Assembly Elections: Tripura

Surprise adversary

Print edition : March 02, 2018

Chief Minister Manik Sarkar at an election campaign in Agartala. Photo: Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh addressing a gathering during an election campaign road show in Agartala on February 4. Photo: PTI

The Left Front is likely to face its toughest elections in Tripura in recent times, against a new opponent, the BJP.

THE elections to the 60-member Tripura Assembly, scheduled to be held on February 18, may prove to be one of the toughest battles in recent years for the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front, which is seeking to return to power for the sixth consecutive term. The Left is facing not only an anti-incumbency sentiment but also a new political adversary in the State—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This is also the first time since Tripura became a State on January 21, 1972, that the Congress will not be a factor in the elections.

Another twist has been added to the elections by the BJP’s electoral alliance with the separatist local tribal party, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT). This has set the tone for the Left Front’s election campaign and has become the central focus of the electoral battle with emphasis on the 20 seats in the Tripura Tribal Autonomous Areas Development Council (TTAADC) region.

Chief Minister Manik Sarkar said at a campaign rally in Jirania, west Tripura: “There is a deep-rooted conspiracy to divide Tripura. This unprincipled alliance goes against the unity of the State. This alliance must be defeated, not to keep the Left Front in power, but to prevent the division of the State.”

Sarkar’s words form the essential theme of the Left’s campaign in this election. The CPI(M) has added a new watchword to its usual election slogan, “peace, harmony, development”: “Integrity of Tripura.”

On the face of it, the prospects of the Left Front returning to power do not seem bleak. In the 2013 elections, the Left won 50 seats—the CPI(M) winning 49 and the Communist Party of India (CPI) one. The Left Front secured 52.33 per cent of the total votes, of which the CPI(M) alone got 48.11 per cent. The Congress, which contested in 48 seats, secured 45.75 per cent of the votes. The BJP, which contested 50 seats, polled only 1.87 per cent of the votes. In the 2014 parliamentary election, the CPI(M) retained both the West Tripura and East Tripura seats polling 64.7 per cent of the votes.

The Congress won 15.38 per cent of the votes and the BJP 5.77 per cent. Significantly, the CPI(M) maintained a lead in all the Assembly segments. In the panchayat elections of 2015, the Left won over 75 per cent of the gram panchayats, more than 80 per cent of the panchayat samiti seats and more than 95 per cent of the zilla parishads.

The Left sailed through the four Assembly byelections held in 2015 and 2016. However, the BJP had begun to make inroads, and it secured the second position in three seats. The Congress, which ruled the State for two terms (1972-1977 and 1988-1993) and was the main opposition party, began to lose its hold. In the past one year, it has lost its political space to the BJP. The saffron party quickly established itself as the No. 2, albeit a distant, political party. This has given rise to an apparent BJP wave.

BJP’s rise

Such “waves” are not new in Tripura. After its resounding defeat in the 2013 Assembly elections, the Pradesh Congress began to witness perceptible erosion in its rank and file. The Trinamool Congress’ defeat of the Left Front in 2011 in West Bengal, where it had been in power for 34 years, prompted a steady defection of Congress cadres to the Trinamool Congress in Tripura.

But the main catalyst for the rapid decline of the Pradesh Congress was the 2016 Assembly elections in West Bengal, in which the Left Front and the Pradesh Congress entered into an electoral understanding to take on the Trinamool Congress. The Left-Congress alliance was trounced in the elections and Mamata Banerjee returned to power for a second consecutive term. Taking an ideological stand on the issue, six of the 10 Congress legislators of Tripura took the opportunity to join the Trinamool Congress in June 2016. However, this Trinamool “wave” did not last long. In August 2017, the six legislators left the Trinamool Congress to join the BJP, giving rise to a new “wave”. By the time the elections were announced, eight of the 10 legislators who had won on the Congress ticket had joined the BJP.

Arun Bhowmik, chief spokesperson of the BJP’s Tripura unit, said: “The BJP has increased its strength more than 10 times in the past one year. The Congress is zero. It is now a straight fight between the CPI(M) and the BJP. People have been leaving in large numbers not only from the Congress but also from the Left parties. They desperately want a change.”

The BJP’s rapid rise in the State is also a direct result of the BJP leadership’s concerted effort to capture the north-eastern States. This, according to the political scientist Biswanath Chakraborty, is what makes the BJP “wave” a little different this time. “The BJP has already formed governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Assam, and it has virtually encircled Tripura with political pressure from outside, particularly from Assam,” he said. The BJP election-in-charge in Tripura is Himanta Biswa Sharma, the wily party leader and Minister from Assam, who was the mastermind behind the BJP’s dramatic victory in Manipur.

The CPI(M) admits that it will be a tough fight. It is more wary of the BJP than its known adversary, the Congress. Yet, it has little doubt that the Left Front will form the government for the sixth consecutive term. Party insiders are confident that the Left Front will win at least 40 seats. “If the elections are allowed to take place peacefully and fairly, we will certainly win. The reasons for this are our organisational strength and the fact that we are in constant touch with the masses. We deliver all our election promises, and most important, we maintain unity of the tribal and non-tribal people,” said CPI(M) leader Rahul Sinha, one of the main architects of the Left Front’s social media campaign.

Manik Sarkar factor

One of the biggest assets of the CPI(M) is its clean image, as represented by its tallest leader, Manik Sarkar, who has the reputation of being the “poorest Chief Minister in India”. After two decades at the helm, he has a bank balance (as declared in his nomination papers) of Rs.2,410 and has a cash of Rs.1,520 in hand. He donates his entire salary to the party fund. His sole immovable asset is a parcel of 515 square feet of land on the outskirts of Agartala, which he and his sister had inherited. “This is a matter of tremendous pride for us. Everyone knows that our Chief Minister’s wife [Panchali Bhattacharjee] does not even use an official vehicle. She goes about her work in rickshaws or public transport, something worthy of emulation,” said veteran CPI(M) worker Rajib Chanda.

Of late, however, there have been certain allegations against the CPI(M), which the BJP intends to exploit to its advantage. The most serious one is the party’s alleged closeness to the chit fund company Rose Valley, whose owner Gautam Kundu is at present in prison. The Central Bureau of Investigation even interrogated two top leaders of the CPI(M) in connection with the chit fund scam. Detractors of the Left Front government have accused it of not taking sufficient measures to stop the proliferation of chit fund and ponzi scheme companies. The government found itself in an embarrassing position when in March 2017 the Supreme Court upheld the 2014 decision of the Tripura High Court setting aside the recruitment of 10,323 teachers in government schools.

Another issue that may work against the Left Front, particularly in urban areas, is the growing disenchantment of the educated youth, mainly arising out of joblessness. Saikat Deb, 28, of Agartala told Frontline he was forced to leave his home and set up business in Kolkata. “There are no opportunities here, and with the Congress losing credibility, more and more young people are leaning towards the BJP,” he said.

Tribal votes

The CPI(M)’s repeated electoral success can be attributed to its rural and tribal support base. In the last Assembly elections, nine out of the 10 seats the Left lost were urban or semi-urban constituencies. The tribal seat of Karamchhara was the only non-urban seat that the Congress won. The BJP’s alliance with the IPFT, which is growing in strength, is aimed at striking at one of the Left’s strongest bastions, the TTAADC area. This has made the region the main focus of this year’s elections.

For the past 15 years, the Gana Mukti Parishad (GMP), the tribal wing of the CPI(M), has been winning the elections to the TTAADC. In the 2005, 2010 and 2015 elections, the Left Front won all the 28 seats in the Council. In 2015, it got about 58 per cent of the total votes and in the following year won 96 per cent of the seats in the village committee elections held in the TTAADC region.

“We are with the people 24 hours a day, 12 months a year. The opposition’s opportunistic and dangerous alliance is not an alliance of the people, but that of some leaders. The people of the tribal region have seen the kind of development work that has taken place here under CPI(M) rule. We are not really thinking about how to win but rather how to further increase our vote percentage,” said Radhacharan Debbarma, general secretary of the GMP and the chief executive member of the TTAADC.

IPFT’S rise

However, what can be a cause for concern for the Left is the increasing crowds that are flocking to the IPFT rallies. The IPFT’s call for a separate State comprising the TTAADC region has undeniably ignited local passions, particularly among youths. Its aggressive assertion of its presence has also brought back the spectre of violence and unrest in the region, after a peaceful period of around 15 years. In September last year, a journalist, Santanu Bhoumik, was killed following a clash between CPI(M) and IPFT workers in Mandai in the TTAADC area.

Although the tribal belt is the IPFT’s stronghold, it has allowed the BJP to contest 11 of the 20 seats.

A highly placed political source in the TTAADC region told Frontline that the coming elections would be the toughest battle for the Left in this region. “The lure of a separate State is likely to overcome the tribal people’s ideological differences with the BJP. Moreover, there are many who are also now fearful of supporting the Left for incurring the wrath of the separatists,” the source said.

Double-edged sword

The alliance with the IPFT is, however, a double-edged sword for the BJP. While it may help secure votes among tribal people, it is bound to alienate those who are against the proposed division of Tripura. The BJP will find it difficult to explain its alliance with a separatist force, while maintaining that it is against any division of the State. “We have not said that we support the demand for a separate State. We said we will address the grievance that has led to the demand for a separate State,” explained Arun Bhoumik.

However, the IPFT has a different view on the matter and insists that the BJP is looking into the demand at the Central level.

Ethnic passions notwithstanding, it cannot be assumed that the majority of the tribal population supports the IPFT demand. When the State was in the grip of extremist terror, it was the tribal people who suffered the most. It cannot be denied that the CPI(M) controlled the extremist menace and brought peace, stability and development to the region. Tarun, who cycles across a bridge over a brook in Champaknagar in the heart of the tribal belt, says life has become a lot easier after the State government built the bridge last year. “This government cannot fall. What will happen to all the developmental work it is doing?” he said, dismissing a pro-IPFT wave. Moreover, the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT) and the Congress, though not major factors in the region, will be able to influence the results with their presence in about four seats.

Congress not out

It will not be correct to assume that all the Congress votes will go to the BJP. The Congress, however weakened, will continue to have a core support base, which may give rise to a three-cornered fight in several urban seats. “We have a historical legacy here. We can never be ruled out,” said Baptu Chakraborty of the Pradesh Congress. The Congress hopes that the anti-Left Bengali votes will reject the BJP for its alliance with the IPFT and return to the Congress fold.

One of the biggest factors working against the BJP, as admitted by a senior party leader, is the lack of organisational strength and a strong leadership. “The BJP has hardly any base here. It has some disgruntled leaders who have joined it from other parties. It is true that there has been migration from the Left to the BJP, but there has also been a return to the Left as well. It is unlikely that the BJP can beat the CPI(M) this time,” said Sujit Chakraborty, a well-known political observer from Agartala.

The Left is not taking any chances against a completely unknown opponent. It kicked off its campaign before the Election Commission announced the election date. It thus got a head start while the BJP and the Congress were struggling to finalise their electoral lists.

Related Articles

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor