Tripura elections: ‘Aspirational’ Bengalis, tribals script BJP’s win

Bengali settlers are just over 70% of Tripura’s population. Indigenous tribals account for the rest, and one-third of the seats in the 60-member state assembly are reserved for tribals

Tripura Elections 2018 Updated: Mar 04, 2018 08:22 IST
Subir Bhaumik
Subir Bhaumik
New Delhi
Tripura,Tripura elections,BJP
BJP Supporters celebrate their victory in North Eastern States Elections at BJP Headquarters, DDU Marg in New Delhi, India, on Saturday, March 03, 2018. (HT Photo)

Ruled continuously from 1978 (with the exception of one term between 1988 and 1993) by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front, Tripura has finally gone the saffron way.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) general secretary Ram Madhav described the victory as a historic win, saying he was “not surprised because Tripura wanted a change”.

CPI(M) leaders were largely silent but at least one of them, Suneet Chopra, was already complaining of “possible rigging”, perhaps alluding to EVM doctoring charge levelled against the BJP in other states with unprecedented margins of victory. Without evidence, such allegations do not cut ice.

Bengali settlers are just over 70% of Tripura’s population. Indigenous tribals account for the rest, and one-third of the seats in the 60-member state assembly are reserved for tribals.

The Left had so far swept the polls by capitalising on its success in crushing the violent tribal insurgency through a combination of police action, covert operations against rebel bases allegedly using surrendered militants and local mafia, and grassroots development.

Rural Bengali settlers, threatened with violence and ejection, voted for the Left because they felt they needed a tough government to keep the head on their shoulder before bothering about the stomach. But the aspirational middle-class Bengali in the cities, especially capital Agartala, has clearly lost hope in Manik Sarkar, whose development record did not inspire the young.

From an analysis of voting patterns, it is clear that the urban Bengali voter, in Agartala and other towns where the threat of tribal militancy has never been serious, voted for change. The sweep in the 20 tribal seats turned a marriage of contradictions into a winning formula, with the BJP not only cornering tribal votes through its alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) but also winning middle-class Bengali voters by focusing on the lack of development. By not accepting the IPFT’s separate Twipraland demand, and by giving it only nine of the 20 tribal seats, the BJP made it clear to the Bengalis that voting the IPFT to power was one sure way of nipping the demand for a separate state in the bud.

The CPI(M) also paid dearly because it did not promote a tribal leader after the demise of former chief minister Dasarath Deb. Former industry minister Jiten Choudhury, seen as an alternative to Manik Sarkar, was sent to the Lok Sabha, where he performs as creditably as Sitaram Yechury did in Rajya Sabha.

Young voters, both tribals and Bengalis, seem to have turned to the BJP because they are upset with the Left’s failure to attract investments and create jobs. One example is how the Left failed to get even a single major IT investor even though three years have passed since Agartala became India’s third internet gateway in 2015. “In the neo-liberal economy, Manik Sarkar cannot create thousands of government jobs by bringing in central funds. That is a thing of the past and won’t work anymore,” says Saumen Sarkar, who hails from Tripura and is a vice-president at Bank of America.

The BJP has now emerged as Tripura’s leading party with a 43% vote share — up from 1% — and a seat count of 35 from zero. The Left remains a force with 42.7% vote share and 16 seats, severely depleted nut nonetheless a strong Opposition bloc the BJP-IPFT cannot wish away.

( The writer is senior fellow at CSIRD and a former BBC correspondent.)

First Published: Mar 04, 2018 08:19 IST