After making headway in Assam and Arunachal in 2016 as well as Manipur in the recently concluded Assembly elections, and finding allies like Naga People’s Front (NPF) in Nagaland and Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) in Sikkim, the BJP looks ready to wrest control of Tripura from CPI (M); its rise in Northeast India phenomenal.
The two other states in Congress’ saddle are Mizoram and Meghalaya.
In both states, citizens seem tired of the ruling party, which seems jaded and ineffective. Tripura has started seeing a direct electoral battle between the ruling Left government and the BJP. And as the recent bypolls suggest, BJP has gained ground in the state.
Its tally has risen meteorically in the states that went to the polls – from just one to 21 in Manipur, from 5 to 60 in Assam and following the large-scale defection of Congress leaders to the BJP in Arunachal Pradesh.
With the Congress bent following the defection of six of its 10 MLAs to Trinamool Congress (TMC) in Tripura and the grand old party’s decision to have an informal alliance with Left in West Bengal, the Tripura Assembly is virtually devoid of an Opposition.
Decades of Left rule in the state, anti-incumbency stemming from failure of successive governments on fronts like employment, law and order and development, the suppression of indigenous communities and the chit fund scam that has affected almost every household, the state looks towards a credible voice that can fill the political vacuum.
Change looks inevitable in Tripura.
In March 2017, the Swami Vivekananda multi-purpose stadium in Tripura’s capital Agartala saw a sea of saffron. Biplab Deb, president of the BJP’s Tripura unit, claimed it was the biggest political rally in recent times. BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav said it would mark the fall of the Left government. Over the past few years, BJP has made significant inroads into the state.
As BJP Tripura chief Sunil Deodhar said: ‘None of the parties have played the role of an opposition in the state, we have simply filled the vacuum.’ BJP had remained a non-entity in the state till as recently as 2013, with only 1.54 per cent of the vote share in the previous Assembly elections.
Even in 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the state remained untouched by the Modi wave that swept the entire nation.
The first cues of BJP’s rise came in the 2015 Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council polls, when BJP finished second in five seats, gaining around 8 per cent vote share, ahead of the Congress and bringing about a decrease of around 10 per cent vote share for the CPI (M).
In the 2016 byelections in two Assembly seats of Pratapgarh and Surmah, the BJP gained new territories. It finished second in a close contest, gaining about 35 per cent vote share, and was placed comfortably ahead of the other opposition parties.
The ruling Left has also conceded this steady rise of BJP in the state. The long list of central ministers touring the state, Modi’s interest in Northeast and the tireless campaign of Tripura BJP under Sunil Deodhar and Biplab Deb have made the ruling party wary. The defection of almost the entire Trinamool machinery of 400 leaders, including 16 of the 65 state committee members of the party, comes as a huge win.
Similar migration from Congress to BJP had happened few months back, boosting BJP’s base and political strength.
The latter recently got huge ideological support from the Indigenous Peoples Group and tribal parties. Several youth leaders from the Indigenous People’s Forum of Tripura joined the BJP recently. With its expanded base, the BJP has been organising several rallies across the state.
The tribal vote
A third of Tripura’s Assembly is reserved for its tribal population and these areas have traditionally supported the Left party. Even with their huge budget, the BJP will have a difficult time winning against the Left.
It faces an ideological dilemma here of forming a strategic alliance with the Indigenous People’s Forum of Tripura.
The alliance could prove dicey, as the ideological bent of the Indigenous People’s Forum of Tripura may not augur well for BJP’s grander plans. A section of political analysts considers the forum a spent force, trying to regroup itself.
The Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura may also not wish such an alliance as it could lead to a split in the party.
Rising anti-incumbency and the chit fund scam
Dislodging the Left, with its well-oiled party machinery and extensive cadre, will be a daunting task.
The BJP has its task cut out. The party is buoyed by its electoral success in other parts of the country, frequent visits by tall leaders like Sarbananda Sonowal of Assam and Pema Khandu of Arunachal Pradesh and Himanta Biswa Sarma, the convener of the North-East Democratic Alliance and the party’s main political strategist in the region, is keeping the cadre’s spirits high.
A media war-room has been set and the social media army has taken over to campaigning in the state.
While the cadre’s efforts may work as well as they are supposed to, the ruling party hasn’t shied from offering issues to the BJP. This, couple with the lacklustre response from the principal opposition party Congress, has made the battle lines clear.
The party has been actively campaigning against the inaction of the state government on the chit fund scam worth almost Rs 1,200 crore – which is approximately 10 per cent of the state annual budget for 2016-17 – affecting some 14 lakh gullible depositors, or one-third of the state population and almost half of state’s earning population.
In its protests, BJP is hinting at a possible nexus of the ruling Left party and chit fund companies, which translates to government’s incompetence in protecting rights of the citizens. The high poverty and unemployment rates (highest in the country) also draw enough attention. Knowing it is an uninterrupted fourth term for CPI(M)’s Manik Sarkar, the falling social indicators may draw in a huge anti-incumbency for the ruling government.
Cashing on this factor, apart from organisational prowess and a grip over voter issues will be all BJP needs to upset the electoral prospects of Manik Sarkar. February 2018 will all be about BJP and the Left in Tripura. Going by the recent developments and the months to come, Tripura may well spring a surprise. With the rise and rise of BJP, the surprise might just bring home a new leaf, removed from the neo-normal.
Written By: Aakash Mehrotra
Disclaimer: This article first appeared in DailyO