Trou­bleshooter Spells Trou­ble

Go­goi dis­tances aide, ex­poses him­self in the bar­gain

India Today - - COVER STORY - By Kaushik Deka

On July 28, when Prime Min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh vis­ited re­lief camps in the riot- af­fected Kokra­jhar dis­trict, he was in­trigued by the ab­sence of one per­son he expected to see there— As­sam Ed­u­ca­tion and Health Min­is­ter Hi­manta Biswa Sarma. “Why is Hi­manta not here?” the Prime Min­is­ter asked Digvi­jaya Singh, in charge of the As­sam Pradesh Congress. Man­mo­han wasn’t the only one left won­der­ing. Sarma’s con­spic­u­ous ab­sence, a first since Tarun Go­goi took charge of the state in 2001, lends cre­dence to what peo­ple have been sus­pect­ing all along— that he is no longer the most- trusted lieu­tenant of As­sam Chief Min­is­ter Go­goi.

In his lone- ranger avatar, the Chief Min­is­ter has cut a sorry fig­ure. The Congress high com­mand is un­happy, the na­tional me­dia is hound­ing him and Op­po­si­tion par­ties are gun­ning for his head. “Sarma was fire­fight­ing for him all these years. Now we know who was ac­tu­ally run­ning the state,” says a min­is­ter from Barak Val­ley. “That he has loy­al­ists in ev­ery gov­ern­ment depart­ment and a strong sup­port base among Congress cadres across the state also helps,” says an­other Congress min­is­ter.

Dur­ing the 2011 polls, while Go­goi cam­paigned in se­lect places as he was re­cov­er­ing from a heart surgery, Sarma led the Congress cam- paign across the state. Sarma’s wife’s chan­nel, News Live, al­ways ahead of its near­est ri­val by 100 TRPs, also played a strong role in mo­bil­is­ing sup­port for the Congress. Trou­ble be­tween Sarma and Go­goi started im­me­di­ately af­ter, with the me­dia cred­it­ing Sarma for the vic­tory and laud­ing his per­for­mance as health min­is­ter. Re­la­tions dipped fur­ther with the en­try of the Chief Min­is­ter’s son Gau­rav into pol­i­tics. While most Cab­i­net min­is­ters rushed to pay obei­sance to ‘ As­sam’s prince’, Sarma kept his dis­tance. “If Gau­rav calls a min­is­ter and wants to meet him, the min­is­ter lands up at his home. But Sarma would po­litely in­vite the young­ster over to his own of­fice or home,” says a Congress MLA.

Ten­sions fi­nally boiled over be­tween Sarma and Go­goi in April, fol­low­ing re­ports that Sarma se­cretly met Congress Pres­i­dent So­nia Gandhi in Delhi to sug­gest the Chief Min­is­ter’s name for the vice- pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. Though Sarma de­nied hav­ing sug­gested so, Go­goi promptly found a new Man Fri­day in For­est Min­is­ter Rock­y­bul Hus­sain, who is very close to Gau­rav. It didn’t help that in end- June, Man­mo­han di­rectly called Sarma to in­quire about the flood sit­u­a­tion in As­sam while Go­goi was away on a 10- day visit to the US. The Chief Min­is­ter, iron­i­cally, had gone to study dis­as­ter man­age­ment.



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