Sarbananda Sonowal: Journey from student leader to three-time minister in Modi’s cabinet

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Guwahati, Jun 9 (PTI) Assam MP Sarbananda Sonowal, a fire-brand student leader who battled odds to become chief minister, was on Sunday inducted into the Narendra Modi-led cabinet for the third time.

Sonowal was the Minister of State for Sports & Youth Welfare for two years from 2014, as the northeast’s sole representative in the Union Council of Ministers, before he scripted BJP's historic win in Assam to become the CM, only to relinquish the post and become a cabinet minister in the Modi 2.0 government in 2021.

From the rough and tumble of student politics to becoming a minister thrice, Sonowal’s political journey has been punctuated by twists and turns along the way.

As a dynamic student leader who went on to join the state’s most prominent regional party, the Asom Gana Parishad, and later switched over to the BJP, Sonowal was Modi’s obvious choice as the chief minister of Assam when the saffron party won for the first time in the northeast in 2016.

However, during the 2021 assembly elections, the party opted not to project Sonowal or any other leader as the chief ministerial candidate.

Instead, the powerful minister in his cabinet, Himanta Biswa Sarma, was elevated to the top post after the elections.

Nevertheless, Sonowal didn't remain sidelined for long. He was soon promoted to the Union cabinet with significant portfolios including Shipping, Waterways, Port, and Ayush in the subsequent reshuffle that same year.

The Rajya Sabha MP, a law graduate, is considered an honest politician who furthered the party’s fight against corruption in the state and united communities with his oft-repeated lines ‘Barak-Brahmaputra-Plains-Hills’, symbolising his role as the unifier of the diverse indigenous population of the state.

His tenure faced its toughest test during the widespread protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), with his former allies from the All Assam Students Union (AASU) accusing him of failing to protect the interests of the indigenous populace.

Sonowal, 62, was accused of failing to convince the BJP government at the Centre to not bring the Bill in Parliament, which they claimed compromised the interests of the indigenous population.

This was viewed by the students organisation, youths and many in the state as the "ultimate betrayal" by a man who was once bestowed the title of ‘Jatiya Nayak’ (Leader of the Community) after the scrapping of the controversial Illegal Migrants' Determination by Tribunal (IMDT) Act by the Supreme Court in 2005, which Sonowal had challenged as AASU president.

Sonowal's foray into politics began with his joining the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) where he served as its president from 1992 to 1999, and also became the chairman of North East Students' Organisation (NESO) from 1996 to 2000.

From AASU, he predictably went on to join the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in 2001, founded by his erstwhile seniors in the students' organisation, and was elected the party's MLA from Upper Assam's Moran constituency in 2001.

In 2004, he went on to successfully contest the Lok Sabha polls, wresting the Dibrugarh parliamentary seat for the first time from the Congress by defeating former Union minister Paban Singh Ghatowar.

Sonowal left the AGP in January 2011 following differences with the party leadership, and joined the BJP a month later in the presence of then party president Nitin Gadkari.

He went on to become the BJP state unit president in 2012, and was credited with raising the party's tally to seven from the earlier four in the 2014 parliamentary polls.

He, himself, wrested the Lakhimpur constituency from former Union minister Ranee Narah of the Congress and was made the Union Minister of State for Sports and Youth Development.

After becoming a Union minister in 2021, Sonowal was elected to the Rajya Sabha from the state.

Born on October 31, 1962 in Mulukgaon in Dibrugarh district, Sonowal is a bachelor and a devout follower of Assam's Vaishnav saints Sankardeva and Madhavdeva. PTI DG RBT