In what was one of the most unpredictable elections in recent years, the BJP returned to power in Tripura for its second consecutive term with a narrow victory over its opponents: the Left-Congress combine and the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA) Motha. In the Assembly election results declared on March 2, the BJP and its ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), won 33 (BJP 32, IPFT 1) of the 60 seats; the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and its electoral partner, the Congress, won 14 (CPI(M) 11, Congress 3), and the TIPRA Motha, 13.
In a triangular contest that added a new twist to the election, the BJP and the IPFT together secured 40.23 per cent of the votes (BJP 38.97 per cent, IPFT 1.26 per cent); while the CPI(M) and the Congress combine got around 35 per cent (Left 24.62 per cent, Congress 8.56 per cent), and TIPRA Motha, which contested in 42 seats, got 22 per cent. The Trinamool Congress, which was hoping to open its account in Tripura, got 0.88 per cent of the votes, less than NOTA (1.36 per cent).
Manik Saha, who led the election campaign as Chief Minister, said on March 2: “I am extremely happy with this result, but I was hoping for an even better performance. Such peaceful elections have never taken place before, and I request everybody to maintain order and peace in their celebrations.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Thank you Tripura! This is a vote for progress and stability. @BJP4Tripura will continue to boost the state’s growth trajectory. I am proud of all Tripura BJP Karyakartas for their spectacular efforts at the grassroots.”
The saffron party managed to overcome a strong anti-incumbency at the ground level and a new political force in the form of TIPRA Motha was threatening to turn the political dynamics in the State on its head. In the 2018 election, the BJP-IPFT alliance won 44 seats, 11 more than what it won this time. The BJP also suffered big upsets. Two of its most prominent leaders fell in the electoral battle: Deputy Chief Minister Jishnu Dev Varma lost the Charilam seat to TIPRA Motha’s Subodh Deb Barma and State BJP president Rajib Bhattacharjee lost in Banamalipur to the Congress’ Gopal Chandra Roy.
Explaining the main reason behind the BJP’s win, State BJP vice president Tapas Bhattacharya told Frontline: “Essentially it was because we have always stood by the people and worked for them. It is true that the number of seats has come down, and many people are saying it is because of the rise of TIPRA Motha, but I will also have to admit that there are quite a few seats in which Motha’s presence helped the BJP win. We have seen several places where the CPI(M) was strong, but due to the ST (Scheduled Tribe) votes in those constituencies going to Motha, the equation worked in our favour. But we will certainly look into our own organisational weaknesses.”
Motha, headed by Pradyot Manikya Debbarman, a scion of the royal family of Tripura, has emerged as the most powerful indigenous party in the last two years, commanding huge support among the tribal people. However, instead of fielding candidates in the 20 tribal seats where it is the strongest, Debbarman fielded candidates in 42 constituencies, including those where the tribal vote can be a factor in determining results. There are between 12 and 15 non-reserved seats where the tribal population is more than 15 per cent.
Motha’s presence helped BJP
According to CPI(M)‘s Tripura State secretary Jiten Choudhury, if Motha had not contested the election, the BJP would have “definitely lost”. “In the coming days we will analyse what happened, but right now I can tell you, the BJP took advantage of the division of votes that took place because of TIPRA Motha, and nothing else. If this division of votes had not happened, the Left would have won comfortably. Around 12 seats went to the BJP just because of the presence of Motha,” said Choudhury, who won from Sabroom in South Tripura district.
In fact, a highly-placed BJP source in Tripura told Frontline that preliminary calculations showed that there were at least 5-6 unreserved seats which would have been won by the Left-Congress if the tribal votes had not gone to the Motha candidate. “These were all anti-BJP votes that would have definitely gone to the Left-Congress. It is our good fortune that we won. In the kind of close fight we went through, if just four seats had gone to the opposition, we would have lost. Most of the seats we won thanks to Motha were by very narrow margins,” said the source. In fact, in more than 20 constituencies the votes polled by Motha were more than the margin of victory by the BJP.
Left-leaningpolitical observer and senior journalist Rahul Sinha pointed out that the manner in which the BJP returned to power through this election was significant. “If we look at the statistics, we see that nearly 59 per cent of the voters had voted against the BJP. This election was definitely a vote against the ruling incumbent, but Motha, knowingly or unknowingly, was a key factor behind the BJP victory. It wanted to be the kingmaker in a possible hung Assembly and contested 42 seats, but instead it secured the path for BJP to return to power. If Motha had stuck to the 20 reserved seats where it is the strongest, the BJP would not have been able to win,” Sinha told Frontline.
Over the past two years, Motha has emerged as the strongest political force among the tribals who constitute around 30 per cent of the population. Riding on the demand for a separate State of Greater Tipraland, Motha quickly replaced the IPFT as the most powerful indigenous party, winning 18 of the 28 seats in the elections to the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council in 2021. Wooed by both the Left-Congress and the BJP before the election, Motha played its cards close to its chest, and remained unwavering in its demand for separate State, a demand that was not acceptable to either the Left-Congress or the BJP.
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However, in the end, its own miscalculations allowed the BJP to secure a majority. Jishnu Dev Varma, former deputy Chief Minister of the outgoing BJP government, said: “There was too much hype around Motha. Regional parties have always come and gone in Tripura. We have been consistent with our programme of extending more power, more resources for tribal development, but division of the State is not acceptable to us. Today, there is no need for the BJP to extend its hand in friendship to Motha; if Motha wants to join the BJP, it can come forward.”
Failure of Left-Congress
There is no doubt that there was a strong anti-incumbency factor working against the BJP at the ground level. Even dedicated workers were disgruntled and were openly expressing their discontent. However, the Left and the Congress could not capitalise on the situation. The former arch enemies had united for the first time to take on the BJP, but failed to send across their political message and agenda to the people. A senior CPI(M) source said: “In the last five years we could not connect to the people. True, there were a lot of attacks against our workers, but we should have found a way. The most important failure on our part was being unable to rebuild our organisation in the tribal areas, which gave Motha an open field. Finally, our seat-adjustment with the Congress happened so late that we did not have the time to convince people that this was the only alternative to take on the BJP.”
According to the BJP, the coming together of the Left and the Congress itself sent a wrong signal to voters. “These two parties have been at loggerheads since the time of Independence. By forming such an alliance they just proved to the people how weak they are. They had no other agenda but to defeat the BJP. The BJP, on the other hand, had a planned programme of growth and development,” said Jishnu Dev Varma.
In the 2018 election,in which the BJP defeated the CPI(M) to assume power in the State for the first time, the Left won 16 seats, while the Congress could win nothing. Almost the entire Congress vote had shifted to the BJP in 2018; and the Congress, which until then was the main opposition in the state, managed to get only 1.8 per cent of the votes instead of its usual 40 per cent. This time not only did the Left win lesser number of seats than the last time, it also lost its traditional stronghold of Dhanpur, a red bastion since 1972, to the BJP.
Changing of Chief Ministers
The last-minute change of Chief Ministers also helped stem the tide against the ruling party. Less than 10 months before the election, the BJP removed the controversial Biplab Kumar Deb as Chief Minister and replaced him with the modest and unassuming dental surgeon Manik Saha. “Biplab as Chief Minister had become a liability for the party. When we put Manik Saha at the top, people welcomed it. After several years, the State got a cultured, educated gentleman for a Chief Minister. His modest ways and his quiet and efficient style of governance brought back a lot of people who had moved away from the party,” said the senior BJP source.
Another factor that worked in favour of the BJP, according to Tapas Bhattacharya was the support of women voters. “Our women voters have increased by around 3 per cent. That is because of the way we have dispensed the ration system, where ration is given in the name of the woman. The women are also very happy with the way we have implemented the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, we managed to provide housing for more than 3.5 lakh people. We had certain organisational failings, but our work neutralised it,” Bhattacharya said.
- The BJP returned to power in Tripura for its second consecutive term with a narrow victory over its opponents: the Left-Congress combine and the TIPRA Motha.
- In a triangular contest that added a new twist to the election, the BJP and the IPFT together secured 40.23 per cent of the votes; while the CPI(M) and the Congress combine got around 35 per cent, and TIPRA Motha 22 per cent.
- The saffron party managed to overcome a strong anti-incumbency at the ground level and a new political force in the form of TIPRA Motha was threatening to turn the political dynamics in the State on its head.
- Over the past two years, Motha has emerged as the strongest political force among the tribals who constitute around 30 per cent of the population.