Tripura and Sikkim: Alliance shifts, controversial candidates, and a three-cornered battle

In Tripura, the election in the first phase is characterised by regional alliances. In Sikkim, the issue of identity is foremost on the agenda of all parties. 

Published : Apr 17, 2024 15:28 IST - 7 MINS READ

Tipra Motha chief Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma during a rally in support of Tripura BJP West Candidate Biplab Kumar Deb in Khumulwng on April 9.

Tipra Motha chief Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma during a rally in support of Tripura BJP West Candidate Biplab Kumar Deb in Khumulwng on April 9. | Photo Credit: ANI

Voting in the two tiny north-eastern States of Tripura and Sikkim will be completed in the first and second phases of the seven-phase election. While the two Lok Sabha seats in Tripura will go to the polls on April 19 and 26, Sikkim will have both its Assembly election and voting for its single Lok Sabha seat on April 19.

The recently forged mega alliance between the ruling BJP-Indigenous Peoples’ Front of Tripura (BJP-IPFT) and the main opposition party in the State, the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA) Motha, appears to give an advantage to the ruling alliance over the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-Congress combine. However, the uneasy and sometimes tempestuous relationship between the new partners, and the saffron party’s controversial choice of candidates for the two Lok Sabha seats in the State—Tripura West and Tripura East—has allowed the Left-Congress combine to keep alive its hope of pulling off a dramatic upset in at least one seat.

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For Tripura West, the BJP-Motha-IPFT has fielded the controversial former Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb; and for the Tripura East seat, Kriti Singh Debbarma, elder sister of Motha supremo Pradyot Bikram Manikya Debbarma, the former scion of the Tripura royal family. Interestingly, the BJP dropped both the sitting MPs—Pratima Bhowmik (West) and Rebati Tripura (East)—and gave the ticket to new candidates.

The Left-Congress combine has fielded Pradesh Congress Committee president Ashish Kumar Saha in Tripura West, and former CPI(M) MLA Rajendra Reang for the East seat, which is reserved for tribal people. Tripura West will vote on April 19, and Tripura East on April 26. The BJP won both seats in 2019, and in the Assembly election of 2023, the BJP-IPFT combine won most of the Assembly seats under the two Lok Sabha constituencies.

In the current scenario, following the alliance with the Motha, of the 30 Assembly seats under the Tripura East constituency, the ruling alliance has between them a total of 24 seats (BJP 15, Motha 8, and IPFT 1), while the Left-Congress has six (Left 5, Congress 1). In Tripura West, the BJP and Motha has 22 of the 30 seats (BJP 17, Motha 5), and the Left-Congress 8 (Left 6, Congress 2).

While the new alliance may look formidable in sheer numbers, the Left-Congress perceives that the alliance itself exposes the chink in the ruling combine. According to Jitendra Chaudhary, State secretary of the CPI(M), the anti-BJP votes that the Motha got in the Assembly elections may now shift to the Left-Congress. “While we can expect that the majority of the 22 per cent votes that Motha had got will now come to us, we are also looking at an erosion of support for the BJP, which is also the reason behind the forging of the alliance and the choice of new candidates. These are signs of desperation,” Chaudhary told Frontline.

Senior Tripura-based political analyst Rahul Sinha also believes that the BJP-Motha alliance justifies the Left-Congress’ allegation that there was a “secret understanding” between the two parties in the Assembly election, which saw a triangular contest and the BJP returned to power with 39 per cent of the votes. “Motha, a tribal party, did not restrict itself to the 20 tribal seats, but contested in 42 of the 60 Assembly constituencies. This queered the pitch for the Left-Congress in around 20 seats, and helped the BJP,” Sinha said.

A section of the BJP itself is not happy about the choice of candidates. It may be recalled that Biplab Kumar Deb was removed from the position of Chief Minister just ahead of the Assembly election last year, as this was considered imperative for the saffron party to return to power. According to BJP sources, there is still a lot of resentment against him within the party and among the people of the State. Party insiders also admit that there is some confusion over Kriti Debbarma contesting on the BJP ticket, even though she is a Motha candidate. “There are rumblings about her being an ‘outsider’, as she is a resident of Chhattisgarh, but the tribal people see her as their princess, and she should have no problem winning in Tripura East,” a BJP source said.

Triangular in Sikkim

A three-cornered contest has thrown open a number of electoral possibilities in the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in Sikkim. While the main contest is expected to be between the ruling Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) led by Chief Minister Prem Singh Tamang (aka Golay), and the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) headed by former Chief Minister Pawan Chamling, the BJP, which until recently was an ally of the SKM, is looking to expand its influence in the State on its own steam. The elections to the 32-member Assembly and the single Lok Sabha seat will be held on April 19.

In the 2019 election, the SKM had edged past the SDF, winning 17 of the 32 Assembly seats. Interestingly, the SDF had secured 2,112 more votes than the SKM. Within months of losing power, the SDF, which had ruled the State for 25 years, suffered another setback when 10 of its MLAs joined the BJP; the latter became the main opposition party in the State even though it had secured only 1.62 per cent of the votes. Subsequently, the BJP formed an alliance with the SKM on the strength of which it won two seats in the byelections in October 2019.

On March 21 this year, the BJP severed ties with the SKM and announced that it would fight the elections alone. Speaking to Frontline, D.R. Thapa, State BJP president and sitting MLA from Upper Burtuk, said, “People are fed up with the regional political parties, and want development. Sikkim has become one of the most corrupt States. The State is bankrupt and there are around 1.5 lakh unemployed youth. People now want us, because they want development.”

Highlighting the Central schemes that are operational in the State, Thapa said that the people were happy with the Centre’s help. However, the BJP does not have the organisational strength of the SKM or the SDF.

While it is in a position to win a few seats, neither of the two major regional parties sees the party as a threat. Pointing out that the contest will be essentially between the SKM and the SDF, Yougan Tamang, spokesperson for the SKM, said, “This election is a battle for the soul of Sikkim itself… the SDF’s divisive politics failed to fulfill the aspirations of our people, so they were rejected in 2019, and the same will happen this time, too. Under the visionary leadership of P.S. Tamang Golay, the SKM government has ushered in an era of peace and has propelled the State towards development.” Golay kickstarted the campaign by releasing the party’s manifesto, which contained “nine guarantees” for the development of the State.

According to SDF heavyweight and two-time Lok Sabha member Prem Das Rai, who will be contesting for the single Lok Sabha seat this time, the main issues in the election this time are the breakdown of law and order in the State, and the protection of Article 371F, which ensures special provisions with respect to the State of Sikkim.

Article 371F and the issue of Sikkimese identity have been on the electoral agenda of all the contesting parties. Reacting to the allegation that being out of power has softened the once-formidable SDF, Rai said, “We are a cadre-driven party, and have lost none of our mettle. True, we have lost a few heavyweights, but it is a more youthful party now… and we are on track to form the government.”

Also Read | BJP returns in Tripura as TIPRA Motha plays spoilsport for Left-Congress combine

The SDF has also roped in Indian football icon Bhaichung Bhutia. In 2019, Bhutia formed his own party, Hamro Sikkim Party, but could draw only 0.6 per cent of the votes. According to Amit Patra, editor of Sikkim Express, this time, with the backing of the SDF, Bhutia may be more fortunate.

Patra said that the SKM has a slight edge over its rivals. “The SKM’s welfare schemes are likely to pay electoral dividends, and, since it has been in power for just one term, anti-incumbency sentiments have not kicked in yet,” he said. This time, it remains to be seen whether Chamling, who set the record as the longest-serving Chief Minister in the country, will return, or whether his former Minister Golay will cement his dominance in the State.

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