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The challenger: In Tripura’s bipolar politics BJP is the new key player

As Tripura goes to vote on Feb 18, a new front has opened up in the state’s traditionally bipolar politics, with the BJP emerging as a key player. The Indian Express reports from Agartala on why the equations are shifting in what’s probably the Left’s last bastion.

Written by Esha Roy | Agartala |
Updated: June 26, 2018 11:34:15 am
tripura election 2019, cpim, communist party of india marxist, bjp tripura, northeast, tripura assembly polls, agartala, left parties, prakash karat, manik sarkar, indian express At a BJP rally in Agartala. The party has entered into an alliance with the IPFT, a party that seeks a separate state for tribals. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

Maharaja Colonel Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya Debbarman Bahadur of the Manikya dynasty is widely considered Tripura’s pioneer king. The last reigning monarch of the princely state before it merged with the Indian Republic in 1949, Bir Bikram is credited with planning the kingdom’s capital of Agartala, initiating land reforms, reserving vast tracts of land for Tripura’s tribal population, building Agartala’s first airport and setting up one of the country’s first municipalities. Besides starting Tripura’s first university and building schools, he is also said to have sent foodgrains to Bengal during its famine and welcomed refugees fleeing East Bengal ahead of Partition.

Sixty-nine years since the accession, in Communist-ruled Tripura, there is little to show for the erstwhile kingdom’s royal lineage. Until now.

In a year that is to witness one of the country’s most interesting electoral fights — where the BJP’s Hindutva ideology takes on the ruling Left Front, which has had an uninterrupted stint since 1993 — the royal lineage has been dusted off and brought to the fore.

“Maharaja Bir Bikram was a vikas purush, an extraordinary man. He did so much for Tripura but has never received that kind of attention. We are trying to get him the Bharat Ratna. We are also trying to ensure that the Agartala airport is named after him,’’ says BJP Tripura prabhari Sunil Deodhar.

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While the Communist party has so far been anti-monarchy (they came to power on the back of the land movement directed at the royal family), analysts in Tripura say the royalty has always been a part of the state’s public — specifically tribal — consciousness. Now with the BJP reviving the state’s royal lineage with an eye on the Left-dominated tribal tracts of Tripura, analysts say the Left is worried.

That explains, they say, why Chief Minister Manik Sarkar recently inaugurated a statue of Maharaja Radha Kishore (Bir Bikram’s grandfather) in Agartala. With the Left crumbling in West Bengal and Kerala alternating between the Left and the Congress, Tripura remains the only “pure Red bastion” left in the country.

“This is a climbdown for the Communists. But I am happy that my family is being acknowledged by both the BJP and the CPM, even though we are not politically aligned. Manik Sarkar’s Communist government has always been against the royal family. But they have seen the sentiment on the ground. This is the reason why Amit Shah, when he came, said the airport would be named after my grandfather. The CPM is worried and they finally realise the tribals are upset for insulting their king,’’ says the present titular ‘king’, Kirit Pradyot Debbarman Manikya, who is also the working president of the Congress.


Tripura CPM state secretary Bijon Dhar admits that ideologically, the royal family has never been of importance to the party. “But we have never tried to erase the history of the kingdom or the royal family. The BJP is playing with the sentiments of the people. The new generation of tribals has forgotten that it was the tribals who rose against their king,’’ says Dhar, while quickly adding that the Left is not taking tribal sentiments lightly.

“The state can’t progress without the tribals progressing. There is so much talk about the conflict between the tribals and the Bengalis, which was first orchestrated by the TMC (Trinamool Congress) and now by the BJP. The progress of Bengalis is also not possible without that of the tribals,’’ he says.

Making inroads

Last year, former Congress leader and Agartala MLA since 1998, Sudip Roy Burman, joined the BJP along with five other MLAs. The MLAs had left the Congress to join the TMC when the regional party made its entry into Tripura politics, but as the party’s chances fizzled, they jumped ship to the BJP. That, experts say, is a clear sign of the BJP gaining ground in the state over the past two years. Congress insiders reveal that during this period, approximately 12,000 party workers left the party to join the BJP — 2,000 of them workers who left alongside Burman. The Congress, which won 10 seats in the 2013 elections, is now left with two. Besides the six who left with Burman, one Congressman had his membership cancelled, and the Left won a by-election, taking its strength to 50.


The Congress’s Tripura vice-president, Tapas Dey, admits that the BJP is making the most of a vacuum created by the “failures of both the Congress and the CPM”. “People have been looking for an alternative to the CPM government. There have been issues with unemployment, NREGS, BPL card benefits and even old-age pensions. As far as I know, many disgruntled CPM cadres are supporting the BJP this time. The Congress’s tragedy is that we have not been able to hold on to our workers. There has been a lot of infighting within the party. And the BJP has offered an alternative. It’s not that people like the BJP or even agree with what they stand for. But people need an alternative. How else can a communal party hope to enter a Red state?’’ he says.

In the last Assembly elections held in 2013, the BJP garnered a minuscule 1.4 per cent vote share. Even during the 2014 general elections, at the height of the ‘Modi wave’, the BJP only marginally bettered its vote share to 5.7 per cent. But things have changed since 2014.

The RSS, which has had a presence in the state for 30 years, has recently stepped up its activities. BJP insiders say the Sangh has been revived, with a new leadership (Nikhil Newaskar) and with camps across the state. They say that many of the recent protests and “andolans’’, in fact, have been carried out by the RSS and not the BJP.

What the party is now betting on is the tribal vote. There are 19 major tribes in Tripura, including Jamatia, Noatia, Reang, Uchai, Halam, Mog, Tripuri, Chakma, Kuki, Khasia, Chaimal, Garo, Munda, Lepcha, Orang, Bhutia, Santal, Bhill and Lusai. The Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) Act, giving autonomy to a tribal council, was tabled in 1979 and passed in 1982 by the Tripura government. The TTAADC holds elections to its 28 seats, most of which are held by the CPM.

The CPM currently holds all the 20 Assembly constituencies in the state reserved for tribals. This election, these 20 seats are likely to witness an intense battle between the CPM and the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), a party seeking a separate Tripura state for tribals and which recently aligned with the BJP. The party is expected to fight nine seats here and the BJP 11, thus taking on the CPM in an area that has so far been entirely Left-dominated.

tripura election 2019, cpim, communist party of india marxist, bjp tripura, northeast, tripura assembly polls, agartala, left parties, prakash karat, manik sarkar, indian express CPM leader Prakash Karat with Tripura CM Manik Sarkar. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

Besides, the Jamatia Hoda, one of the most powerful tribal bodies in Tripura representing the Hindu Jamatia tribe, has backed the saffron party.

The CPM’s Dhar accuses the BJP of “deliberately and artificially” creating a divide between the Bengalis (who form 68 per cent of the electorate) and the tribals. “There is no conflict between the two communities; it’s just the BJP playing the polarising politics that they do in the rest of the country,’’ he says.


When asked about the Bengali-tribal violence of August 2016, in which at least 20 people were injured and 15 vehicles set on fire in Agartala as voting was underway for the Simna-Tamakari by-election, Dhar says, “That was nothing. Some IPFT workers had vandalised and burnt shops and the locals (Bengalis) reacted to that. It was not communal.”

But the rise of the IPFT has coincided with frequent clashes between its workers and that of the CPM over the past two years.


On September 20 last year, Shantanu Bhaumik, a reporter of Din-Raat, a local TV news channel, was killed at Mandai, about 40 km from Agartala, while covering a clash between CPM and IPFT supporters.

Tripura in numbers

The BJP, however, is banking on more than just alliances. Over the past few months, the state’s newspapers and television channels have been flooded with advertisements by the BJP and its slogan “chalo paltai (Let’s bring change)”.

“Have you ever seen Tripura tourism advertised? The basic philosophy of the Communist government here is that nobody should make any money, that people should remain poor so that they continue to be entirely dependent on the ruling party. For the Communists, the party is above everything else. Fundamental Muslims jaise hote hain, waise hi Marxvadi hote hain (Marxists are like fundamental Muslims). It is impossible for them to think outside of their radical ideology,’’ says the BJP’s Deodhar, a former RSS pracharak from Shillong who was given responsibility of Tripura soon after the 2014 general elections.

“Amitji told me: ‘We are working on a Congress-mukt Bharat, but you work on a Communist-mukt Bharat’. When I first got here, the CPM was unchallenged in tribal seats. But now we feel that we can defeat them here. And unlike the rest of the Northeast, this is a largely Hindu state, so we feel we have a good chance,’’ he says.

Deodhar claims he, along with a few BJP workers, built the organisation in Tripura from scratch. Today it stands at over two lakh members, much of it the result of an aggressive online membership drive. The organisation has been strengthened and cadres assigned to each booth; one party worker put in charge of every 60 voters across Tripura’s 3,214 booths.

“The CPM has never fought another cadre-based party in its history and this will be a challenge for them,’’ says Deodhar, adding that the BJP’s typical voter, who was earlier the Congress’s, is urban and educated, someone who holds a job or runs a business. “They have some amount of wealth and therefore aren’t dependent on the CPM,’’ says Deodhar, while an aide adds, “As soon as people start making money, they move away from the CPM.’’

Key issues

The tribal vote isn’t as unambiguous as the BJP has made it out to be. They do have the support of the separatist group IPFT, but two other tribal groups — the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura and the National Conference of Tripura (NCT) — have formed an independent alliance and will together fight 14 seats.

“On one hand, we believe the government should change, but on the other, there is this communal party (BJP). We are fighting the Left Front because they have failed to provide the tribals proper development. But we also don’t stand for a separate state and we don’t want Tripura to be bifurcated, which is why we cannot accept an alliance with the IPFT,’’ says NCT president Animesh Debbarman.

IPFT general secretary Mewat Kumar Jamatia, however, defends that it’s their shared philosophy that made the party join hands with the BJP. “The BJP stands for smaller states across the country. They have already made us members of the North-East Democratic Alliance. The Prime Minister has given us assurance that a high-level committee has been set up to look into the demand for a separate state. And so what if we are separatist? Ram Madhav explained to us that they have tried to solve the Kashmir issue by forming an alliance with the PDP. They have aligned with Bodoland and Gorkhaland. They have aligned with the Nagas despite their demand for a Greater Nagaland, which, the BJP leaders admitted to us, may not be possible,” Jamatia says.

Plus, it’s not the tribal vote alone that will decide the outcome of the elections. Left detractors say the 68 per cent Bengali vote too could start moving towards the BJP — the community, at least those in urban areas, has so far supported the Congress.

“The new generation of tribals as well as Bengalis wants to move ahead. They don’t care about American imperialism. The Left rhetoric has become old and outdated. People want to make money and lead comfortable lives and they cannot do so under the Left regime. In December, over 10,000 teachers lost their jobs. The Left is unable to address issues of unemployment. People now believe that if the BJP wins, there will be development. Central funds will come. Who cares about Hindutva? It is all economics,’’ says a CPM detractor.

The CPM’s Dhar admits that unemployment is a major issue in the state. And that the government has been unable to implement the 7th Pay Commission. “We simply don’t have the resources to do so. It is not true that we have not developed tribal regions — 50 per cent of our state budget is kept aside for tribal areas. There have been issues but that is because of the Modi government at the Centre. Funds under the NREGS have dried up, we are barely able to sustain the programme. And with the Planning Commission replacing NITI Aayog, Tripura’s special status has been repealed. Which means that the Rs 2,500 crore which was due to us has not come. Most of the tribal youth who are supporting the BJP are its diaspora, people who live in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Delhi. They are disconnected from the tribals who live here,’’ he says.

But there are evident signs of nervousness in the CPM camp. The CPM is fighting the election on a four-pronged slogan — peace, harmony, a united Tripura and development. “This is the first time we have included ‘united Tripura’ in our election platform. That is because there has been so much talk of bifurcating the state,’’ Dhar says.

Meanwhile, Congress insiders insist that the CPM, not the BJP, remains their biggest rival. “We believe the CPM will retain the seats they won in 2013. They have a very strong cadre-based organisation that is difficult to fight against. Besides, look at what the BJP is doing across the country with its gau rakshaks, lynchings and its economic policies — people of the state are very politically aware and they know better,’’ says a Congress veteran.

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First published on: 28-01-2018 at 12:48:50 am

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