The current infighting within the Assam unit of the BJP has taken an interesting turn today with former state president and minister Siddhartha Bhattacharya saying that parasitic weeds have overgrown in the “BJP garden” hiding the “original flowers” from public view. He was referring to the recent old vs new debate that has gripped the party in past several weeks. “At times, certain weeds in a garden, which are basically creepers, spread all over the garden and kill the original flowers planted by the gardener. As the owner or the gardener, no one will allow that,” Bhattacharya told India Today NE, in response to a question whether those leaders who migrated from Congress to BJP have taken control of the saffron party in the state.
In 2015, at the initiative of Bhattacharya, who was then the Assam BJP president, several senior Congress leaders, including incumbent Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, had quit the Congress and joined the BJP. When Bhattacharya, along with few others in the party, recently alleged that those with commitment to the BJP’s ideology had hijacked the power and positions within the party and had been neglecting the original workers, Cabinet minister Pijush Hazarika, one of those who had joined the BJP from Congress, said that it was Bhattacharya, who had brought them to BJP and, therefore, must take the credit and blame for their conduct.
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In an exclusive conversation with India Today NE, Bhattacharya today responded to Hazarika’s comment saying that he was raising his voice only because he felt responsible for what he did. “Certainly, I can't be silent when people I brought into the BJP do wrong. That’s why I wrote a long letter to party president Bhabesh Kalita,” Bhattacharya told India Today NE.
Refuting the claims of a rift between “old and new” BJP leaders, Bhattacharya said that the rift was with a section of individuals and not between any old guard or new guard. “Leaders can come from different parties but the workers are our own. We have built the party with the help of these workers. They remain loyal to the party ideology. Some leaders in the party are trying to keep us away from organisational events to keep a gap between us and the workers but that will never happen,” he said.
Bhattacharya, along with several other leaders, who have been associated with the saffron party for many decades, have alleged that they are being overlooked and sidelined. Leaders such as four-time MP and former Union minister Rajen Gohain and former MLA Ashok Sarma have publicly stated that the new entrants are not in sync with the BJP’s ideology but are cornering all positions of power in the party and government. There has also been discontent within the party over the recent delimitation process in the state.
On August 25, Gohain met Union Home Minister Amit Shah in New Delhi to complain about the old vs new battle within the BJP. A week earlier, Gohain had resigned as chairman of the Assam Food and Civil Supplies Corporation in protest against the delimitation of the Nagaon Lok Sabha seat, which he had represented four consecutive times. He claims the delimitation has increased the share of Muslim voters to such an extent that it will facilitate victory of the AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front), a party primarily representing Bangla-speaking Muslims of immigrant origin, in the Lok Sabha polls.
On August 18, in a letter to Sarma, Gohain had stated that the delimitation (which led to the reorganisation of the constituency’s area) had rendered the Nagaon seat “unwinnable for BJP candidates in the future and also put people of the constituency under threat due to demographic change”. “I feel betrayed and almost disrespected that a senior member like me was not heard by his own party leaders on a genuine concern for the party’s benefit,” the letter stated. The former Union minister has long been sulking since he was denied party ticket in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
In its notification issued on August 11, the Election Commission (EC) reorganised the geographic areas of 126 assembly and 14 Lok Sabha constituencies in Assam while reserving 19 assembly and two Lok Sabha seats for Scheduled Tribes (STs) and nine assembly and one Lok Sabha seat for Scheduled Castes (SCs).
Similarly, Bhattacharya, who was a Cabinet minister in the first-ever BJP government in Assam under Chief Minister Sarbandana Sonowal between 2016 and 2021, did not find a place in the current ministry headed by Sarma. Though Bhattacharya’s letter to Kalita was in connection with the latter’s name getting dragged into the recent suicide of a woman party leader over the alleged leak of her intimate photos with another BJP leader and accusations against the duo of taking money from job applicants by promising them posts, the letter hinted at a conspiracy to “destroy senior and old” party workers.
“I have been selflessly serving the party since its initial bad days till today...but since the past few years, I have started noticing that no major duties are given to us...it’s sad that many conspiracies against senior BJP workers like me are being undertaken within the party…this is being done by a section of rootless so-called BJP workers who are not aligned to the party’s ideology and policies...the recent incident in which my name is being dragged is part of that same conspiracy to destroy senior and old party workers,” read the letter. Without taking any names, former MLA Ashok Sarma had earlier told reporters that some people who had joined the BJP in 2015 had been conspiring to ‘chase away’ old party workers. Ashok Sarma was denied a party ticket in the 2021 assembly polls.
In response to Gohain’s statements, cabinet minister Jayanta Malla Baruah, a close confidant of Sarma who also had joined the BJP from the Congress in 2015, advised the 72-year-old leader to take retirement and play with his grandchildren. Baruah, though, later said his words were misrepresented, and he meant no disrespect to the seniors. It was Baruah who was given party ticket to contest assembly polls from Nalbari in place of Ashok Sharma. Amid this war of words, chief minister Sarma has rubbished these allegations of neglect by old timers, saying there was no distinction between old and new BJP workers in Assam.
In his interaction with India Today NE, Bhattacharya took pain to explain how the “experience and wisdom” of old leaders are not being utilised by the current leadership. “I have been a spokesperson of the party for 20 years and not just of the state unit but at the national level too. I was part of the national executive too. Yet, when a recent workshop was held to train the BJP spokespersons, they did not even invite me. Even those spokespersons whom I had groomed were invited to train the new lot. Of course I feel neglected,” he said.
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