Tripura responds to BJP’s ‘chalo paltai’ call, helps it win the red bastion
On Wednesday, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi met the chief ministers of all the BJP-ruled states, he predicted that the BJP would win Tripura, and told them that the celebration that followed should be bigger than the one after last year’s assembly election sweep in Uttar Pradesh, people familiar with the matter said on Saturday.
“Modi ji said, ‘It will not just be an electoral win for the BJP. It will be a victory for our ideology’,” said one of the people present at the meeting who asked not to be named. This is because the BJP and the Left parties have been engaged in an ideological battle on several issues, particularly in West Bengal and Kerala, this person added.
The results confirmed Modi’s prediction and the BJP defeated Tripura’s Communist Party of India (Marxist) government, which has been in power in the state for 25 years. Chief Minister Manik Sarkar of the CPI(M) was dethroned after two decades at the helm.
The BJP’s rise in Tripura has been steep: from forfeiting its deposit in 49 of the 50 seats it contested in 2013 to cruising to a comfortable majority with almost half the vote share five years later.
“People responded very well to our call of ‘Chalo Paltai’ (Let’s Change),” BJP general secretary Ram Madhav said in Agartala on Saturday.
The BJP first sensed an opportunity in Tripura during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, in which it increased its vote share and tally threefold compared to 2009. “The Congress and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress were a challenge. Together they had polled 5 lakh votes and occupied the space between us and the CPI(M),” said a BJP strategist from the northeast.
The Congress had a vote share of 36.5% in the previous assembly elections, and this gave the BJP the confidence that there was a space for a credible and strong opposition to the Left in Tripura. With this in mind, the BJP started working on taking over the Opposition space, party insiders said.
Building the team
The tipping point was when former Congress leader and key north-east strategist Himanta Biswa Sarma joined the party in 2016. With Sarma’s help, the BJP won Assam in April that year, prompting party president Amit Shah to set Sarma on a mission to win other states in the region for the party.
Sunil Deodhar, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader, was already working in Tripura to build a new team in the CPI(M) stronghold, along with Biplab Kumar Deb, who was sent to Tripura in 2015 as the party’s jan sampark pramukh (chief for mass-connect programmes). Deb soon emerged as a leader with potential, and was elevated as the party chief in January 2016. Today he is seen as the front-runner to be the state’s next chief minister.
With the team of Sarma, Deodhar, Deb and Madhav in place, the party began its 2018 mission. Sarma and Madhav worked on expanding the BJP’s base, while Deodhar and Deb concentrated on galvanising BJP workers. It was for the first time that the CPI(M), a cadre-based party, was confronted with another cadre-based party in the form of a transformed BJP.
The BJP leaders began identifying and approaching leaders from the Congress and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) for a possible changeover. Six TMC MLAs joined the BJP in August 2017, giving the party its first entry into the state assembly. These leaders had been elected to the Tripura assembly as Congress members, but had defected to the TMC in 2016. In December 2017, another Congress MLA and former leader of opposition, Ratan Lal Nath, joined the BJP, leading to other smaller Congress leaders changing loyalties.
The BJP gradually grew in size and influence, and it was now time to pick up the right issues and the right allies. The BJP was quick to adapt to the demands of the state. Instead of talking about Sangh icons Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Deendayal Upadhyaya, it worked on linking itself with the legacy of Tripura’s last king Bir Bikram Kishore Deb Burman of the Manikya dynasty. The party celebrated his 110th birth anniversary. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Debbarma Manikya Bahadur’s rich contribution towards the development of Tripura can never be forgotten.”
The BJP’s vision document for the February 2018 polls said that the Agartala airport would be renamed Maharaja Bir Bikram Manikya Kishore Deb Burman airport, and a cultural art academy would be established after another former king, Birendra Kishore Manikya Bahadur.
In addition to these symbolic gestures, about 400,000 government employees were wooed with the promises of implementing the Seventh Pay Commission recommendations instead of the Fourth Pay Commission rules that were being used in the state, and the regularisation of jobs of contract employees.
Most of the government employees had been hired under the CPI(M) rule and several of them behaved almost as cadres of the ruling party, but the BJP’s offer for better salaries and perks won them over.
Other promises included free education for women till graduation, free smartphones to young people, free health insurance to below poverty line (BPL) households, social allowances of at least Rs 2000 per month and a minimum wage of R340 per day in line with the national standard.
Meanwhile, the BJP opened communications with tribal groups and stitched an alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT). The Left had won 19 out of 20 assembly seats reserved for the scheduled tribes in 2013 and the BJP wanted to break this monopoly. The gamble paid off and the BJP, with the IPFT, swept the tribal belt.
The focus then shifted to the campaign. Modi – BJP’s most sought after campaigner – held four rallies in Tripura, where he took on the chief minister over the lack of development in the state. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, another popular campaigner, was roped in to woo the strong population of members of the Nath sect in Tripura. Part president Amit Shah and other leaders of the BJP, too, held public meetings to tap on the anti-incumbency against the Manik Sarkar government.
“The prime minister addressed four rallies in Tripura. He had worked very hard and continuously monitored our campaigning. The credit must go to him,” Ram Madhav said on Saturday. But it was, in the end, a combination of factors and deft planning that worked for the party in a red bastion.