The distance between Guwahati and Majuli, arguably the largest river island in the world, is just over 260km. The island in Brahmaputra is connected to the nearest mainland point, Jorhat through ferry services, which start at seven in the morning and end at three in the afternoon. And if you have a car with you, it’s advisable to book in advance or, at least, reach early.
So on March 24, when I was heading to Majuli to interview Union sports minister and BJP CM candidate Sarbananda Sonowal the next day, my first goal was to reach Jorhat by, at least 2pm. I started at eight in the morning and till Nagaon — 125km away from Guwahati — the four-lane, buttery-smooth highway allowed the Toyota Fortuner to clock 120km/hour. It also resulted in a huge miscalculation that I would reach Jorhat by 1pm.
The 40-minute ride on the motorboat gave me my “Swadesh moment” but I did not know who to thank for this experience — no bridge to connect this island with mainland even after almost seven decades of Independence.
I was expecting a lot of political discussion — this constituency suddenly turned high profile with the BJP CM candidate contesting from here — but a group of a dozen villagers started smoking some local weed and singing traditional songs. My first encounter with a native in a tea stall — where my contact was waiting for me — was not good news for Sonowal. ‘It will be a tough contest. It’s not easy to defeat a three-time MLA,’ said a man sitting next to a deserted Congress election office. He was quick to clarify that he was not a Congress member or supporter of Rajib Lochan Pegu, the incumbent MLA and a minister in Gogoi Cabinet.
Later, my contact, who is an Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) member and now fiercely supporting BJP-AGP-BPF alliance candidate Sonowal, dismissed any threat to Sonowal’s victory. To support his claim, he had evidence, which I could not reject: when we took a round of the island, we found only one poster of Pegu; it was all Sonowal. Early next morning, however, I found several posters of another rival candidate. These had come up overnight.
With all hotels and guesthouses booked — thanks to Prime Minister Modi’s scheduled visit the next day — I stayed in Bhogpur Satra, one of the Vaishnavite monasteries in Majuli, set up by Srimanta Shankardev in the 16th century.
The next morning I had to wake up early and rush out of the monastery to catch mobile phone signals — that’s how it is at several locations in the river island. I was expecting a call from Sonowal who was supposed to reach Majuli from Dibrugarh. The call came at 7.30am and within 30 minutes, I was at Lakhimi Pathar, the venue of Modi’s rally.
The 52-year-old suave and soft-speaking Sonowal wanted to speak to me in a quieter zone. Maybe he was too embarrassed with the loud speakers blurting out ‘Sakalore Ananda Sarbananda (everyone’s happiness is Sarbananda)’ in the voice of Assam’s most popular singer, Zubeen Garg.
Undoubtedly, he gives the impression of a charming persona with rustic, rural simplicity but he is an interviewer’s nightmare — always alert and not one to say anything remotely controversial.
The only time he dropped his guard was when he spoke about breathing fresh air in Majuli — his eyes were glowing with passion for the rural ecology. It was time for me to throw the first non-political question: Why are you still not married? “I was so busy in social activities that I never found time.” It was certainly not a convincing answer.
‘Will we ever see a Mrs Sonowal?’
‘I’m never saying never,’ pat came the reply.
It was almost 11 and by now the road to Lakhimi Pathar was jam-packed. The crawling car came to a halt, at a good one kilometre away from the venue. Instead of telling his associate to get the road cleared by cops, Sonowal offered to walk the distance.
‘What’s the problem? I can walk faster. This car will take ages,’ Sonowal argued with childlike sincerity. If that sincerity was an act to impress a trailing journalist, I must say he deserves an Oscar. But his best act of the day was reserved for another journalist. When he was seated on the elevated stage, minutes before Modi’s arrival, a TV journalist called on his cellphone and requested him to come down for a quick soundbite.
The BJP CM candidate, still on the stage, bowed down and folded his hands to do a Namaste and whispered to his phone: ‘Aji maaf kara bandhu (spare me today, buddy).’ Within minutes he was gone to receive Modi at the temporary helipad near the stage.
By Kaushik Deka