2021 Assam assembly polls – through the North-East media lens

It is not every day that news about the North East makes it to mainstream media. The news is mostly around the destruction caused by the seasonal floods or some insurgent activity. But yesterday (May 10, 2021) when Himanta Biswa Sarma took oath as the 15th Chief Minister of Assam, the news media did turn its spotlight on this North Eastern state for an event that was not of tragic proportions.

Also read: India News announces exit polls for WB, TN, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry

The results of the 2021 Assam Assembly Elections, along with four other states – West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry – were declared on May 2. Bharatiya Janata Party, along with allies Asom Gana Parishad and UPPL have won. It is for the first time that a non-Congress party has returned to power for a second term in Assam. While the results were declared, it took another 7 days before the name of the new Chief Minister of Assam was declared.

In these 7 days, media had a field day in the state with speculations rife. That there was no clarity provided by the BJP added fuel to the fire. There were two strong contenders in the fray – incumbent CM Sarbananda Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma, who held several important portfolios in the previous BJP government in Assam.

News channels talked about how Sarma had been harbouring dreams of becoming the Chief Minister of Assam right from his Congress days. The channels said how he left Congress when he saw no chance of fulfilling his ambitions while the late Tarun Gogoi was there. According to the news channels, this time, Sarma was in no mood to relent. On the other hand, the news channels also spoke about the dilemma facing the Modi Government as to whether to retain Sonowal as the chief minister. After all, Sonowal, too, has been working tirelessly towards strengthening BJP’s base in Assam and he is a very popular leader amongst the people, especially in upper Assam region.

Assamese news channels have an aggressive mode of news presentation and the word ‘Sansolyo’ (sensational) is mentioned several times a day in news bulletins. Most news is described as ‘Big Breaking News’. One blessed relief is that Prime Time debates have not reached a noisy, vitriolic pitch, yet.

In the seven days in the search for Assam’s next chief minister, news channels brought on several “experts” who conducted SWOT analysis of the two contenders. Sonowal is seen as a leader with strong integrity, with a spotless reputation, no charges of corruption against him, and someone who has brought the Barak-Brahmaputra valley closer, brought the strong tribal population into the main fold and who has worked tirelessly to improve his home constituency, Majuli – world’s biggest river island.

Sarma has proven himself time and again as a master strategist. He had powered the Congress party to wins every time while he was with the party. And once he moved to the BJP, he powered the party’s win for the first time in Assam in the 2016 Assembly Elections. Sarma has also played a huge role in powering BJP’s presence in the rest of the North East, most notably in Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. The BJP has an alliance with the National People’s Party in Meghalaya and the National Democratic Progressive Party in Nagaland.

Moreover, through the first wave of COVID-19 last year, Sarma was the face of Assam Government’s fight against the virus. Clad in PPE kit and mask, Sarma was out in the field overseeing the COVIDA-19 preparations in the hospitals, specially constructed quarantine centres, and keeping in constant touch with the general people.

Sarma has shown this dynamism since his student days. I recall seeing him canvass for and win the post of general secretary in the students’ union in the Cotton College days over 30 years back. He held this post for three years. And if the words of his wife, Riniki Bhuyan Sarma, are anything to go by, Sarma had set his sights high at a very early age. As shared by Riniki herself to the media, she was just 17 when she met Sarma, who was 22 then. When she asked Sarma what she would tell her mother about his future, Sarma had replied, “Tell her I will become the chief minister of Assam!”

Coming back to how the media played out the Assam Assembly elections, while the print publications carried more of analytical stories and editorials, the Assamese news channels had all the drama. There were programmes like follow the leader, where the reporters went along with poll candidates as they canvassed across the state – be it on foot, on cycles/ motorcycles, cars or even helicopters. Newly launched Assamese news channel NK TV was seen to be pretty aggressive and had a very prolific presence in the poll coverage. The most watched Assamese news channel, News Live, had an army of reporters covering from every constituency. Incidentally, News Live, is part of the media group Pride East Entertainments founded in 2006 by Riniki Bhuyan Sarma, wife of Himanta Biswa Sarma.

Nitumoni Saikia of Pratidin Times, another Assamese news channel, has been critical of Sarma and the BJP’s handling of the CAB and CAA legislations. However, he has also praised Sarma for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Meanwhile, East Mojo, a mobile-first digital news platform from North East India, has also been very active during the elections and is increasingly gaining traction in this region.

Moreover, both Sonowal and Sarma are very active on social media and it has played a huge role in amplifying the popularity of the two leaders. The 2021 assembly elections saw digital and social media play a greater role, especially in connecting with the young voters. While Sonowal and Sarma might have contrasting personalities – Sarma is more dynamic and sometimes tends to shoot from the hip; while Sonowal is seen as someone who is ‘dheer, sthir and gambhir’ – Assam needs both of them in these challenging times, perhaps as ‘Ram – Lakshman’, as a section of the press had dubbed both the leaders.

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