The conclusive victory for the BJP in the first electoral contest between the political Left and Right in the country, winning Tripura by a two-third majority, was scripted over two years. If the CPM saw it, it did little to fight back.
From the issues to pick up, including salaries being paid as per the 4th Pay Commission in the state when the country had moved onto the 7th, to targeting the youth, who are believed to have broken ranks with families to vote for it, and tapping into the RSS’s long-term Northeast agenda to setting in place its own base, the BJP has been at work since January 2016 to crack the citadel built by the Left over 25 years.
Sunil Deodhar, the BJP Tripura prabhari (in-charge) and former RSS pracharak, credited to a large extent for the win, was emphatic about what the victory means for the party, which is now on course to becoming the most dominant force in the Northeast. Calling the RSS-BJP campaign a campaign for “Communist-mukt Bharat”, Deodhar told The Sunday Express, “We have broken the Communist spine with this victory. This was essential. Now we have broken the backbone of Communism from JNU to Kerala. This is more than just symbolic for us.”
The Pay Commission
If the issue of unemployment was the fulcrum of the BJP’s call for ‘Vote for Change’ in the state, it made its point over and over again by highlighting the non-implementation of the 7th Pay Commission in Tripura. In a state which still pays salaries to government workers on the basis of the 4th Pay Commission, this issue found prominent space in the BJP’s Vision Document for the state, its poll platform as well as speeches of its leaders from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and national president Amit Shah to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. Should the BJP come to power, the leaders promised, the 7th Pay Commission would be implemented. If a government servant’s salary is Rs 20,000 under the 4th Pay Commission, it’ll increase to at least Rs 35,000 under the 7th Pay Commission.
In a state largely dependent on the services sector in the absence of employment avenues, the defence of Chief Minister Manik Sarkar that Manipur too had failed to implement the 7th Pay Commission sounded hollow, especially from a man seeking his fifth term in power.
CPM insiders admitted on Saturday that the Pay Commission issue may have worked overwhelmingly in the BJP’s favour. “At least 60 per cent of the government employee votes, we now know, have gone to the BJP,” a party leader said.
Deodhar agrees. “All the central and state government employees voted for us. The 7th Pay Commission has been an important issue for us.”
In the heart of Krishnanagar, a congested colony of twisting bylanes, lives the influential Guha family. Originally from East Bengal (they moved to Tripura during Partition), the Guhas are traditionally a CPM family, with Tapan Guha (62) and his elder brother active party workers for years.
Twenty-four years ago, the two walked out of the party. “As we realised that the CPM was becoming more and more dictatorial, especially with every win, both of us left,” Tapan says.
Tapan never voted again till February 18 this year, when he cast his ballot for the BJP. “I knew we needed change. The BJP had given us an alternative to the Left, which had become so arrogant that it had become difficult to live in Tripura,” he says.
However, Tapan’s younger brother Tarun, an ENT specialist, again voted for the Left, as did their father. “I agree with my brother that change is required. The only reason I voted for the CPM is because I didn’t want this change to come through the BJP. I don’t agree with their ideology. Their Hindutva politics makes me uncomfortable. We are peace-loving people and we want to maintain the peace,” he says.
The division didn’t run within just the brothers. Explaining why he voted for the BJP, Tapan’s son Subhadeep Guha, 30, who runs a business of solar lighting in Agartala, says, “Dalit and Muslim lynchings are not relevant. Maybe because that is not something that affects us. Nor is Hindutva. I don’t agree with the RSS philosophy or Hindutva politics, but they won’t get a foothold with that kind of politics here. I voted for the BJP because I like Narendra Modi. I like his personality. At least he is trying to do something. Even notebandi and GST… these could have gone very wrong. But he took the risk nevertheless. That’s the kind of leadership we need right now. In Tripura, we are 20 years behind every other state. What has the Left done for 25 years? Since I was a child, I have only seen one government. I voted for parivartan.”
In family after family, such divisions were seen in Tripura this election.
Deodhar says that cross-voting by hardcore Left families was one of the factors for the BJP’s victory. “There has been at least 10 per cent cross-voting. We knew this would happen. The disgruntlement with the CPM leadership was high even within party workers and supporters.”
BJP leaders claim that in many districts, Left workers were in touch with them. “So while many CPM families attended Left rallies and participated in the campaign even, we knew they would be voting for us,” says a source.
Building the party
Deodhar says the Northeast states have always been very important for the RSS. “Strategically because of China and Bangladesh, also because of the infiltration of Bangladeshi Muslims and because of conversions to Christianity. So in the early ‘90s, the Sangh decided that each Northeast state would be adopted by another state. Assam was given to Kerala; Manipur to Karnataka; Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland to Maharashtra; Arunachal to Vidarbha; and Tripura to West Bengal, because these have similar cultures,” he says.
Over the past two years, RSS insiders say, the Sangh work in Tripura was intensified. From around 60 shakhas at the time of the 2014 elections, the RSS now has 265 shakhas in the state.
“We have nothing to do with electoral politics, but we have been reaching out to people through our social service. Many families who have joined us are CPM families. Many of our workers are former CPM workers. The belief that people of Tripura are Communists is erroneous. The common man does not know Marx and has not read Das Kapital. They were simply under pressure to follow Communism because of the ruling party. They were oppressed. We simply gave them an alternative. Taught them concepts new to them — of desh bhakti (patriotism), sanskriti (culture) and itihaas (history). They were not aware. Once they understood, they joined us. Now as many as 15,000-20,000 attend our shakha events,” says an RSS Tripura insider.
He adds that this is not something new. “It was done in 2013 as well, only this time it got traction.”
As the RSS worked in the background, the BJP put its organisation in place to match the Left Front’s formidable cadre base. This was important as the BJP did not have any presence in Tripura, having won only 1.54 per cent of the votes in the 2013 Assembly polls, with almost every one of its 50 candidates losing their deposits.
Party leaders say over 50,000 BJP and RSS members were hands-on in the state. They took out morchas and led andolans from mandal to state level — including Yuva Morchas (by the BJP’s youth wing), Mahila Morcha (women’s wing), to morchas for SCs, STs, OBCs, minorities and farmers.
‘Vistaraks’ were appointed per constituency to ensure there was no infighting among mandals and local leaders, while more were brought in from other states to look after Tripura’s tea estates.
Each polling booth has about 17-18 pages of voters, and each page has a list of 60 voters. A ‘panna pramukh’ or page in-charge was given the charge of each such page, and entrusted to look after the needs of all the 60 voters on it. For the job, local leaders, men and women, were picked up.
Then came ‘Shakti Kendra Vistaraks’ — in-charge of every five booths in the state. While the BJP does not have a trade union of its own, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, affiliated to the RSS, was strengthened and its membership increased.
The BJP also launched its ambitious online registration of voters, through missed calls given to a number. Deodhar says over two lakh members were registered with it by the time of elections.
Another idea was ‘Train Samparaks’, who would travel on trains wearing Modi-T-shirts and hand out BJP pamphlets to passengers. They would talk to passengers, take down their phone numbers, ask them about their problems, from water issues to gas cylinder difficulties, and pass the same along to party workers in Agartala.
The BJP says this army of workers went through “prashikshan (training)”, including lessons on ideology, nationalism and Indian culture.
Finally, just ahead of the elections, 400 ‘Vistaraks’ were brought in from Assam.
Admits CPM state secretary Bijan Dhar, “They had resources that we simply did not — from the money they poured into the campaign to the number of people they mobilised and brought in from outside.”
The tribal vote
From the beginning, the BJP was clear that Tripura could not be won without the tribal vote, the Left’s lifeblood in the state. A month before the elections, it tied up with the IPFT (Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura).
The party has been backing the IPFT for some time now, with CPM leaders accusing the BJP of instigating the riots between IPFT workers and CPM during the Agartala violence of August 2016. But it held off its decision as it weighed its options. Says a BJP leader, “We had been in touch with all the anti-Left regional parties. We felt the IPFT had managed to build a strong tribal base on the back of its demand for a separate state for tribals and so was the best bet for us.”
In the run-up to the elections, the BJP made it clear that it did not back a separate tribal state, so as to not lose the majority Bengali vote in the state. Despite that, the party’s faith in the IPFT was eventually justified, with the tribal outfit winning eight of the nine seats it contested.
On Saturday, the desertion of the CPM by tribals was evident. While the party has never won less than 18 of the 20 tribal seats in the state, this time it got only two, Jolaibarri and Manu. Among the CPM leaders who stood defeated was Deputy Chief Minister and tribal leader Aghore Debbarman, who lost from the Left’s strongest bastion, Asharambari, by a significant margin of 7,000 votes. Even in 1988, when the Congress formed a government in the state, Asharambari had given the CPM its largest-ever win.
Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhwal, a former rebel commander and president of IPFT rival INPT (Indigenous Nationalist Front of Tripura), says the BJP victory was inevitable. “We don’t agree with the IPFT demand for a separate state, but the writing on the wall was there. The tribals were feeling alienated, neglected. This is not a bad verdict as far as we are concerned. We don’t support the BJP, but something had to change. The tribals have been loyal to the CPM time after time, but without getting anything in return. There are 10,000 tribal youths without jobs. Do you think that is a small matter? How will tribal families feed themselves without jobs? The tribal youth had had enough, and they are the ones who brought about the change,” says Hrangkhwal.
The PM’s rallies
Modi addressed four rallies in Tripura, unprecedented for a PM for a such a small state. On February 8, he held two public meetings — in Sonamura in south Tripura, and Kailashshahar in north Tripura. Among the audience were people from all the surrounding Assembly constituencies. If this visit is believed to have given the BJP crucial impetus, his second visit just three days ahead of the February 18 elections, where he did two rallies again — in Shantirbazar in south Tripura, and then in Agartala city — drawing record crowds, sealed the deal. Combined with his growing popularity in the state, these rallies gave crucial last-minute push to the BJP.
Senior BJP leaders also continuously visited the state to boost the workers’ morale, especially if there were any attacks on them in a state controlled by the CPM — a point Modi emphasised in his victory speech on Saturday. Sources said the BJP spent more than Rs 15 lakh on medical expenses of its “injured cadres”.
“Fifty-two ministers visited Tripura in the last three years. This sent a message that the BJP leadership and Central government were keen to see the welfare of the people in Tripura,” Deodhar says.
In a rare confession by a Left leader, Politburo member Mohammad Salim said on Saturday, “The BJP had many devices, especially the social media, to woo the youth. But it is true that in a state like Tripura there are issues. Unemployment, for instance, is a grave issue. We as a party will have to introspect. There are things that we need to do, we have to reinvent and repackage ourselves.”
The scriptwriters of the victory
A Maharashtra-born RSS pracharak, Deodhar was sent to Tripura by BJP president Amit Shah in 2014, and a large share of the credit for the party winning the Left bastion goes to Deodhar.
In the two and a half years that he spent in the state, Deodhar, 54, has visited all 60 constituencies of Tripura at least three times each. Under him, the BJP appointed 3,209 agents for the 3,214 polling booths in the state; the Congress, with 35 per cent vote share last time, has only 1,500 booth agents.
A major call Deodhar took was for the BJP to directly take on CPM Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, a leader of impeccable personal credentials. “We tried to establish that being honest and simple is not enough, one has to be effective,” Deodhar says.
He convinced the BJP to reach out to leaders from other parties to build its non-existent base in the state, and to strike an unthinkable deal with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), a tribal outfit seeking a separate state. Deodhar also zeroed in on Biplab Kumar Deb as state party chief, and Deb is expected to be the new CM.
He was chosen for the Northeast due to his 11-year experience of working as an RSS pracharak in the region.
From 2005-10, he worked with ‘My Home India’, an initiative to provide assistance to northeastern students in different parts of India. In 2010, he joined the BJP and was made convener of the Northeastern cell by then party chief Nitin Gadkari. Deodhar caught the eye of Narendra Modi when, in 2013, he won the BJP three of six seats in Gujarat’s Dahod district, a Congress bastion. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Modi made him in-charge of his Varanasi constituency.
Biplab Kumar Deb
The youngest state chief of the BJP, the 49-year-old RSS volunteer was apparently reluctant to take over the mantle in 2016. But with party leaders desperate to pit a young face against the experienced Manik Sarkar, Deb, a native of south Tripura’s Udaipur, was brought back from the national capital. Sources say he is likely to be announced as the new chief minister.
Party leaders credit the spectacular victory to his leadership. A father of two, Deb’s wife, Niti, is a deputy manager at the State Bank of India’s Parliament House branch in Delhi.
The BJP’s win in these polls is another high for the party general secretary. Since his induction into the BJP in 2014, Madhav, 53, a full-time RSS worker since 1981, has undertaken some difficult tasks, including engineering the historical alliance between the BJP and the PDP in J&K. While he relied on Deodhar and Deb in Tripura, in Nagaland, Madhav’s right-hand man Priyang Pandey, who is with the India Foundation, handled the electioneering. Sources say Madhav had promised the Prime Minister 40 seats from the last red bastion.
Himanta Biswa Sarma
Since he quit the Congress to join the BJP in 2015, Sarma, 49, as convener of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance, has played a crucial role in BJP’s government formation in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal. In Tripura, Sarma was key to the BJP stitching an alliance with The Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura, which helped the party take tribal seats. Of those behind the victory, Sarma is the only one without a Sangh background — the one-time Assam Congress strategist is now a virulent critic of his former party and Rahul Gandhi.