Tripura Assembly elections

Fall of a citadel

Print edition : March 30, 2018

BJP State President and chief ministerial candidate Biplab Kumar Deb (left) with outgoing Chief Minister Manik Sarkar at the CPI(M) party head office in Agartala on March 4. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Facing the BJP and the RSS for the first time in Tripura’s history, the CPI(M) fails to gauge their tactics and loses its support base, particularly among the tribal people.

The electoral battle for Tripura was expected to be a close one. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front, looking for a sixth consecutive term in power, was up against an opponent it had never faced before—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Most analysts and political observers, while not completely ruling out the chance of a BJP victory, felt the CPI(M) had the edge and would most probably return to power, albeit with a markedly reduced number of seats. However, on March 4, when the results were declared, all expectations were belied. If the BJP’s victory over the Left Front came as a surprise, what was downright baffling was the massive margin of the win. The BJP and its ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), won 43 (BJP 35, IPFT 8) of the 59 seats for which elections were held, while the CPI(M) managed to win just 16.

Polling for one seat, Charilam, was deferred owing to the death of the CPI(M) candidate ahead of the elections. (Subsequently, the Left Front withdrew its candidate in Charilam following widespread violence.) In 2013, the Left Front won 50 seats, while the Congress won 10.

The BJP-IPFT polled 50.5 per cent of the total votes (BJP 43 per cent, IPFT 7.5 per cent) and the Left Front 44.9 per cent, with the CPI(M) securing 42.7 per cent alone. The Congress, which until 2013 was the principal opposition in the State, could manage only 1.8 per cent. Even those who had foreseen a BJP win did not imagine such a landslide victory.

The winning margins for the BJP were not small either. In only 11 of the 43 seats that the alliance won, the vote difference dipped below 2,000, whereas in seven of the 16 seats won by the CPI(M) the margins were slender. The new Chief Minister of Tripura is the State BJP president, Biplab Kumar Deb, while the Deputy Chief Minister is the tribal leader Jishnu Devvarma, a descendant of the erstwhile royal family of Tripura.

Riding on its slogan “Chalo Paltai” (Come let us bring about a change), the BJP seemed to have emerged out of thin air, taking the Left by complete surprise and delivering a knockout punch that the ruling party, which had been in power for a total of seven terms since 1977, could not even foresee. What is unique about this election is that there had been no indication of a change.

Unlike in West Bengal where CPI(M)-led Left Front, which had ruled continuously for 34 years, was overthrown by the Trinamool Congress in 2011, in Tripura there was no indication that a well-entrenched Left Front, which had led a government for five consecutive terms, would be so convincingly defeated. In West Bengal, the change of the State government’s economic policy and the method of land acquisition for industries culminating in two major upheavals—the Singur and Nandigram movements—were perceived as the catalyst for “Paribartan”, or change (the political catchword of the opposition). This served to intensify the anti-incumbency sentiment, hastening the downfall through a systematic decline of votes in the successive panchayat elections of 2008, the Lok Sabha elections of 2009, the municipal elections of 2010, and finally the Assembly elections of 2011.

In Tripura, however, there was no obvious catalyst for such an upheaval. After storming back to power for its fifth consecutive term in 2013, the Left Front showed no signs of decline in the subsequent elections. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it won both the parliamentary seats, securing over 64 per cent of the votes, showing a lead in all the Assembly segments; and in the 2015 panchayat elections, it won a massive 75 per cent of the gram panchayats.

Moreover, the Left Front government under the leadership of Chief Minister Manik Sarkar was widely regarded as one of the most exemplary State governments of the country both in performance and probity. Not only had it managed to overcome the menace of insurgency, but, in spite of numerous hurdles, remained steadfast on the path of development and committed to providing relief to the poorest sections of an impoverished, food-deficit, industry-starved State.

The loss, despite many positive factors working in the CPI(M)’s favour, turned all pre-election analyses on their head, and have sent political pundits desperately searching for plausible explanations. Gautam Das, CPI(M) Central Committee member and spokesperson of the Left Front of Tripura, told Frontline: “Our preliminary analysis has revealed several reasons for our defeat. First, the total Central government machinery was used to remove the Left Front from power. A huge amount of unaccounted money was pumped in to buy votes. Laptops were distributed, women were gifted expensive clothes, etc. Secondly, by allying with the IPFT, which has been demanding a separate State, the BJP ignited a passion among the tribal people for statehood, which went in favour of the alliance. The Hindutva card of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) also worked among the people of the plains.” According to some estimates, as many as 5,000 BJP workers and RSS cadres were deployed for the Tripura elections. Equally surprising was the sudden emergence of the BJP in the run-up to the elections as a new, formidable political force. A party that for so long could not win a single seat in the State, had a vote share of a measly 1.87 per cent in the last Assembly elections in 2013, and was neither known to have any organisational base nor any grassroots following wrested from the Congress the position of the main opposition by luring into its fold eight of the 10 Congress legislators. By that time the anti-Left voters of the State had also lost faith in the Congress as a viable alternative to the CPI(M) and turned to the BJP, which, quickly, without requiring to build any proper base in the State, found itself as the number two party. Moreover, there was a feeling that the Congress’ central leadership was more interested in the two Lok Sabha seats in the State than actually dislodging the CPI(M) from power.

By the middle of 2017, with the RSS already having established a presence in the State, particularly in the tribal areas that fall under the Tripura Tribal Autonomous Areas Development Council (TTAADC) region, and the central BJP leadership having carefully prepared its plans to capture the north-eastern region of India, the stage was set for a new force to take on the CPI(M). The Congress was all but finished, at least for the 2018 elections. It ended up securing only 1.8 per cent of the total votes. “We were the main opposition for so long and should have nurtured whatever we had won; but instead, Tripura was completely neglected by the Congress high command. The AICC [All India Congress Committee] member in charge of Tripura, C.P. Joshi, did not do anything to stop the erosion in the party. Our situation in Tripura is because of some very wrong decisions taken at the central level,” a senior Congress source told Frontline.

Battle of ideologies

For the first time in Tripura, the electoral battle had become strictly ideological. Earlier it was a battle for political space between the CPI(M) and the Congress. There was a huge mobilisation of RSS cadres and BJP workers from the neighbouring Assam and other States to counter the well-organised political and electoral machinery of the CPI(M). Though some have accused the CPI(M) of complacency in not taking the threat of the BJP as seriously as it should have, the reality, however, cannot be explained away so easily. The CPI(M) had never taken the rise of the BJP lightly. In fact, it was several months into its election campaign before the BJP showed any signs of stirring.

If its past achievements, that is, bringing about “peace, stability and development”, were the main weapon in the Left’s arsenal, the BJP found the chink in the armour—the growing aspirations of the people, particularly young voters. Moreover, cashing in on a “Narendra Modi wave” that is evidently still running high in Tripura, the BJP successfully projected the fight as one between nationalists and communists. “The fact is that at a time the BJP was garnering support for itself by stoking the flames of nationalistic passion, the Left, by focussing on other issues, ended up alienating a large section of the voters. In their campaign rallies, while the Left used Ganasangeet [revolutionary songs], the BJP used nationalist songs. The CPI(M) could not counter the nationalist agenda of the BJP and the RSS in Tripura this time,” said the noted psephologist and political scientist Biswanath Chakraborty.

This is something that the CPI(M) cannot deny. “We did not underestimate them [the BJP], but we did not fully gauge the tactics of the RSS and what they had been up to for the last three years. We had never faced them before,” said Gautam Das.

Key tribal votes

However, it was not on ideology alone that the battle was fought, for the BJP had taken certain well-calculated tactical steps, which initially looked as though they would work against it but which ultimately proved to be its trump card. The alliance it forged with the IPFT, headed by the tribal leader N.C. Debbarma, was a shrewd manoeuvre to strike at the strongest bastion of the CPI(M)—the 20 Assembly seats of the TTAADC area. The move was a double-edged sword which, with the slightest error, had the potential to backfire horribly against it. It would not only be unsuccessful in attracting the tribal vote but, in the process of wooing tribal voters with the promise of a separate State, stand to alienate the Bengali vote. Tribal people constitute only 31 per cent of the population of Tripura. But the plan worked, and the BJP-IPFT won 17 of the 19 seats in the TTAADC region.

The victory margin of the two seats won by the Left in the TTAADC region was also narrow. This was the biggest blow to the CPI(M). “We had hoped that the tribal belt will be with us, as it has always been, especially considering the work we had done for all-round development in that area. Losing the tribal votes changed everything,” said Gautam Das. In 2013, the Left Front won 19 of the 20 tribal seats.

Selling a dream

The clash of ideologies between the two new adversaries was also accompanied by a clash of visions for the State of Tripura, which the rivals placed in front of the electorate. Years of political stability following the defeat of extremist forces, and development, particularly at the grass-roots level, had raised the expectations and aspirations of the people of the State to a level that the government with all its constraints found impossible to address. It was these aspirations, particularly of the younger generation and the middle class, that the BJP targeted in its campaign. It presented an idea of a “modern”, “vibrant” Tripura.

The CPI(M), on the other hand, facing a new opponent with a new battle strategy, tried to counter it with its tried and tested formula—“peace, harmony, development”. This slogan had worked for 25 consecutive years. But now it seemed the younger generation wanted something more. The figure of the educated unemployed in Tripura stands at 19.7 per cent, and the Left was not able to address the disenchantment of the young voter. The BJP, with its more dazzling promise of a vibrant Tripura for the young, managed to sway those between ages 18 and 35—accounting for roughly 40 per cent of the electorate—to its side.

“People of my generation have been waiting for a change all our lives. We do not know how much of what the BJP has promised will be possible to achieve. But they have given us hope. What we desperately need now are jobs,” said Amar Saha, 29, who works in Shyam Steel in Agartala.

It was a clever piece of marketing by the BJP that gave the illusion of individual aspirations being fulfilled, with the idea of making each individual believe that she would be better off with the BJP in power than the CPI(M). The Left, on the other hand, continued with its focus on overall growth with special emphasis on rural development. By promising to implement the Seventh Pay Commission in the State after coming to power, the BJP also lured into its support base the government sector employees in the State, who have been getting the scale of the Fourth Pay Commission. The fact that there is a BJP government at the Centre and that party stalwarts themselves, including party president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, campaigned in Tripura and assured the people of better days to come strengthened the attractiveness of the BJP’s promises.

However, there are quite a few who feel that the vision of development that the BJP has presented may not be as easily achievable even with the party in power at the Centre. “In a landlocked State like Tripura where communication is poor and building infrastructure difficult, one cannot expect a sudden economic turnaround. What can happen is, with the BJP being in power at the Centre, certain Central schemes may be initiated to provide employment and pump in money into the economy. This will undoubtedly provide some economic relief and give an apparent sense of prosperity, but it is certainly not enough to transform the State,” said Gautam Gupta, former Professor of Economics, Jadavpur University.

It was not that the CPI(M) government was not aware that the aspirations of the people had grown enormously, but there was little it could do to meet them. On the other hand, the rising anti-incumbency sentiment was further exacerbated with allegations of corruption, nepotism and high-handedness that tarnished the once-unimpeachable image of the CPI(M). Even Manik Sarkar with his sobriquet “the poorest Chief Minister of India” and the enormous respect that he commands could not salvage the situation.

The most common allegations against the CPI(M) rule have been its arrogance and discriminatory behaviour between those who support it and those who do not. “In Tripura, one could not do anything, start any business, get any job, unless you were a known supporter of the party. This was drilled into the minds of the people by the CPI(M). It was blatantly done and the people had no choice but to accept it. The BJP’s slogan ‘Chalo Paltai’ was like a magic word. It was like a key to freedom,” said Indira Deb, 28, from Agartala, who works in a private company and also part-time in a local news channel.

The CPI(M) government was also left red-faced when in March 2017 the Supreme Court upheld a decision of the Tripura High Court setting aside the recruitment of 10,323 teachers in government schools. The Left Front government’s alleged closeness to the chit fund company Rose Valley, whose owner Gautam Kundu is at present behind bars, has also been a source of constant embarrassment for the party.

Impact of the win

The victory of the BJP in Tripura is more than just an electoral triumph for the Centre. It understood the huge symbolic significance of defeating the Left in what is considered its impregnable citadel and accordingly deployed all the resources at its disposal to achieve that end. Prime Minister Modi himself held four rallies in the State.

If the emergence of the BJP as a force in Tripura politics seemed a sudden development, it was because the preparation for it was done quietly and methodically for quite some time; the fact that the number of RSS shakhas increased from 60 to over 260 in the last three years shows how serious the Sangh Parivar was about capturing Tripura. From 2014 itself, Sunil Deodhar, the man given charge of Tripura by Amit Shah, had been camping in the State, learning the local language and charting out the course to take on the seemingly invincible CPI(M).

Interestingly, the BJP is not projecting the victory as simply an electoral one. It is being perceived as a symbolic victory, one that Modi dubbed a “victory of ideology”.

The ripples of the Tripura results have been felt all over the county. It has once again brought to the fore, particularly among regional political parties outside the National Democratic Alliance, the question of the necessity for a broad-based alliance to counter the BJP’s surge in eastern and north-eastern India.

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