Tribal seats

Tribal vote swing

Print edition : March 30, 2018

Workers of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura and the BJP on their way to attend Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election rally in Agartala on February 15. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

THE focal point of the 2018 Assembly elections in Tripura was the 20 Assembly seats in the Tripura Tribal Autonomous Areas Development Council (TTAADC) region. Right from the start, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had realised that if it had any chance of defeating the 25-year-old Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government, it would have to strike at their strongest bastion—the tribal belt, which accounted for one-third of the total seats in the Assembly.

There is a saying in Tripura that the red flag was born and reared in the tribal area. The tribal movement was the core from which the Left movement spread in the State. So strong was the CPI(M)’s base in these 20 seats that the joke in political circles was that the opposition calculated its prospects after an election only in the remaining 40 seats. In the last five elections, the Left scored huge victories in this region, winning 19 seats both in 2013 and 2008, 14 seats both in 2003 and 1998, and 19 seats in 1993. Even when it lost the elections in 1988, the Left still won half of the TTAADC Assembly seats.

In the elections to the Council seats, too, the Gana Mukti Parishad (GMP), the tribal wing of the CPI(M), has been invincible for the past 15 years. In the last three elections to the TTAADC (2005, 2010 and 2015), the GMP made a clean sweep of all the 28 Council seats. In 2016, the GMP secured 96 per cent of the seats in the village committee elections held in the TTAADC region.

So, the crushing defeat it suffered in this Assembly election in the tribal areas at the hands of the BJP-IPFT (Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura) combine came as a greater shock than the overall defeat of the Left in the elections. The BJP-IPFT won 17 of the 19 seats that went to the polls in the region (the election to the Charilam seat was deferred owing to the death of the CPI(M) candidate before the elections). The BJP won nine of the 11 seats it contested, the IPFT eight and the CPI(M) two. “The CPI(M) movement originated in the tribal belt, and we knew that to finish the CPI(M) we will have to finish its influence in the tribal region,” said Arun Bhowmik, senior BJP leader and chief spokesperson of the party.

The BJP’s alliance with the IPFT, an organisation that has been demanding a separate State for the tribal people, was a calculated risk that paid off. A fine balancing act was required to ignite the passion of the tribal people to unite for a common cause on the one hand and to assure non-tribal Bengalis that the BJP would never allow the partitioning of the State.

“The IPFT wants a separate State, but we are not agreeable to it and will not allow it under any circumstances. We will do whatever is needed for the social, financial and cultural development of the tribal people…. There is a section of the people who have grievances and want a separate State, for which the CPI(M) and the Congress are responsible. We have assured them that we will address those grievances that have led them to demand a separate State. And once our government is formed, we believe that this demand will also go away,” said Bhowmik.

IPFT president N.C. Debbarma, however, maintained that he would not be moved into giving up his demand for statehood. “Now that we have won, we will be pushing our demand in the Assembly and will actively pursue the Centre’s commitment to form a high-level committee to look into our demand,” Debbarma told Frontline.

The tribal region, which had borne the brunt of extremist violence from the 1990s until 2006, was also the CPI(M) government’s main focus of development once the menace of insurgency was defeated. The first task of the BJP-IPFT was to convince the tribal population that they were being deprived of their due by the CPI(M). Once the seeds of resentment were planted, the call for a separate State caught on like wildfire.

“The tribal people have realised that they have long been neglected and there has been little development in the region. When the IPFT raised the demand for a separate State, the followers of the GMP realised that if the tribal people had to survive then they would have to leave the CPI(M) and so they started joining us in large numbers,” said Debbarma.

According to Ranjit Debbarma, who runs a cable news channel in Kokborok (the language of the Tripuri tribe) in the TTAADC region, the CPI(M)’s long reign was mainly due to the fact that no alternative force had emerged in the region strong enough to challenge it. “The resentment against the ruling party has been growing for a while. Apart from the feeling of being deprived and neglected, the tribal people were unhappy about the manner in which Bangladeshi immigrants were being allowed to settle in the State and with the lies that the communists have been spreading about religion and about the kings of Tripura, to whom the tribal people are still very loyal. All these issues have been building up against them for many years,” said Ranjit.

Violence returns

One of the main achievements of the CPI(M) in the tribal region was establishing peace and stability after nearly a decade of extremist violence. However, with the IPFT’s assertion of its strength, violence once again cast its shadow over the region. Frequent clashes started breaking out between the supporters of the GMP and the IPFT. A journalist was killed in September last year following clashes between the two parties.

“With development reaching the region, there has been a rise in the aspirations of the people, particularly the youth. A middle class among the tribal people has emerged, who wish for whatever mainstream India has to offer. With all our constraints it was not possible for us to fulfil their aspirations,” said a senior CPI(M) source. On top of this, after so many years in power, corruption had found its way at the lower levels of the party, which further alienated the people.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

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