Banamalipur, Assembly Constituency No. 9 and located in the heart of Agartala, has been a Congress bastion for the last three terms. In many ways today, the seat has become representative of the current Tripura elections — an aggressive BJP, a Left regime trying to hold on, a struggling Congress. In the 2013 elections, one of Tripura’s tallest Congress leaders, current CLP chief Gopal Roy, defeated the CPI in Banamalipur by 5,762 votes — a sizeable margin representing 17% of the 39,116 valid votes polled. The BJP polled 441 votes, or 1.30%.
This time, the Congress is being seen as reduced to the position of a potential spoiler — for the BJP. In a state where seven Congress MLAs and thousands of workers have switched to the BJP, the latter has chosen Banamalipur to field its state president Biplab Deb, also a possible chief minister aspirant. With its Chalo paltai (let us bring change) slogan, the BJP has the most visible presence on the ground. Vans with Biplab Deb’s posters and loudspeakers blaring anti-CPM songs circle the constituency every day.
Sankar Sinha, who owns and supplies hardware from Agartala’s Modchoumuhani bazaar, used to be a Congress loyalist. “None of us is voting for the Congress this year. Why should we?” he says. “For 30 years the Congress has been betraying us. Every time they seem to have some kind tacit understanding with the CPM and our efforts come to naught… Now we have an option. We are going with the BJP.”
Rajiv Som, 38, who owns a sweet shop in a predominantly Bengali colony, agrees that Gopal Roy has “worked for the people” despite being in opposition. “But we are tired,” he says. “How long do we wait for our votes to matter for coming to power? Gopal Roy is a good man but we don’t want to waste our vote. So we will vote for Biplab Deb and the BJP. We want jobs, we want development, we want a better quality of life.” Yet he adds, “Tomorrow if the Congress were to resurrect, all of us would support the Congress again. If that happens, the BJP will be wiped off Tripura’s map.”
While the BJP vote is vocal, there are many who say they are undecided. Like Tulsi Sutradhar, 56, and her family. “So far, it looks like we will not vote for the Congress or the CPM. We are likely to vote for the BJP. But you never know. We are confused. We might change our minds,” she says. “This is not like any election I have seen before. There air is tense. It is making us uncomfortable.”
“I keep hearing Chalo paltai wherever I go, but will there actually be a change in government?” says Makhanlal Singh, 62, who voted for the CPM last time but is still “making up my mind’’ this time.
Bengalis constitute 68% of the Tripura electorate and vote mostly in 40 general and SC seats, while 20 seats are reserved for tribals. The Bengali vote has traditionally been shared by the Left and the Congress; the traditional Congress voter has largely been Bengali. This time, the BJP has made a strong effort in the tribal areas while being confident of weaning the Bengali vote away from the Congress.
Among the many voices in Banamalipur, there is that of the dedicated CPM voter. Gauri Dhal, 35, and her family have voted for the CPM ever since she can remember. “I’ve been hearing Chalo paltai a lot. What is there to change? I don’t feel the need to change,” she says, in her grocery store. “I have got whatever I need from this government. I run the store alone and leave at 10 every night, feeling perfectly safe. Besides, CPM candidate Amol Chakraborty is very strong. He was the president of the youth wing and belongs the area, and we have grown up knowing him. Biplab Deb has just come from outside. I’m sure he doesn’t even know the names of the streets here.”
Arun Kumar Shah, 72, says his family has been voting Congress “for 62 years”. “My father, grandfather all voted for the Congress.
But there is no point this time. But I don’t like the BJP’s politics. They brought in GST and notebandi, both of which affected us small-time businessmen,” says Shah, who runs a wholesale business. “It is rare for a Congress voter to shift support to the CPM, but it had to be done. My son, who is a maths teacher at a school here, is voting for the BJP. But the rest of our family will vote for the CPM.”
Political analysts acknowledge the BJP’s growing popularity, but at the same time they note the possibility of the dedicated Congress voter limiting Biplab Deb’s share of the Bengali vote. If that happens, it would benefit the CPM’s Amal Choudhry, as long as the dedicated CPM voter stays with him.