After having been the main opposition party for 25 years and in power twice in Tripura, ahead of the assembly elections next month, the Congress party finds itself scrambling to patch together alliances and retain its dwindling support base, even as the BJP looms large on the horizon. The BJP, with its aggressive entry into the state’s politics this year, is seen as posing a threat to the ruling Left Front in Tripura. The Congress, on the other hand, is in a state of disarray, troubled by infighting and resentment against the party leadership.
So much so that the party’s working president in the state and the erstwhile Tripura King, Maharaja Kirit Pradyot Deb Barman Manikya, has threatened to resign, according to party sources. While members of the royal family have been Congress loyalists for decades, sources said they are being persistently and aggressively wooed by the BJP.
According to sources, both BJP president Amit Shah and North East in-charge Himanta Biswa Sarma have been in talks with the family to convince Deb Barman to switch sides. Sources said that if he joins, he may even be pitched as the party’s chief ministerial candidate, in an effort by the BJP to tap into tribal sentiments.
When contacted, Deb Barman told The Indian Express, “My only response is that I want to put up a fight against the Communists. They have systematically destroyed the heritage and culture of tribals in the state. Economic development barely exists, especially for tribals, and unemployment levels are high. Tripura used to be the most developed state in the North East… now we are the most backward, and that is because of CPI(M) rule.’’
Sources close to Deb Barman said the Congress’s decision to go soft on the Left Front over the past decade has led to a sense of disenchantment among party leaders and workers in Tripura, where the Communists are still their main rival.
“The Congress national leaders have gone soft on the CPI(M). In the last assembly elections, we went soft on the Left because we needed their support at the Centre. It was the same in 2008. Our workers are demotivated. The CPI(M) strongmen have killed our workers. Our party workers and supporters don’t get jobs and benefits through government schemes because they are with the Congress. So how can we turn to our people and go soft on the Communists once more,’’ said a senior Congress leader.
It was the “hidden alliance’’ between the Congress and CPI(M) that Congress MLA from Agartala, Sudip Roy Burman, cited when he left the party with six other MLAs and about two thousand party workers to join the Trinamool Congress in June 2016. The MLAs jumped ship to the BJP in August last year, again citing the TMC’s soft stand towards the CPI(M).
“As things stand in Tripura right now, belonging to the Congress or CPI(M) is the same thing. It does not offer an alternative to the people of the state. The national leaders of the Congress say that all secular parties should join hands and fight the BJP, they say that their main aim is to defeat the BJP. But if that is the case, why did they enter into an alliance with the CPI(M) during the West Bengal assembly elections to fight the TMC, which is a secular party, and not the BJP. That is why we left the Congress,’’ said Roy Burman.
“We later left the TMC when we realised that Mamata Banerjee had started making conciliatory noises toward the Left on the national stage. For her, the CPI(M) was no longer the rival, it was the BJP. This was not acceptable to us in Tripura, where the Left continues to remain our enemy. So we realised that there was no alternative other than the BJP for us. Because we know that the BJP will never make any deal or alliance with any of the Left parties,’’ he said.
Roy Burman also accused the Congress leadership of ignoring the state. “The national leaders don’t visit the state, even during elections. Sonia Gandhi was supposed to attend a rally once, but she cancelled at the last minute. That’s how little they think of us. On the other hand, all the BJP leaders and ministers have arrived to lend us support. As many as 45 ministers have already visited Tripura. They really do take care of the organisation,’’ he said.
His allegation of neglect finds resonance among senior Congress leaders who remain with the party. “The AICC is squarely responsible for the condition that the state party is in right now. We feel that since Tripura is so far away from Delhi geographically, none of the senior Congress leaders really care about the state… C P Joshi was made in-charge of Tripura when he had no idea what Communism is all about or how the Communist party actually works. In the last four years, Joshi has visited Tripura for a total of three-and-a-half hours. And nobody else from Delhi has come here. There is a deep apathy towards the state Congress, and this, of course, affects morale,’’ said a senior Congress leader.
About 10,000 Congress workers are reported to have joined the BJP over the last two years.
“We simply don’t have the organisational strength to go to rural areas and woo voters, which is why most of our voters are urban or semi-urban. We have not been able to fight the CPI(M) effectively because we don’t have support. Whenever the CPI(M) passes off central government schemes as its own, even when the UPA government was at the Centre, we have not been able to protest effectively. In these elections too, we have received no funds yet for the candidates. The BJP on the other hand is pumping in money,’’ said the Congress leader.
Sources said the Congress was trying to form an alliance with the TMC, which does not have a significant presence in the state. “The reason why we are talking to TMC leaders right now is that we need to revive the anti-CPI(M) tag for us to have a chance with the electorate and to show them that we are serious about forming the government. Although the TMC does not have a support base, a tie-up will help us since the party is generally perceived as being anti-CPI(M),” said a Congress source.
Confirming the development, CLP leader Gopal Roy said: “There have been some discussions. Our door is open. We are hopeful that something will work out.” When asked about the BJP making gains, he said, “The Congress is like an ocean. A bucket of water (defecting leaders) being taken away will not affect the Congress. We are confident that we will do well.”