View: Hostel Room No. 20 and Himanta Biswa Sarma

It was 1987. Location: Room No. 20, first floor, DS hostel, Cotton College, Guwahati. DS means double story, a building that stood out amid Assam type vernacular architecture in the campus. The British era college, built in 1901, had nine hostels — seven for boys and two CGs, meaning Cotton Girls.

After getting enrolled in Class 11, I was allotted Room No. 20, a four-bedded accommodation which we partitioned further by installing curtain dividers to build tiny personal space. I was the youngest in the room, and according to rigid hostel etiquettes, I had to mandatorily suffix “da” (elder brother) while addressing my roommates and for that matter any college senior.

As autumn descended and groundwork for the impending students’ union election manifested in hostel corridors and nearby tea stalls till past midnight, I noticed, one smart and somewhat dominant day-scholar began to lodge in our room almost regularly. Two of my roommates and secretary aspirants, Durlov (Saikia) da and Bikash (Hazarika) da, used to join their beds together to create some extra space to accommodate their special guest.

I was soon introduced to him — Himanta dak sini powa nahoi (you know Himanta da, right?). Yes, he was Himanta Biswa Sarma, an 18-year-old first year degree student who would soon file his nomination for the post of assistant general secretary.

Fast forward to May 10, 2021. Sarma took oath as 15th Chief Minister of Assam, and seventh alumnus from Cotton College to occupy that chair. Reams of writings and hundreds of TV hours are accessible to understand the man — Bharatiya Janata Party’s principal strategist for the Northeast. You must have possibly read about how Sarma was mentored by the then Congress chief minister Hiteswar Saikia in early 1990s, how he lost to Bhrigu Kumar Phukan, his mentor-turned rival in 1996 before bouncing back five years later, his rise and revolt during Tarun Gogoi’s regime (2001-2016), and finally, his saffron journey since 2015 helping the BJP dislodge one Congress government after another in the Northeast.

But to discern Sarma’s art of politics one needs to return to that battle of 1987 when he deployed some novel political tactics, which I witnessed from close quarters. Two of my roommates also contested that election, one for the post of general sports and the other for minor games.

With a panel of three contestants in it, Room No. 20 soon turned into a control room of a high-voltage campaign, witnessing hubbub of laughter and excited conversations as well as serious deliberations on nuanced political game plan. I had little interest in politics; I came from a small village some 300 KM east of Guwahati, and my only ambition those days was to score decent enough marks that would get me a berth in a north campus college of Delhi University. But as my seniors strategised, I couldn’t help overhearing the conversations — good, bad and ugly — on the other side of the curtain divider.

In no time, I understood why Sarma (called him Himanta da) began to hang around with hostellers rather than returning home once classes were over. In those days, during a Cotton election, approximately 1,500 votes were cast, out of which some 1,000 belonged to hostellers. Voter turnout among hostellers was pretty high, a piece of statistics that must have guided Sarma’s strategy of shifting his base to a hostel. Being an astute observer, he knew he wouldn’t rise in Cotton politics unless he somehow had a toehold in a hostel. He first discovered Room No. 20, temporarily resided there before finding a regular bed in neighbouring New Hostel from the next academic year.

Sarma’s campaign had other unique features. He used to keep his key supporters in each corner of an auditorium where he would address. That ensured the sound of clapping would echo from all sides. Who all will shout “Himanta Biswa zindabad”, and more importantly, when they shout, were meticulously planned ahead. It was also decided none of us would ask any question to his rival Chandan Sarma of Second Mess hostel when he would come to our hostel for a formal campaign. I wondered why. I was told, the reason is simple: what if a good answer from a competitor impresses a few young hostellers, swinging away some votes? In those days, hostel solidarity was considered supreme, and only rarely there used to be cross-voting.

Sarma also prepared a list of fence sitters among hostellers who he invited by turns to Pan Bazar’s Kalyani restaurant for Mughlai paratha and rosogolla.

Let’s not forget the timeline. We are talking about Sarma’s political acumen some three decades before Amit Shahs and Ram Madhavs of the world spotted talents in him, also giving him a free hand to triumph over the Northeast, a hitherto no-go area for the saffron party.

In 1987, Sarma narrowly won the election defeating Chandan Sharma, now a university professor, also laying the foundation of subsequent victories as the general secretary of the college. Unquestionably, Sarma agilely deployed his experience and expertise of Cotton College days to install himself in state politics.

In a recent chat, Chandan da told me he has no regret for the loss. “You all know I got more votes than Himanta in girls’ hostels,” he quips.

Sarma no doubt repaired the damage, something that got reflected in his subsequent victories. But that is another story.

(Author’s views are his own)

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