PM Narendra Modi at a rally near Agartala asked people to throw away the “Manik” (gemstone), a reference to CM Manik Sarkar, and choose the “Hira” — highway, I-way, railway and airways. Photo: PTI
Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland will vote in February. Of these three north-eastern states, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has pinned hopes on Tripura to add another trophy to its collection of keepsakes from the east.
After Assam, Tripura is demographically hospitable to the BJP because it stands polarised between two major sections — the Bengalis and nine tribal ethnic communities, including Riang (16.6 per cent), Jamatia (7.5 per cent), Chakma (6.5 per cent) and Halam (4.8 per cent).
Tripura, however, has not splintered into a factious mosaic like Assam. Yet, one of the daunting challenges is to balance interests of the Bengali-speaking population that has cornered a large slice of the power pie with needs and aspirations of the tribes who live on the edge.
The Left front, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), is ruling the state for 25 years. But, the BJP that earlier was only looking to replace the Congress as the principal opposition party, within months, has amped its ambitions and portrayed itself as a “giant killer”.
The BJP’s slogan “paltai (let’s change)" says it all. “People yearn for a change because they have never seen an alternative. Now that they see one, they are out to uproot the Left’s tyranny,” said BJP general secretary Ram Madhav at the launch of a purported iconoclastic work on Chief Minister Manik Sarkar by Dinesh Kanji, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) associate, on January 23.
“We are almost closing in (on the Left),” claimed Himanta Biswa Sarma, a senior Assam minister and convener of the BJP’s North-East
Madhav, Sarma and Sunil Deodhar, a former RSS member who was appointed state in-charge of the BJP, constitute a trio that formulates and executes strategies for Tripura.
The BJP’s assertions sounded audacious when put to statistical scrutiny. In the 2013 Assembly elections, it contested 50 of the 60 seats, drew a blank and was left nursing only a 1.54 vote per cent.
The Left’s showing, on the other hand, was spectacular. The CPM won 49 of the 55 seats it contested and scored a 48.11 vote per cent. The Congress won 10 of the 48 seats it fought and registered a 36.53 vote per cent.
The BJP did marginally better in the 2014 parliamentary elections. It didn’t win a seat, but notched up a 5.77 vote share.
According to Biplab Kumar Deb, the 46-year-old Tripura BJP president, the 2016 Barjala Assembly bypoll propelled the party from a small player to a “worthy” contender. It lost to the CPM’s Jhumu Sarkar, however, by only 3,347 votes and pushed the Congress to a fourth place. In the Khowai bypoll, also in 2016, the saffron party finished third, behind the CPM and the Trinamool Congress, but ahead of the Congress.
Votes for the BJP grew from 511 (2013) to 12, 395 in Barjala, and from 232 (2013) to 2528 in Khowai. Thereafter, several leaders of the Trinamool and the Congress embraced the BJP.
“We fanned out into villages under Deodhar’s stewardship. We have established party units and formed booth committees in villages,” said Deb, who is being considered the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate.
Deodhar underscored BJP president Amit Shah’s elaborate and now legendary micro-management as the main reason for the party’s self-assurance.
“For the first time, the CPM is up against a cadre-based party and not a candidate-based party like the Congress,” he said. The organisation that the BJP raised over the past two years has committees in 3,200 out of a total number of 3,214 booths. Each booth has 15 to 16 “pramukh” is tasked to nurture 60 voters.
Tripura is the only eastern state to replicate Shah’s organisational template to the minutiae.
Other facets of the BJP’s template are an alliance with the N C Debbarma-helmed Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), the state’s premier tribal party that reduced the once powerful Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra to a has-been, and “demolishing” the CM’s image and credibility.
The IPFT has a strong presence in the 20 Scheduled Tribe seats and in 20 others where tribal voters are in large numbers. It also garners around 5,000 votes in nearly every other general seat.
The BJP fortified its base among the tribals and when it came to seat-bargaining, it ensured that it got 11 of the tribal seats and the IPTF nine. The party also prevailed upon the IPTF to set aside its long-standing demand for a separate tribal Twipraland and settle for a high-level committee that will go into the issues facing the tribes.
Its biggest challenge remains to undermine Sarkar. According to the BJP, there is an enormous “anti-incumbency tide” in Tripura to “swallow” the Teflon-coated CM.
Tripura will vote on February 18 and the results will be declared on March 3.