Tripura, the first of the three Northeast states going to polls on February 18, will witness a direct battle between the Left and BJP. Ever since the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014, Northeast has been its special focus, with the win in the Assam assembly elections giving the party a massive boost in the region. The BJP, propelled by the Congress whose seven MLAs defected to the saffron party in the run-up to the elections, has emerged as the main challenger for the Left. The state is crucial for the Left, which is its last bastion in the country, with Manik Sarkar’s 25-year rule facing a sort of referendum this election. The Congress has been the main opposition party for 25 years, and in power twice in Tripura.
About 297 candidates, including 20 women, are in the fray for the elections to the 60-member assembly. In all, 25,79,060 electorates, including 12,67,785 women, are eligible voters. The ruling CPI(M) has fielded 57 candidates, leaving one seat each to its Left Front partner CPI, Forward Bloc and Revolutionary Socialist Party. The BJP is contesting from 51 seats and has given nine seats to its ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT). Congress candidates have filed nominations from 59 constituencies, while 24 Trinamool Congress members are in the fray.
Here are the important points that will shape the elections :
Can Manik Sarkar hold on to the Left’s last citadel?
Sarkar, who is aiming for a record fifth term as CM, is credited with bringing insurgency down to a trickle in the state. Also, after nearly two decades, in 2015, Tripura withdrew the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act or AFSPA, applied primarily in the tribal areas. The state now produces excess energy that gets exported to Bangladesh. Sarkar may not possess resources like the BJP nor does he have star power, but the low-profile The CM has covered these shortcomings by travelling the length and breadth of the state and addressing more than 50 rallies in what has been a one-man show. Famously, in his 2018 affidavit, the CM declared he has become poorer with Rs 1,520 in hand and Rs 2,410 in his account – less than what he had in 2013 elections. But beyond Sarkar’s aura, is his administrative set up which is seen as corrupt. More importantly, the 69-year-old leader faces the heat in the Rs 17,000-crore Rose Valley chit fund scam. The BJP has accused Sarkar of directly aiding and abetting the company allegedly involved in the scam and providing trade licence.
BJP, the new challenger to CPM
The saffron party has already cast the dice by entering into a pre-poll alliance with the IPFT and has promised to form a committee to look into their demands for a separate state. In a tactical move, the BJP downplayed its Hindutva, hyper-nationalism and beef politics, which they had used to good effect in the Hindi heartland states. The idea of ‘Chalo Paltai’ was reinforced by the star-studded line-up of Union Ministers BJP fielded along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah. The BJP manifesto has promised Special Economic Zones (SEZs) for sectors such as food processing, bamboo and IT and employment to every household.
Even though Tripura has a literacy rate of nearly 97 per cent, almost 19.7 per cent of the 37 lakh population is unemployed, topping the list of states, according to the fifth employment-unemployment survey published in 2016 by the Labour Ministry. A 2016 government report, too, reflects a similar tale – about 693,516 job seekers were listed in employment exchanges of the state in March 2016. The Supreme Court last year terminated the jobs of 10,323 government teachers citing irregularities in their appointments.
Demand for Twipraland
Similar to the demand for Gorkhaland in West Bengal and Bodoland in Assam, the call for a separate Twipraland by the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura has been one of the persisting issues in the state. The party wants a separate state be carved out for the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) areas, which constitute two-thirds of the state territory and is home to the tribals, who form one-third of the state population. Last year, the IPFT blocked the Assam-Agartala national highway (NH-8), the state’s only link to the rest of the country, and the railway network in West Tripura. In August 2016, a rally taken out by the IPFT to mark the eight ‘Twipraland’ Statehood Demand Day turned violent where nearly 100 people were injured and several vehicles were torched in clashes between tribals and non-tribals.
Ethnic tensions (Tribals vs Bengalis)
The tension between the tribals and the Bengali community can be traced back to 1945, when Tripura’s indigenous people were facing an economic crisis and the continuing influx of people from the then East Bengal. The tribals claim that the ‘swelling population of Bengalis’ would wipe out the legitimate aspirations of the indigenous people to safeguard their land, culture and language. In 2016, at least 20 people were injured and 15 vehicles torched in Agartala in ethnic clashes.
The important players in the elections
While CPM has renominated all ministers and prominent MLAs, 12 new faces are on their list. BJP, which does not have a strong base in Tripura, will look to the seven turncoat MLAs from Congress like Ratan Lal Nath, Sudip Barman and Dilip Sarkar to turn the tide in its favour. While CM Manik Sarkar will contest from Dhanpur Assembly seat, the other key players for the left will be Rajya Sabha member Jharna Das Baidya (Badharghat constituency), Agartala Municipal Council Mayor Krishna Mazumder and DYFI’s state president Amal Chakraborty (Banamalipur).
Where does Congress stand?
It looks all Left vs BJP in Tripura with little hope for Congress. However, party’s leadership feels they should not give up. Admitting that Congress’s chances looked bleak, former Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has said “that is no reason” why the Congress shouldn’t put up a fight. Gogoi is the first of high-profile Congress leaders to visit the state. “I must admit that we don’t have such bright poll prospects in the state right now, but that is no reason why we (Congress) shouldn’t put up a fight. The BJP has gained ground because they are ruling at the Centre. This always makes it easy in such a small state. Besides they are pumping in money in the elections. Look at the number of aircrafts, choppers, vehicles they are using in Tripura. BJP is using black money they claim to have retrieved in elections. That and money from big corporates is being used,” said Gogoi.