Tripura election 2018: Despite Manik Sarkar, why BJP coalition may oust the Left

PM Modi's personal popularity may usher in winds of change.

 |  5-minute read |   12-02-2018
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The BJP is hoping to oust the CPM from its northeastern bastion and form a coalition government in Tripura. The Northeast, once an impregnable bastion of the Congress party, is quickly falling into the ruling party’s kitty. A Congress-mukt Northeast could well be on the cards, yet it will not be a cakewalk for the BJP as its opponent in Tripura is not a scam-tainted Congress government, but a squeaky clean chief minister Manik Sarkar whose austere lifestyle is legendary.

He has been chief minister for four successive terms. He also runs a clean administration. But after decades of Left rule, people are getting restive and hope a change would be good for the state. Added to this is the fact that the CPM is a dying force and has no clout at the Centre. Most small northeastern states heavily dependent on central funds are always happy to be aligned to a party ruling in New Delhi. Also, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal popularity, the belief that he is committed to development and can make a difference, is as widespread in Tripura as it is in other parts of the country.

The BJP is going into the February 18 state elections with a spring in its step as it sniffs chances of a victory. The party has been working for the last two years in Tripura to take on the CPM party machinery. Both the BJP and the Left are ideological cadre-based parties and will fight every inch of the way.

tripura_021218023636.jpgThe BJP ideology is being embraced by many of the middle class. Photo: PTI

The decisive victory of the BJP in Assam Assembly polls in 2016 opened the floodgates for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With Assam, the largest northeastern state, in its kitty, the party ensured that it formed the government in Manipur in 2017. Arunachal was won through large-scale defections and in Nagaland the BJP was part of the ruling coalition. This time around the party is hoping to install governments in both Tripura and Meghalaya.

If it succeeds, Mizoram would be the only Congress-ruled state in the region. The main opponent of the BJP is the CPM, which is seen as a party of the majority Bengali-speaking population of the state. The indigenous tribals have long been reduced to a minority by Bengali-speaking Hindus who came in from erstwhile East Pakistan during the Partition.

Ever since there has been a steady flow of Bengali Hindus pouring in from East Pakistan every time the minorities were under attack. The indigenous tribals of the state have long demanded a separate state and the move has gathered steam in the last few years.

The alienation of the indigenous people of Tripura has been on for decades, often taking a violent turn as in June 1980 when a local insurgent outfit — the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti (TUJS) — massacred between 300-400 Bengali Hindus, including women and children, in Mandai village. The official figures were much less. The simmering discontent of the indigenous people came to the fore again in 2016, when supporters and activists of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPTF) clashed with local Bengali residents in the capital. Shops were ransacked, cars burnt and 17 people injured in the clash.

Being relatively new in Tripura, the BJP is not in a position to take on the Left under its own steam. So it has tied up with the IPTF and hopes to form a coalition government there. There have also been steady defections of Trinamool Congress legislators to the party. The TMC lawmakers had won the 2013 elections on Congress tickets but left for greener pastures of the TMC. Now realising that there is little chance of the TMC gaining power in Tripura, six legislators have defected and joined the winning combination.

manik-manik_021218023736.jpgYet it will not be a cakewalk, given Manik Sarkar's squeaky clean image. Photo: PTI

The BJP has made it clear in talks with tribal leaders that every demand of the minorities would be considered, but carving out a separate state is not possible at the moment. This appears to have driven a wedge among indigenous politicians. A rival tribal group, the Tipraland State Party (TSP), has now emerged as the party championing statehood for the tribal/indigenous people.

TSP leader NC Debbarma is quoted as telling the local press in Agartala: “Our sole objective is Tipraland and we will not settle for anything less. We may not be able to make much difference in the upcoming polls but this is just the beginning to expose IPFT’s double standard.” The party is contesting 10 of the 60 seats and is hoping to make a debut in the Assembly. Its election slogan, which is finding resonance among a section of the tribal population, is "Sudhu Tipraland (meaning its one point agenda is a state)".

But it is not just that tribals that the BJP is relying on. The party is also making major inroads on the Bengali speaking majority of the state. As in West Bengal and other northeastern states, the BJP ideology is being embraced by many of the middle class. The CPM has done much good work in the state. But everyone knows that the Left is no longer a powerful force in India. The CPM is also a house divided with the Kerala and Bengal units fighting their individual battles.

In contrast, the BJP under Narendra Modi is seen as the party of governance, headed by a dynamic leader. The prime minister’s recent rallies in Tripura drew massive crowds; this gives an indication of the winds of change blowing in the state. The BJP coalition has an edge over a Left party that is increasingly becoming irrelevant in national politics.

Also read: The failure, and hope, of Muslim politics in India

Writer

Seema Guha Seema Guha @seemaguha1

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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