At an e-Adda held last week, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma spoke to The Indian Express on Centre-state relations, on those excluded by the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and why he supports the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
On the Covid-19 challenge
This is a difficult time for everyone, and the society at large is going through a very crucial phase. However, in Assam, we are trying to do it differently. During this period also, we have not imposed total lockdown. Everything is open in some cities after 12pm and in some towns up to 2pm, rural areas are completely excluded from lockdown, curfew has been imposed from 5pm onwards. Keeping the interest of the poorest of the poor, and their livelihood in mind, we are trying to manage Covid-19 a bit differently and so far, by the grace of God, I can say that we are proceeding in the right direction. Of course, when I met the honourable Prime Minister, we discussed Covid-19. My priority was to seek his blessings because he is our leader; he is the prime minister of the country. During my one-hour meeting with him, Covid-19 did figure. I informed him how Assam is not only taking care of its own people, but we are also discharging our responsibility towards the North-Eastern states. We are giving a steady supply of oxygen to the entire Northeast region while meeting our requirement also, how we have installed 15 plants during the last two months and increased our own oxygen-generation capacity from 40 metric ton to 80 metric ton daily. So he was, by and large, happy. As far as vaccination is concerned, I don’t know how this debate has come in. Already the Centre has taken responsibility for vaccination of 45+, health is a state subject. So I have not raised that issue, I need Rs 700 crore for that. We have arranged that money. The public has also donated Rs 240 crore to the CM Relief Fund. So I am comfortable, I am not going to create a political situation that ‘let the Centre bear everything’.
On the Covid Challenge
In this time of crisis, people are trying to do two things together. On the one hand, obviously, everybody wants to contain and combat Covid-19, at the same time, they also want to try to attack Modi. They have two agendas: contain Covid-19 and contain Modi. I think India should have been one. India should have collectively fought Covid-19. The battle should not have been bipartisan.
ADVERTISEMENTRead |Will discuss Covid at first Cabinet meet, made promises for implementation: HimantaOn his meteoric rise and success in the BJP
In Assam, BJP was a very new entrant politically. It was there but we became strong and potent in 2014. Sonowal (former Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal) and I came from other parties into the BJP – he from the AGP, I from the Congress. We were fortunate to have got the opportunity to work directly under the Prime Minister and with Amit Shah. Because both of them have guided us, I think we immediately become part of the ideological family and today nobody considers us outsiders. They have accepted us and we have been able to rise.
ADVERTISEMENTOn federalism and Mamata Banerjee skipping a meeting called by the PM
Even when the Congress government was at the Centre, a chief minister had to come every 15- 30 days, and we had to go with a begging bowl to the Central government. Today, the Centre-state relations have been redefined in a way that a chief minister like Mamta Banerjee could dare to challenge the Central government. I have seen people like Tarun Gogoi going from pillar to post to seek small assistance from the Central government. I think Modi has structured Centre-state relations in such a way that we can walk in a sphere of cooperative federalism. I still remember that during 1988, there was a flood in Assam and Chief Minister Prafulla Mahanta did not go to meet Rajiv Gandhi, instead he sent his No. 2 to receive the Prime Minister at Jorhat Airport. These errors evoke a national response. People started criticising Mahanta (saying) that you might belong to any political party, but you have to respect us here, (otherwise) our country will be balkanised. Our country will be divided if the Chief Minister starts to defy the institution of the Prime Minister. It is not about showing generosity, it is about India. It is about India’s structure as a country, as a nation. If a chief minister can say why I should wait for 30 minutes for the Prime Minister… I have never heard such arguments in my entire political career. I have seen chief ministers after chief ministers sitting in Sonia Gandhi’s waiting room for two-three hours. We should have kept aside our ego and waited for as long as required to greet and meet the Prime Minister. Decency demands this. You have to respect the institution of the Prime Minister.
On whether Centre is deploying central agencies selectively against Opposition-ruled states
We have a stable judiciary in this country. So if somebody is doing what you feel is not constitutional, our Constitution provides you a remedy. You can approach the court, you can approach law, and you can approach the judiciary. Checks and balances are there, but you should not feel that any action taken by the Government of India is out of certain vindictiveness.
On the summons from the Centre to the West Bengal chief secretary
If the chief secretary also becomes part of party politics, how will this country survive? My humble request to everybody is, let us forget the individual who is occupying that chair of chief minister or prime minister for the time being. But Mr Modi has not come to Bengal to address any election really. He has gone there to help the citizens of Bengal, you have to respect the institution of the prime minister. The country will not survive like this.
On whether the alternative now to the BJP is coming from regional parties
As a politician I am very happy that the Left liberals have started writing off the Congress. I think it’s Mr Modi’s biggest achievement that now liberals are saying that the Congress is no longer an alternative, regional parties are. So I think we agree that Congress-mukt Bharat is a reality and people have now started talking about the coming together of regional political parties. But regional parties creating a national alternative will never be possible because states compete with each other. Bengal and Bihar cannot come together, Bengal and Assam cannot come together and even if you do, there will be conflict and faultlines. So the coming together of regional parties cannot silence the might of the BJP at the national level. You will see the rise of a leader here and there but when you come to the bigger national picture, the people of India will always vote for a party that will safeguard the integrity and sovereignty of the nation.
On his now-famous meeting with Rahul Gandhi
We went to meet Mr Rahul Gandhi…elections were nearing. But during the meeting, I saw that Rahul was not interested in the meeting. He was playing with his dog, Piddi. We were served tea and biscuits, the dog picked up a biscuit from the plate. I thought someone would take away that plate but I saw everyone taking biscuits from that plate. I was not a frequent visitor there, so I realised that this must be normal for everyone here. That day I realised that enough was enough. But having said that, I am grateful to Mr Rahul Gandhi – I would not have become the chief minister and served the state, had it not been him who had literally shunted me out from the Congress party. If I am in this position today, it is because of that famous meeting. And also because of the fact that Rahul Gandhi did not appreciate me being in the Congress party.
On whether the Congress party needs the Gandhis to hold it together
I’ll say that the Gandhis have outlived their utility. I am sure that at some point in time, during the time of Sitaram Kesri, probably Sonia Gandhi was needed to unite the party. But today, India has changed. India has a new young generation with new minds, who are very active on social media. I do not think that now the Gandhis can serve the Congress. Within the Congress, there are many bright people, many powerful regional leaders, and many workers at the grassroots. If you could give a new set of leadership, new ideas, then the Congress can still be relevant. But there is a mindset within the Congress that Congress is Gandhi, Gandhi is Congress and that mindset will never allow the Congress to grow. I am not saying they should be out of the party, but their leadership has now outlived its utility. Every empire has a deadline, it has to fall at some point of time. Empires like Gupta and Maurya, they all fell. I think the Gandhi Empire has outlived its utility too.
On whether the BJP has a Modi cult at the top
The culture of the BJP and the Congress is quite different. Today I met the Prime Minister, the way he guided me, you cannot expect that from the Congress (leadership). I still remember that in Bhubaneswar, Pema Khandu, after becoming the CM, attended his first national executive. We saw that all chief ministers, top leaders, everybody were sitting together. During lunch, Khandu said to me, “Dada, can you think of this in the Congress party ever?” So the culture of the BJP is rooted in India’s grassroots. So whatever people may say about Mr Modi, he is not a cult, he is a father figure. He has brought a new generation of people into politics. He is totally committed to the nation. And that is there is no similarity between the Gandhis and Modi. One wants to empower his family, another wants to empower India’s young generation.
On whether he can go to the PM with negative feedback
Yes, Modi ji has told me today to introduce a cabinet concept – Zero Hour. He has told me that our minister will meet MLAs and only negative feedback will come to his table. Then in that Cabinet, all the ministers will compile their negative feedback and give it to a senior minister. Then I will join in and the senior minister will explain only negative things about the government, so that we can take immediate remedial action. He said, ‘I did it in Gujarat too, so you should start that practice in Assam immediately, because you need more negative feedback so that you are able to rectify it’. Mr Modi is very democratic, he is a thorough party man and above all, his commitment to the country is something that needs to be acknowledged and appreciated by everyone. He has no other interest except for India, and I say that with a lot of conviction. Mrs Gandhi’s interest lies with Rahul to become the Prime Minister, Mr Modi’s interest lies with India. He wants to empower India’s younger generation. So, he listens to negative feedback, in fact, he encourages it.
Read |PM told me to have ‘Zero Hour’ in Cabinet to hear negative feedback: Himanta Biswa SarmaOn a young India looking at a not-so-bright future
I feel this is a very extreme assessment of the situation. Today, we have seen an empowered India, we have seen a government that is responsive, and look at how the GDP is bouncing back. Our country has fought the pandemic better than our grandparents fought the pandemic in their time. I think we should not bring such a pessimistic idea onto the table. India has a great future and I am quite confident that India’s march towards prosperity and progress will continue.
On NRC and the fate of people excluded from it
NRC is misunderstood in India. In 2005, Dr Manmohan Singh had spoken to the leadership of AASU (All Assam Student Union) and had come to a conclusion that Assam needed an NRC. There are a whole lot of identity issues in Assam, so even the Congress had decided that we needed an NRC. About 900 people laid down their lives seeking an end to the influx into Assam. Now, NRC has done well, but in between, we noticed that certain manipulations had taken place. We are demanding a 20 per cent verification in the border districts and 10 percent re-verification in the heartland. After any massive exercise, even after preparing an electoral list, you go through a temporary verification process. You’ll not accept a document as final unless you go through a re-verification process and convince yourself about its utility and about the fact that it has been prepared genuinely. Today, it has excluded 19 lakh people, but there is another judicial process. A foreigner tribunal has been set up. People will now go to that court and they will establish that they are Indian citizens. After that we have to take it up with the government of Bangladesh, that look this is the proof, they have come from Bangladesh and we must try to send them back. But if it is not possible, at least disenfranchise them. So we need to discuss on the table what we’ll do with the people who will not be considered as Indian citizens, even after due judicial platform was given to them. And I don’t think that this is a Himalayan task. We’ll be able to cross the bridge when it comes.
On the Citizenship (Amendment) Act
I am a very vocal supporter of CAA. During the election too, I expressed my support for CAA. Hindu, Sikh and Buddhists – the ones who have faced persecution – where should they go? This country has to give them some kind of shelter. So CAA is just discharging your historical responsibility. It should not be seen from a communal framework. CAA is just an agenda which you need to finish, and which remained half-done during the time of the Partition. The Congress during the Partition should have clearly written in the documents that there is Hindu population with you, who you should take care of and if you don’t, then they will get automatic citizenship in India. I think that clause should have been there during the discussion of the Partition itself. Where will they go? If Hindus have been asked to convert, their daughters taken away forcefully, where will they go? Will they not come to Hindustan? Will they go to Pakistan, Afghanistan or will they come to India? I think our Indian Muslims should have been generous. They should have said that yes, if they are being tortured, if they are being prosecuted, let us bring them back to India. I will appeal to India’s Muslims that this is what we owe them and we must be generous enough.
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The issue is very simple. Can any Muslim say that I have been persecuted for religious reasons in Pakistan, or in Bangladesh? You have Muslim refugees who have come into India because of economic reasons. Today, we are discussing people who have come to India because of religious persecution. India has a historical, constitutional and legal responsibility towards the minorities of Pakistan and Bangladesh. As a civilization, India cannot abdicate its responsibility towards Hindus and Buddhists and Sikhs.
On his comment during campaigning that he did not want minority votes
We did maximum welfare programs in areas where the “35 per cent” people (minorities) live. We have taken up construction of eight lakh houses for Muslims in Assam. Roads, buildings, colleges and institutions are being built in areas where they live. But as a political person, I know that I’m not going to get my vote out there. So if I am a bit realistic and concentrate my resources in a place where I will get votes, what is wrong in that? But today as a chief minister, if you ask me, whether I am going to work for that 35 per cent or not – I will say, ‘yes, I am going to work more and more for the welfare of those 35 per cent’. But as a BJP (politician), why will I go to seek votes where I am convinced I am not going to get even a single vote?
Vijay Darda, Chairman, Lokmat Media Pvt Ltd
Your backhand stroke was very powerful where you changed the Chief Ministerial candidate. How did you manage? You’ve started work and you seem to be in a hurry as if there is no tomorrow. Also, how does it feel for you to go from the Congress to the BJP?
Sarma: You know BJP’s culture. It wasn’t my backhand stroke – just a sense of responsibility. Going further, you will see that everything is well. Both Sarbananda Sonowalji and I are working together for the progress of Assam. There is no game or stroke there. As for the hurry, I want to compete with Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, so I will have to play with a bit of speed. The atmosphere in the BJP is very middle-class and family-like. You never feel that you are in a master-servant relationship. My experience and of those who came with me has been very good.
Sunil Mehta, President and Systems Director, South Asia and South-East Asia, WPP
What are the three things that you will do for the state and that you would want to be remembered for?
Sarma: Our priority is the pandemic. My first concern is to vaccinate every citizen of Assam by December. I want to accomplish that in the short term. In the long term, I want to see Assam among the top bracket. Today, Assam is a dependent state. We are not able to contribute much, except in the petroleum sector. So I want to convert Assam’s character from a dependent state to a state which contributes to national treasury and growth. Assam’s performance should be such that we should be considered among the top five states of the country.
Sandeep Sen, Managing director, Litmus World, Essar Group
You said you want Assam to be a net contributor and one of the areas where the Northeast is lagging behind is the growth of industry. Of course, there is tea and petroleum. What would you do to attract industry, because the government is also calling Assam a gateway to Southeast Asia? What is your plan for industry and employment in Assam?
Sarma: Assam is also blessed with various national resources. We have a vibrant petrochemical sector. We have the capacity to create an ecosystem for organic farming. We can also capitalise on our geographical advantage as we share our borders with Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh. So I think if we capitalise our geographical advantage, Assam will prosper. We have to create an environment which in Assam we call ‘andolan mukt’, violence free; I think we need to create that ecosystem and we’ll do that.
Tavleen Singh, Columnist
I have a comment as well as a question. The comment is, you have overlooked that in our neighborhood, there are Shias and Ahmadiyya Muslims who are very severely persecuted in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. So your theory that only the other faiths are persecuted is wrong. The question that I have for you is you were very clear when we fight Covid-19, we mustn’t also fight Modi. But it’s been a catastrophic problem that has been created, because we didn’t order enough vaccinations in time. Who do you blame this on? And do you believe that the Prime Minister could have done better if he’d had Chief Ministers in his team rather than bureaucrats?
Sarma: These are subjects of debate. Problem is that if Ahmadiyya and Shias have been victimised in Pakistan or Bangladesh, I think India will give them citizenship or give them shelter, but these are not a creation of the Partition. We are today on CAA, we are taking up an unfinished agenda of the Partition. Today, if a Shia has been victimised, Ahmadiyya has been victimised, it has nothing to do with the history of the Partition. I think these are completely separate questions. India is a democracy, if some Ahmadiyya comes to India seeking shelter, I am sure the existing law will take care of them and India will never say no to that. But if you link up those people with Hindu, who are victims of the Partition, this is not correct. These are two really different questions and in different contexts.
I feel that India is blessed because of our ecosystem. Because of the initiative of the Prime Minister, we have got two vaccines and we are debating on vaccines, how to get them and how not to get them, how much we should get. If there would not have been an initiative from the Prime Minister at that point of time, India would not have a vaccine at all. How much time the Congress took to eradicate polio? How much time Congress has taken to give vaccines for polio for our young generation? Today, we want to do everything within three months because Modi is in power; that argument is not good. We should cooperate with Modi, then we will get much better results.
KK Rathi, Managing Director, IndiaNivesh First bridge Fund Managers Pvt Ltd
I’m from Mumbai and I would like to ask you a question on something to do with economy, finance and governance. The Government of India is always talking about maximum governance and minimum government, and I’m sure as a progressive and no nonsensical person, you would follow that. So, what are your plans to achieve that in your state, because we have not seen much of that happening in most of the states and particularly with respect to privatisation, which is not happening even at the central level. So what are your plans for achieving something like that?
Sarma: First of all, let me confess very honestly that we do not have much public sector undertaking in Assam. So, that question of privatisation is not that relevant in the context of Assam, but yes, I agree with you that ease of doing business should be our priority, giving an ecosystem is our priority, and we have to minimise governance and give maximum autonomy to our industry. So, I have a framework I am already discussing with various industrialists who have some stake in Assam. Of course, I am going to systematically abolish red-tapism and bureaucracy in our in my state. So private entrepreneurs can come and adopt Assam as their next destination.
Gautam Bhattacharyya, Chargé d’Affaires, Embassy of Sweden
Sweden has a small footprint in Assam and I had the honour to accompany our Prince Daniel to your beautiful state a couple of years ago. If we look five years from now, what would you be able to do for gender equality in your state, if you could mention some of your ideas and vision on that topic?
Sarma: I think we met during your visit to my state and I still remember the visit of Your Excellency to Assam. On gender equality, I strongly believe that empowering girls and creating a system for girls education is very important for any society to thrive. So I am committed to giving free education up to university level to each and every girl child of my state. We have already decided a particular roadmap, and my priority will be education and health for our sisters and mothers. We are working aggressively and will continue to work aggressively. We are establishing various institutions, universities dedicated to the girls, creating gender equality. We are also fighting maternal mortalities and other relevant questions on the health sector, addressing the question of nutrition, and we will work for safe gender equality through the instrument of health and education in my state.
Chandrakant Salunkhe, Founder and President, SME Chamber of India
I’m representing the SME Chamber of India and Federation of Indian SME associations and we are representing more than 10 lakh SMEs in India. I would like to ask about your strategy to invite investment, particularly from the rest of India, to set up the business, especially in SME sector. I observed that there are only 20,000 MSMES are in the state and 110 large corporates are there. What will be your strategy for bringing more investment in Assam? Secondly, when Mr Narendra Singh Tomar was in a meeting with the MLAs, there was only one name in mind, your name. So, are you the choice of Mr Modi or the MLAs?
Sarma: First of all, in BJP a Chief Minister is chosen by the parliamentary board after consulting the MLAs. I do not know their opinion but I have been selected by the board and I am sure that the Prime Minister has blessed my selection. I think those who are familiar with the BJP will never even think that something will be decided in our party without creating a consensus. In BJP, everything is a result of consensus and we follow that. Regarding your question of MSME, in Assam MSMEs are not doing very well. Basically, banks are not giving adequate loans to MSMEs. Our government support system is not enough. So, we will study the MSME policies of every state and within six months, we are going to come out with a policy which will patronise MSMEs, both existing and for those who want to set up MSMEs. We have various sectors where MSMEs can contribute to our growth. I am sure that I will also be benefited by your advice and guidance, particularly from your association in framing a very nice, practical MSME policy.
Subodh Markandeya, senior advocate, Supreme Court
I interact with a lot of people from the younger generation. They seem to think that the Central government and the state government are kind of shuttlecocking their claim to have vaccination. Is it politically wise to allow that feeling to grow?
Sarma: We owe everything to our young generation. We have to give vaccines to each and every person in the young generation and take it as a promise that by December, every Indian will be vaccinated. I am sure that when it comes to giving vaccines to the young generation, there should not be any fight. As far as Assam is concerned, I am committed to giving vaccines from 18 years to 44 years range without asking for any assistance from the Central government.
Fali Nariman, Senior advocate, Supreme Court
What is the timeframe within which you expect the amended citizenship act to be completely implemented in the state?
Sarma: I think, in my view, during the time of pandemic, we should not try to implement the CAA because of its own reaction and action. I think we need to educate people during this period of time, why CAA is important for those deprived and disadvantaged people who came to this country seeking shelter from India, because of our civilisational connect, because they feel that India will give shelter to Hindu, Bodos, Sikhs and Jains. The Government of India will decide the timeframe but I think during a period of pandemic, it may not be very appropriate.
Pawan Dhoot, Chairman and Managing Director, Dhoot group
I always ask my team to start something in Assam, because I started my career in Assam and then located to another part of India. Every time they point at the upper limits of the industrial policy, on interest, genset subsidy, stamp duties and so on. Please go through your industrial policy and compare with any other states. My only request is one statement from you, why we should come to Assam?
Sarma: Thank you for pointing out to the deficiencies in our industrial policy. I’ll definitely compare our policy with states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and to the best of our ability, try to redesign it, so that you can come. I will welcome your suggestion in this regard. Definitely, you will see a very, very proactive response from us.
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During the last five years, in NRC, Assam has not reached a conclusion and the basic problem which is likely to be faced is what will happen with the people who are declared illegal migrants. My question is, Bangladesh has already stated that they are not going to accept these illegal migrants. In that case, what will happen to these people because they will not remain the citizen of India or Bangladesh and they will become a burden on the Government of India. Secondly, what action will you take so that further migration doesn’t take place from Bangladesh?
Sarma: We are continuously trying to erect fencing in the border, but there are portions where actually these are very, very porous and traditional border fencing activity is not very effective. The Government of India is trying certain technological solutions so that any infiltration can be detected. We have deployed an advanced system in our Mankachar border. We are waiting for the result because that was an experiment and we’ll be able to see its result in the next few months. So the Government of India and Government of Assam are committed to securing our borders, so that no more infiltration takes place and vice-versa.
So far as NRC is concerned, I am sure that once the judicial process is over and a court of law pronounces a particular person as a citizen of Bangladesh, Government of India will be able to convince Bangladesh, but these days, because NRC is a administrative action, so naturally, Bangladesh will not accept 19 lakh people because administratively we have declared them as a foreigner. Bangladesh will definitely respect India’s judiciary, and once from judiciary, it is determined that these people are from Bangladesh, once we clear their name, address, their locality with the Government of Bangladesh, I am sure we’ll be able to send them back. But till we send them back, we have to create a class of non-citizen, we have to allow them to enjoy fundamental rights to health and education, rights to life and liberty. However, they may be disenfranchised till the question of extradition to Bangladesh is resolved. We’ll try to achieve our goal through a clear roadmap.
Liz Mathew, Deputy Political Editor, The Indian Express
I read somewhere that 30 years ago, when you were around 22, you told your wife that I would become the Chief minister of Assam one day, you go and tell your parents that you are dating the future Chief Minister of Assam. What gave you that confidence? Was it an astrologic prediction or you had that confidence in yourself?
Sarma: Actually, I hail from a middle-class family, and by the standard of Assam, my wife hails from a family pioneering in industrialisation in Assam. If you compared the economic status of both of us, at that point of time she was – from the standard of Assam – from a rich family. Obviously her mother was not interested in our relationship. So one day she asked me what will I say, what is the future; at that point of time I was involved with student education, activism. So there was no future that seemed to be there for me. I told her the best thing is that you go and tell your mother that I will become the Chief Minister of the state at some point of time. So that was just a response. I had forgotten that but my wife remembered and shared that line during my oath-taking ceremony. It was actually out of a conversation. It was not because of any astrology or anything.