office in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah, and outgoing Congress chief minister Tarun Gogoi and many other prominent leaders, was that he would go all out against corruption, make cities pollution free and stop infiltration from across the border.
Already a number of high profile officials and others involved are under arrest. They include the sitting Assam Public Service Commission chairman Rakesh Kumar Pal along with two APSC members — Basanta Kumar Doley and Samedur Rahman. Now the commission is serious in restoring its lost glory by taking various visible initiatives.
Many government officials from departments like forests, social welfare, public health, agriculture, and even the police are behind bars and waiting for court verdicts. Some of them have already been suspended. The local news channels continue beaming news of arrested individuals on corruption charges.
The Sonowal government’s decision to abolish various illegal checkgates in Assam was well received by the people as these were the primary sources of corruption and caused a rise in the prices of essential commodities. The government is yet to curb the rise in prices, however, something is being done towards this with some serious intent.
The government has also taken steps to stop poaching of the onehorned rhinos in Kaziranga National Park and illegal activities in various forest reserves. Many have also praised the discontinuation of oral interviews for the third and fourthgrade appointments. A bachelor and a law graduate, Sonowal has, time and again commented that his government had launched the crusade against corruption even after knowing full-well that it was a difficult job.
But he has taken up the challenge seriously to fulfil the mission for a corruption-free society. He continues asking the people to keep a constant vigil on the performance of the government and let his government know if there is any lacuna in the development process. Sonowal became the president of the All Assam Students’ Union in 1992 and continued till 1999.
He also served as chairman of the North East Students’ Organisation from 1996 to 2000. In 2001 he joined AGP and got elected to the Assam Assembly from the Moran constituency the same year. That time the Congress won the polls and Tarun Gogoi, who was not a familiar political face in Assam, became the chief minister. Gogoi’s 15- year reign was finally toppled by the Sonowal-led saffron brigade last year.
Cutting short the legislator’s term, Sonowal fought the Parliamentary elections and got elected to the Lok Sabha from Dibrugarh constituency in 2004. But he lost in the 2009 Parliamentary polls from the same constituency to Congress veteran Paban Singh Ghatowar. Soon he left the regional party following differences with the AGP leadership and joined the BJP in 2011 after being persuaded by then BJP president, Nitin Gadkari.
The next year he was made the president of the Assam unit of the BJP. In the 2014 general elections, Sonowal was a BJP candidate from Lakhimpur Parliamentary constituency — he won and consequently became a minister in the Modi cabinet.
The credit for successfully hosting the South Asian Games in Guwahati and Shillong last year goes to Sonowal as he was the Union minister of state for sports and youth welfare. Sonowal was given an impressive title of Jatiya Nayak (national hero) by his students’ outfit after the Supreme Court, on his petition, scrapped the controversial Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act in 2005. Provisions of the act were primarily used to safeguard illegal migrants in Assam for decades.
So it came as a great relief for the people of Assam, who wanted to send back each and every unauthorised migrant to Bangladesh. Sonowal belongs to the SonowalKachari tribe of Assam. He fought the assembly polls from the Majuli constituency and won. Following his direction, the world’s largest humanhabited river island on the Brahmaputra was also made a district.
A sacred seat of Vaishnavite culture, Majuli thus became the only island district in the country. Some other hard decisions include the eviction of encroachers from various forest reserves, wetlands, Satra (Vaishnavite monastery) lands and other public places. The Sonowal government successfully completed the eviction drives at Kaziranga National Park, Bhatadrawa Satra, and Mayang locality on the outskirts of Guwahati and a few other locations.
In the health sector, minister Himanta Biswa Sarma started various welfare schemes. Atal Amrit Abhiyaan is a health insurance scheme for the middle class covering cancer, kidney, cardio-vascular, neo-natal, neurological diseases and burns.
A cancer unit at Gauhati Medical College Hospital, two high-end superspecialty hospitals at Silchar and Tezpur, five medical colleges at Dhubri, Kokrajhar, Nagaon, Diphu and North Lakhimpur are a few mentionable initiatives. Sarma, who shifted his loyalty from the Congress to the BJP just before the last Assembly polls, is also the education minister.
He implemented a free textbook scheme for high school students of all government institutions. The exemption of fees for students in higher secondary standards, whose families’ annual income below Rs 1,00,000, has been well received. The building of schools at Barpeta, Hojai and North Lakhimpur and eight women colleges in minority-dominated areas were also announced.
As the home minister Sonowal can claim some success as the overall law and order situation has improved. Threats by the United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) led by Paresh Barua, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit faction), Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers, continue. However, Sonowal continues to be slow to media reactions over any insurgency related incidents in Assam.
Some other important initiatives of the Sonowal government include the successful organisation of the Brahmaputra Literary Festival, Namami Brahmaputra, an Assamese film fraternity trust, ex-gratia payment of Rs.5,00,000 to every martyr family of the Assam agitation, foundation for construction of the Brahmaputra Express Highway from Sadiya to Dhubri (890 km), and new welfare schemes for tea plantation workers.
The writer is the statesmans guwahati-based special representative