Tripura has voted and that too on Sunday. This can never happen in any other state of the North-east with a substantial Christian population but is par for the course for a Left Front-ruled state. That the small Christian population of Tripura cannot even make an issue of this violation of their minority rights show exactly how suppressed the tribal voice is. Ironically, neither the Congress nor the BJP has made an issue of this. But having said that let’s take a look at the poll prospects of various parties in this hitherto Left bastion.
The BJP launched its first grand campaign in March last year at the Swami Vivekenanda multi-purpose stadium. At that rally BJP national general secretary, Ram Madhav, declared that the party would oust the ruling Left Front in the Assembly elections. This was a bold statement and an unusual experience for many in Tripura — a traditional Left bastion where the red flag is the only thing they have known for 20 years. Last year I visited Tripura University for some work and was surprised to see the saffron-lotus flag flying atop buildings and shops and by the roadside near small business establishments. It was almost as if the hoi-polloi had accepted the BJP. When I spoke to a few university professors on this issue they ducked my question. Now that is understandable since universities are traditionally Left bastions.
The BJP left small footprints in 2013 where it contested by-elections and elections to the Tribal Autono-mous Councils and only managed with a poor vote share of 1.54 per cent. Since then the Party has come a long way. In the 2013 Assembly polls, the Left Front won 50 seats, leaving the Congress, its major rival, with only 10 seats. Indeed Tripura is the last Left bastion after Kerala. So from a non-entity in 2013 for the BJP to have sounded the poll bugle with confidence in the last one year is some achievement. The BJP is a cadre-based party and cadre management is the forte of the RSS. The strength of the Communists too rest in their cadres. So this time it’s a straight fight between two cadre-based parties.
The BJP posted RSS pracharak Sunil Deodhar, a man whose mission field started with Meghalaya. He has worked in the state for over two decades spreading the RSS ideology especially among those tribals who still cling to their indigenous faith.
Early last year Deodhar was made election in charge of Tripura. Since then he has never rested. One of the ways in which the RSS spreads its ideology is by understanding the culture and sensitivities of the people it works with. Deodhar was a founder member of an organisation called “My Home India” with branches across all states. Within this organisation he set up a sister branch called “One” an acronym for “Our North East”. One identifies people from the North-east who have done exemplary work in their respective fields whether that is social work, journalism, music et al, and awards them. My Home India and One also assist students from the North-eastern states who go out to study and encounter problems in their respective colleges and universities. So this benign aspect of the RSS is worth mentioning when people take a dig at the organisation and call it a Hindutva task force.
Deodhar has ingeniously infiltrated the tribal belt and worked with their leaders particularly those with political ambitions. The BJP has aligned with the Indigenous Peoples’ Front of Tripura, a tribal political group that Manik Sarkar, Tripura’s chief minister, labels a militant outfit that once demanded a sovereign Tripura and has now toned down its demand for a separate state. The BJP-IPFT alliance is a dichotomous one because the BJP says it is against granting statehood to the tribal areas of Tripura but the IPFT’s major demand is a separate state. Yet the two parties shared the stage when Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigned in Tripura.
The major points in the BJP’s vision document are bound to excite voters. They include promises of (a) one employment per household (b) free education for women up to the graduation level (what the Left Front government is already providing) (c) free smart-phones for the youth to further the Digital India agenda (d) 7th Pay Commission to be implemented (d) 33 social security schemes among which pension for widows will be raised to Rs 2,000 from Rs 700 (e) daily labourers to get minimum wage of Rs 340, which is the national minimum wage (f) housing to every BPL family under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and (g) family health insurance of up to Rs 5 lakh for BPL families.
One emotional appeal is that of changing the name of Agartala airport to Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore airport in honour of the royal family of Tripura, which the Left has left no stone unturned to wipe off the annals of history. Incidentally, the Congress too has promised the same if it comes to power. And of course the BJP cannot let go off this one important agenda, which is to investigate into the Rose Valley chit fund scam in which Sarkar’s name also features, among those of other ministers.
In Tripura, the Congress is reduced to a cipher. The party bigwigs only started fanning out to campaign about a fortnight ago. Rahul Gandhi campaigned in Tripura on 16 February, which was a tad too late. The royal family of Tripura has been traditional Congress supporters and represented the party in the Assembly and Parliament. But as elsewhere, the Congress, which lacks the commitment of cadre based parties, is shrivelling in Tripura. Political analysts believe it might not even get a single seat this time. Hence the fight in Tripura is between the Left and BJP. While BJP claims that it will get at least 35 seats, political observers say this is a tall claim. They feel that the Left Front will get at least 39-40 seats.
Since the BJP won Assam in 2016 and later formed the government in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, the saffron party has been on cloud nine. The formation of the North East Democratic Alliance headed by Assam’s finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is also the BJP’s poster boy in the North-east, has only emboldened the party to make inroads into every nook and corner of the region including Meghalaya and Nagaland where the BJP has launched a bold campaign.
In Tripura, the BJP has been coming second in by-elections and elections to the tribal autonomous councils. They have moved from a vote share of 22 per cent in 2015 to 36 per cent in 2016.
The fact that people want change after two decades of Left rule is also a reality. Bijan Dhar, the general secretary of the CPI (M) unit of Agartala, admits that the BJP is their main rival and that the Left cannot underestimate their rise. But the fact also remains that the BJP has poached people from the Congress, the Trinamul Congress and the IPFT because it had no known faces.
In Tripura, 20 of the 60 seats are reserved for tribals. The strategic alliance with the IPFT is expected to win the BJP a few seats in those areas. Former MLA of the IPFT, Rajeswar Debbarma, who leads the party, has been blowing hot and cold about an alliance with the BJP but even he sees the futility of relying on the Congress to achieve the goals of the his party; hence the last minute alliance with the BJP!
Meanwhile the CPI (M)’s main poll plank has been to ensure a climate of peace and security, which has been achieved after a long innings provided by a stable government led by Sarkar. It merits mentioning that Tripura is the first troubled state in the country where the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 has been revoked by any chief minister and that is no mean achievement. Sarkar still has the respect of a large section of people because of his own clean track record.
We have to wait for 3 March to see who will win the day. The campaign period has seen a lot of bloodshed in Tripura and one journalist lost his life in poll-related violence.
The writer is Editor of the Shillong Times and can be contacted at [email protected]