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India’s Right takes on the Left in Tripura in first ever direct face-off

BJP’s post-2014 momentum and Modi’s image, its willingness to co-opt leaders from other parties, and ability to don different avatars for different social groups helped it penetrate the unlikeliest of regions

Tripura Elections 2018 Updated: Feb 09, 2018 14:42 IST
Prashant Jha and Priyanka Deb Barman
Prashant Jha and Priyanka Deb Barman
Hindustan Times, Agartala
Tripura assembly elections,Tripura polls,Tripura Left govt
Home minister Rajnath Singh addresses a gathering during a rally in Agartala. The BJP has unleashed a campaign blitzkrieg across the Bengali and tribal belt ahead of polls.(PTI File Photo)

They dislike each other’s politics. They want to do their best to defeat each other.

But they have a rare convergence on the primary fault-line in the Tripura elections, scheduled for February 18.

Sunil Deodhar, a former RSS pracharak from Maharashtra, has spent a decade in Meghalaya and is now the BJP’s prabhari for Tripura.

He says, “In India’s electoral history, this is the first ever direct contest between the Right and Left at the state level. We have fought other parties across states, while the Left has fought either Congress or Trinamul in Kerala and Bengal.” In his party office, Bijan Dhar, CPM Tripura secretary, agrees. “It is the first direct face-off between the Left and the Right.”

Regardless of who wins the elections, how did this come to pass in a state in which the CPM’s Manik Sarkar has been CM for 20 years, and the party been in power for 25? How did it happen in a state in which CPM’s primary challenger was actually the Congress? How did this happen in a state in which BJP got less than 2% of the vote share in the 2013 polls, in which 59 of its 60 candidates lost their deposits, and where it had neither leadership nor organisation?

In how this came to pass lies the story of the frontal political and electoral offensive by India’s Right on the Left. It is the story of how BJP wants not only a ‘Congress-mukt’, but also a ‘CPM-mukt’ Bharat. It is a reflection of how BJP’s post-2014 momentum and Narendra Modi’s image, its willingness to co-opt leaders from other parties, and its ability to don different avatars for different social groups helped it penetrate the unlikeliest of regions.

The BJP tribal design

Tripura has 60 assembly seats. Of these, 20 are tribal seats, and the others are Bengali-dominated. The CPM’s success was based on its ability to stitch together a Bengali-tribal alliance. In the 2013 polls, the party won 19 of the 20 tribal seats.

“Everyone used to say the CPM began counting victories from 21 seats. It was assumed that the party would win all 20 tribal seats. Our aim was to ensure that the counting began from one,” says Deodhar. So the BJP began by making its structure inclusive. Two vice presidents in the state unit are now tribals; four in a 12-member core committee are tribals; and tribals were given space in party’s affiliate organisations. Thus BJP built its own tribal cadre base.

The messaging to the tribals was simple. It said the current government has done nothing for you, for your development, for your heroes, but we will. The BJP began appropriating the last king of Tripura, Bir Bikram Kishore Debbarma Manikya Bahadur, as a tribal icon.

Deodhar says, “These Marxists have set theories about how all rulers and kings are exploitative and they ignored and undermined the great work done by the last maharaj. We celebrated his birth anniversary at each booth. The PM tweeted about his contribution. We demanded the Agartala airport be named after him. We want him to awarded the Bharat Ratna. We want NDMC to name a road in Delhi after him.” The BJP is also working hard to bring the late Maharaj’s grandson, Pradyot Bikram Manikya Debbarma, currently the working president of the Congress in Tripura, into its fold.

The BJP then tapped into the Bengali domination of the state’s politics and bureaucracy to portray CM Manik Sarkar as only a Bengali leader. “He treats tribals as third-class citizens. He is their enemy number 1. We will ensure tribals get their share of the budget, more power in their councils. Under him, tribals haven’t got education and jobs,” says Deodhar. And finally, the BJP allied with a key tribal outfit, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) led by Narendra Debbarma. It will contest nine of the 20 tribal seats. Bijan Dhar of the CPM sees this attempt by the BJP too woo the tribals as a plot to divide the Bengalis and tribals. “Two Narendras (Modi and Debbarma) are disturbing the tribal-non tribal unity. They want to destabilise the CPM’s support base among tribals.”

The Bengali push

But the BJP knows that Tripura’s polity remains Bengali-dominated. And that it is important not to alienate the Bengalis.

For this, the BJP is first relying on government employees. “There are 1.75 lakh employees, and 50,000 pensioners. Take an average family size of three. And you have close to 6.75 lakh people dependent on government salaries. And Tripura is still on the Fourth Pay Commission.” BJP has promised to implement the Seventh Pay Commission in the state and hopes this will offset even older loyalties and the grip of unions on the employees.

Modi’s image and the message of ‘vikas’ is a key part of the campaign. The BJP claims there are 7.5 lakh unemployed in the state — a claim the CPM dismisses. “Less than 10% of the people are connected on the internet. Everyone has to go out to study. There are no industries. There was no traffic light in Agartala till a few weeks ago. What we are promising urban, small town Tripura is modernity and connectivity with the rest of India,” says a backroom BJP strategist.

The BJP has also resorted to the technique it has used in the rest of the Northeast: import leaders. Indeed, the initial push to the party came from the entry of Congress-turned-TMC MLAs who joined BJP. This is coupled with a focus on booth-level committees. The party claims it is close to having such units across the 3,214 booths in the state.

And finally, across the Bengali and tribal belt, across urban and rural Tripura, the BJP has unleashed a campaign blitzkrieg. In Agaratala, saffron flags and hoardings greet you. The party believes that with less than a fortnight to go, the momentum is with them. “There was always a strong anti-CPM vote here. You needed a strong opposition to tap it.

We will get the PM for three rallies. Amit Shah has already had two massive rallies and will have more. Rajnath Singh did a roadshow. We have got Smriti Irani, who speaks excellent Bangla. We will get Yogi Adityanath, who had a huge following among the Nath sect followers here. More leaders will join us. CPM neither has leaders nor a message any more,” says a party strategist. He says, “We are also banking on the fact that people are bored with CPM. We are offering something different.”

The challenge

This, of course, does not mean that the outcome of the election is a foregone conclusion. The party, by its own admission, lacks a strong state leader. Its most public local face is Biplab Deb, who was not well known till a couple of years ago. “We also have to convert tribal support into votes. It won’t be easy. We have to manage rebels unhappy with ticket distribution. And in the final three days before polls, we have to do monetary management right and manage booths. Remember the CPM is a cadre-based party too. A lot of what we think was our uniqueness is in fact something they have practised in terms of booth mobilisation. All these challenges will have to be managed,” says the BJP strategist.

But finally, it will boil down to which of the following appeals to the electorate of Tripura: Manik Sarkar’s record of peace and the CPM’s promise of stability; Narendra Modi’s allure and the BJP’s promise of change.

First Published: Feb 08, 2018 07:59 IST