Riding the waves - The Statesman

Riding the waves

It’s official now. The BJP is finally the principal opposition party in Tripura, a long-time CPI-M citadel cradled in the wilds of the Northeast. Last week, six Trinamul Congress legislators formally joined the BJP. An enthusiastic BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, also a former RSS spokesman, tweeted, “Six TMC MLAs join the BJP in Tripura along with thousands of workers in the presence of minister Dharmendra Pradhan, Himanta Biswa Sarma (Assam’s minister) and others”.

Well, all the “strange bed fellows” and known turn-coats, have finally come together with a single agendum — ouster of the Manik Sarkar regime. More than the political aspect of it, the development talks about a state where people have generally preferred the Leftist ideology and the Congress could make a foray into the corridors of power only under controversial circumstances. The dynamics of politics is such that there is always an anti-establishment voter. He or she longs for a political platform to convey his/her views vis-avis the party the person wants to oppose.

These anti-establishment or antiincumbency voters had generally stuck to the Congress. “It was kind of a compulsion though most often we felt suffocated and worse, even betrayed by our high command,” says a local Congress leader in Dhalai district. He has already shifted to the BJP.


“We came via the Trinamul Congress of Mamata Banerjee because sometime back we thought she was sincere to fight the CPI-M everywhere — in West Bengal and outside. But she has lately started talking to CPIM’s general secretary Sitaram Yechury. Her journey ends in Tripura,” he says.

The complaint was that Mamata Banerjee started hobnobbing with the Marxists during demonetisation protests last year leaving Tripura party cadres in the lurch. In fact, this is the argument articulated by many Trinamul workers who gathered at spacious ground at Agartala carrying BJP flags and raising slogans “BJP zindabad, zindabad”.

In contrast is 74-year-old Poritosh Chakraborty, a retired school teacher who steadfastly opposed the Communist ideology all these years. “Fifteen years back if I had said, the BJP will have more than half a dozen MLAs in the Tripura assembly, my colleagues and students would have called me mad. Today, it’s becoming a reality,” says Chakroborty. His emotion is more for himself and his personal dream — that of driving out the Communists from Tripura, perhaps more than even Narendra Modi or Amit Shah.

“Today, we have the BJP which may fight the Leftists with all its might and sincerity,” he says. The likes of Chakroborty believe the “traditional Bengali Hindu culture” has come under threat in Tripura under the Marxists’ rule. “They have taught to ridicule Hinduism,” another 25-yearold youth in Agartala seems to endorse such views.

But all said and done, the Trinamul Congress legislators joining the BJP certainly hints at a serious shift in the state’s conventional political narrative.

Thus, it goes without saying for the first time, perhaps after 1988, the Left Front and the CPI-M would be facing a tough poll battle.

A typical feature of the en masse defection process of the sitting legislators, who essentially come from the Congress school, is that these MLAs are hardly known to have ever subscribed to the idea of — as the Marxists would like to put it — cultural Hindu hegemony. Now whether this makes the CPI-M challenge more complex remains to be seen.

Those who know the politics of Tripura are hardly surprised at the development. That said the episode can be definitely attributed to BJP national president Amit Shah’s corporate-style approach.

But, as the saying goes, there are wheels within wheels and the BJP ought to be careful about such cobwebs. While these MLAs bring in the merits on the table of giving the saffron party its foray into the state assembly, there may be certain limitations and legacy problems with them.

In the words of a long-time Tripura watcher Manas Paul, most of the Trinamul leaders had been “groomed in an environment that was Congress specific — abhorrence to hierarchical discipline”.

The cultural DNA of the BJP has been discipline even as, over the years, various compromises have been made on that front also. But those who know Prime Minister Modi and Amit Shah some kind of “obedience” is expected, even if one doesn’t like it.

However, questions remain about the manner in which all six have been accepted into the party fold. Some heart burning is expected. This school of thought suggests the BJP would now be fraught with a different kind of combativeness from within or outside also.

BJP insiders say such problems are bound to come when one is on an extensive and aggressive expansion plan — with ideology or without ideology. But how does, the BJP justify accepting a legislator like Sudip Roy Barman into its fold?

Barman, a former Congressman turned Trinamul Congress leader and now BJP MLA in the state, had written himself into the history of “misconduct” in a state legislature by his actions in the state assembly on 18 December 2016 when he had picked up a mace from the Speaker’s table and ran away with it. “I was trying to get the Speaker’s attention. He wasn’t allowing a discussion on an important issue, the misconduct of a minister,” Barman later said.

But BJP leaders are more than happy with the manner in which things have unfolded in Tripura. Many say it is no small achievement to emerge as the principal challenger to the CPI-M, in the assembly and outside, and that too in the run up to the assembly polls expected in February 2018. It is more so because the BJP was nowhere in Tripura. “But people of the state are realising the political bluff of the Communists and hence coming closer to the BJP,” says Sapna Das, a BJP woman leader in Kamalpur town.

But the challenges before the BJP for deeper penetration are too many and complex. Insiders in the BJP say its strategists already realise it well that unlike the cow-belt northern states like Uttar Pradesh where the BJP pushed temple and other proHindutva issues, in Tripura they would need to take up more mundane issues — jobs, women empowerment and industrialisation.

The repeated assertions by Amit Shah and BJP leaders to reach out to intellectuals in Tripura are essentially to break the umbilical cord between the voters and the pro-Marxist intellectualism of the middle class. The voters in Tripura, like West Bengal, are essentially “pro-Left” due to intellectual affinity and overdose of Marxist politics.

But BJP leaders say in Assam too, the saffron party might have faced hurdles in the 1980s and 1990s but those were more from a linguistic point of view as the party in those days was seen as more of a pro-Hindi language party. But in Bengal and also in Tripur, BJP strategists realise that the even upper caste Hindus do not necessarily relate to the Brahminical appeal of the RSS.

Hence, there will be a change of strategy. In West Bengal’s Naxalbari, Amit Shah had lunch, which was hosted by a tribal couple. The message from Tripura to the BJP has been that one can be the biggest political rival of the Marxists or Leftists but Bengali voters may still not entirely reject the power of “Marxism” as an intellectual food for thought. This ought to be addressed. The writer is a New Delhi-based freelance contributor, and can be contacted at swati.mili@gmail.com