Manik Saha was sworn in as Chief Minister of Tripura again on March 8, after the BJP returned to power in the recently-concluded Assembly election. In the swearing-in ceremony that took place in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, and BJP national president J.P. Nadda, eight others were inducted in the Tripura Cabinet, including one from the BJP ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT).
The CPI (M)-led Left Front and its electoral partner, the Congress, did not attend the ceremony in protest against the post-election violence allegedly perpetrated by BJP activists against opposition workers and supporters.
Along with Saha, four other Ministers of the previous Cabinet—Sushanta Chowdhury, Ratan Lal Nath, Santana Chakma, and Pranajit Singh Roy—sworn in. The new faces in the Cabinet include two-time MLA Sudhangsu Das, Bikas Debbarma, Tinku Roy, and Sukla Charan Noatia of the IPFT.
Three seats were kept vacant in case the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA) Motha, the second largest party with 13 seats, is persuaded to enter into an alliance with the saffron party.
Earlier, Pradyot Manikya Debbarman, Motha supremo and scion of the royal family of Tripura, had refused to enter into any pre-election understanding with the BJP, even after two top-level meetings, as the latter was not willing to give any assurance in writing regarding the Motha’s demand for a separate State of Greater Tipraland.
However, after the swearing-in ceremony, Amit Shah met Debbarman, who then made the following statement on social media: “The Home Minister has started the process for a constitutional solution for the indigenous people of Tripura. An interlocutor for this process will be appointed and this will be within a specific time frame. I thank the Home Minister for understanding the genuine problems of the sons of the soil. We successfully got our Bru people rehabilitation in our State after 23 years by signing the Bru accord and today we have started a huge dialogue to ensure that our survival and existence are protected. Issues such as alliance and Cabinet were never discussed; only the interest of our dopha was discussed.”
Manik Saha factor
In a triangular election fought between the BJP-IPFT, the TIPRA Motha, and the CPI(M)-Congress combine, the BJP returned to power for its second consecutive term with a much reduced majority, winning just 33 out of the 60 seats (11 less than what it had won in 2018).
Facing strong anti-incumbency and discontent among a sizeable section of its own workers, the BJP replaced controversial former Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb with Manik Saha less than 10 months before the election.
The unabashedly desperate move to stem the downward slide worked, as the quiet and unassuming Manik Saha, a successful dentist by profession, managed to win over a large number of voters who were veering away from the ruling party.
His convincing win against Ashish Kumar Saha of the Congress from the Town Bardowali seat, which many expected to be a tough fight, was a clear indication of Manik Saha’s acceptability among the voters.
Interestingly, soon after the results were declared, another name was doing the rounds as a possible Chief Ministerial candidate: Pratima Bhowmik, Lok Sabha MP and Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment. In a closely fought election in which the BJP scraped through quite a few seats thanks to division of votes, Bhowmik emerged as a giant killer of sorts by capturing the CPI(M) stronghold of Dhanpur, a seat the Left had not lost since 1972.
According to a senior source in the BJP, initially, when Pratima Bhowmik’s name had come up, there was considerable “nervousness” among the rank and file of the party, as Manik Saha was the overwhelming choice for Chief Ministership.
“Not taking anything away from Pratima Bhowmik’s achievement, but it was Manik Saha who led the party to victory. It was his image that brought back voters into our fold. It would have been a huge mistake if he were not made the Chief Minister. The whole State is now happy with him at the helm,” the source told Frontline.