By Debraj Deb | February 18, 2018

From universal health insurance to farm loan waiver and smartphone for youths to direct funding for ADC – 2018 Tripura assembly election already is a eye-catcher. Among three Northeastern states that goes to assembly polls this month, Tripura is the curtain raiser for more reasons than one. The state’s poll mandate will decide the fate of resistance to saffron politics, which has been rather feeble so far across India. But then again with 2019 general elections around the corner, it will also impact the way this nation’s politics is going to be, Debraj Deb writes

BJP was nothing but a political non-entity even two years back in Tripura. The party, which despite BJP’s nationwide growth during first NDA government, secured only 1.32 percent votes in 2003 assembly elections here, has emerged as a major challenger to the Left who have ruled consecutively for over two decades.

Communist politics spread influence in Tripura from homegrown anti-monarchy protests championed by ‘enlightened indigenous youths’ in late 1940s. From being a primarily indigenous-centered party, CPI, later CPI (M), went on to form the first Left Front government in alliance with two other left-inclined political parties – the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and All India Forward Bloc in 1978. Since then the only regime capable to dislodge them was in 1988 when a combine of Congress and Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti (TUJS) – an indigenous party born from autonomy rights movement, took on the communists.

Since 1993 elections when this coalition fell, left parties have seen a steady growth in popularity and electoral support.  The four-party Left Front secured 44.35 percent votes in ’93, further climbing to 48.90 percent in 1998, 51.28 percent in 2003, 51.38 percent in 2008 and finally 52.32 percent in 2013 assembly election when Left Front emerged victorious in fifty out of sixty assembly seats. They gained one more, defeating Congress and BJP in a by-election two years back.

So, what happened to the communists in Tripura? Why BJP, a supposedly exclusive Hindutva-preaching party, suddenly gained centerstage of the state’s politics? What went wrong?

Well, for starters, things were not exactly the same as projected. Chief Minister Manik Sarkar might have kept his sleeves clean but a series of failures, especially on the front of employment, corruption and new projects, have punctured the left government’s progressive image.

Charges were laid against ministers of the Manik Sarkar cabinet of being involved in the infamous Rose Valley scam. Rose Valley Group of Companies was a chit fund and front for money laundering that was endorsed by Chief Minister Sarkar himself at a promotion event way back in 2008. The company later went on to loot 35 thousand crores of public deposit if statements of state Finance Minister Bhanulal Saha were to be believed. The amount is insanely high – so high that it outruns the state’s revenue of nearly 30 years.

And yet, no action was taken on any of those accused to make the govt’s stand clear that it wouldn’t tolerate any mark up its sleeve.

Moving on, jobs of over 10,323 government teachers were terminated by the Tripura High Court and then by the Supreme Court of India. The state created over 12 thousand non-teaching posts where they might have been rehabilitated, had it not been for a stay order by the apex court.

There has been absolutely no growth in industries, except for a number of ventures that opened with much pomp and rolled down shutters due to high industrial mafia interference.

Exceeding dependence on government jobs in Tripura caused the state to have over 8 lakh unemployed youths. Meanwhile, those who have jobs, are stuck with a pay scale equivalent to the 4th Pay Commission awards while 7th Pay Commission promises are doing the rounds everywhere.

Here comes in BJP. The party grew mostly by poaching a large number dissidents and ambitious leaders from other parties. But unlike others, it also focused on building a neat party organization from ground zero.

Since 2015 when Sunil Deodhar – BJP’s Tripura in-charge took over along with state president Biplab Kumar Deb, they set up a frontal wing for everything under the Sun. For those where they couldn’t, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) mobilized its own. These include the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), Bharatiya Majdoor Sangh (BMS) and the like.

Innovative schemes were launched like mobilizing ‘Train Samparaks’. These are party executives who moved on trains across the length and breadth of Tripura for over a year, talking to people, getting to know their grievances and reporting them back to the local party-structure. These were again taken up by ‘booth samparaks’ who maintained contact with party workers at the booth level.

You wouldn’t want to forget the ‘panna pramukh’ or ‘pristha pramukh’ as they call it here. Each of these party functionaries was entrusted with the job to ‘cultivate’ sixty voters around the year. If there were feuds among leaders and functionaries, there were ‘vistaraks’.

With this extensive structure in motion, there were central ministers from the NDA cabinet visiting at least once every month, sometimes twice, for last one year. As poll campaign got hot, central ministers campaigned in some of the farthest corners of Tripura. They included Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari, Smriti Irani and senior leaders like Amit Shah.

On the other hand, CPIM has got Manik Sarkar – the old guard, protecting his fort, against onslaught of lucrative deals BJP offers to everybody.

Meanwhile, Congress appears to have lost interest in even snarling, let alone fighting the polls. The party that secured 44.6 percent votes in 2013 polls, is merely a relic now, with most of its sitting MLAs and their supporters absent. They shifted camps and joined Trinamul Congress and BJP.

The only prominent Congress leader who campaigned for Tripura polls this year was Congress president Rahul Gandhi himself – that too at Unakoti district, 170 Km away from Agartala, on the last day of campaign.

‘Maharaja’ of Tripura and Congress working president Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma is seen clinging on to a share of indigenous votes with his personal popularity. Compared to BJP’s tactics of forging alliance with Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT) – a regional party demanding separate state, that’s next to nothing.

Muslim voters might not vote for BJP, given their history of de-recognizing non-Hindus as seen during NRC verification process in Assam. But their votes are equally confused between communists and Congress.

Nearly 70 percent of the state’s population of 38 lakh people are Bengalees – descendants of East Pakistani and Liberation War refugees. With Partition still a raw nerve across barely one generation, BJP’s alliance with IPFT was expected to have damaged their prospects among Bengalees. However, with a huge anti-incumbency wave in progress, somehow the issue has been overlooked – at least in BJP’s political events. People have turned up in lakhs at poll rallies of the party, something the Left often preferred to define as outcome of hefty expenditure.

True, BJP has spent money like anything in Tripura ahead of the polls. But with so much at stake, how will the electors decide?

Polling starts in 3,174 polling stations across 59 assembly constituency seats from 7 AM today and perhaps for the first time, Tripura stands on crossroads of history.


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