Sarbananda Sonowal was only 30 when he became the president of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the state's largest regional students' organisation. Today, 23 years later, Sonowal is poised to become the next chief minister of Assam, after leading the Bharatiya Janata Party's crushing defeat of the incumbent Congress party in the state Assembly elections. The Congress has ruled for the last 15 years in this key state of north-east India.
"We have all worked together and we have all worked very hard," the 53-year-old politician told Times Now on Thursday. "People of Assam appreciated our hard work. Apart from that, we have worked equally with our allies and that's a formidable force."
The BJP's chief ministerial candidate in Assam, who contested from the Majuli constituency, showed an early lead over the Congress candidate, ahead by about 20,000 votes. He will be the second tribal chief of Assam after Jogendra Nath Hazarika, who was the state's CM in 1979 for 94 days, before the state came under President's Rule at the time.
Sonowal's ascent in politics has been swift. The journalism graduate from Gauhati University, who also holds an LLB from Dibrugarh University, spent seven years as AASU president, where he earned the title of 'Jatiya Nayak' (regional hero).
Indian lawmaker and former President of All Assam Students Union Sarbananda Sonowal, second right, greets supporters after his arrival in Gauhati, India, Tuesday, 19 July, 2005.
He became member of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), in 1999, and was first elected as MLA in the state assembly from the Moran constituency. In 2004 he was elected as member of Parliament during the 14th Lok Sabha elections from the constituency of his birth city, Dibrugarh, after beating Union minister Ranee Narah from Congress. Over the next two years, he was appointed member of the consultative committee in the ministry of home affairs, and then the ministry of commerce and industry.
He remained MP from Dibrugarh till 2009, where he continued to fight against illegal immigration of Bangladeshis to Assam. His biggest political victory for the party was in 2005 when the Supreme Court scrapped the Illegal Migrants (determination by tribunals) Act, 1983 (IMDT). The AGP had long campaigned against the act that they claimed was in favour of illegal Bangladeshi migrants, as the onus of proving their citizenship was on the complainants, instead of the migrants. Unlike the Foreigners' Act of 1946, migrants from Bangladesh who settled in Assam before 25 March 1971 could claim Indian citizenship, while the cut-off date everywhere else in the country is 19 July 1948.
For Sonowal, on whose petition the Supreme Court had passed the order, it was a huge personal victory. At the time, the Tarun Gogoi government had supported the continuance of the IMDT.
However, after AGP won only one of the six seats it contested during the 2009 elections, it led to talks of reshaping strategy. In 2011, ideological differences led him to resign from all executive posts in AGP.
His decision to join the BJP marked his entry into national politics, and he was made a member of the national executive by then party president, Nitin Gadkari. Sonowal also became the state spokesperson and party general secretary. Within a year, he was promoted to state president of the Assam unit of the BJP and two years later, in 2014, he led BJP's campaign for the 16th Lok Sabha elections in the state. That year, after BJP swept the general elections in the country, Sonowal represented the Lakhimpur constituency as an MP. He was also appointed the Union Minister of Youth Affairs & Sports and it came as no surprise when the BJP declared their local face in Assam as the party's chief ministerial candidate for the Assembly elections this year.
Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal seeks blessings of BJP veteran leader Murli Manohar Joshi outside Parliament during the Parliament Session on 3 May, 2016 in New Delhi, India.
Sonowal has for long opposed the "illegal infiltration" of Bangladeshi migrants into Assam, and has frequently campaigned for their deportation to Bangladesh. On Thursday, even as the congratulatory messages poured in, Sonowal told journalists, "We have to protect the indigenous people of Assam, irrespective of caste, creed and religion."
He also called for the development of the "greater Assamese society" and integration of non-Assamese people living in Assam for "centuries". Asking for the Assamese to live and work "like brothers" he said, "That will be our guiding principle. We will work like a family and work for unity."