For decades, the tribal vote in Tripura has been staunchly Left. With 20 reserved seats and 34 per cent of the vote share, it’s the 19 Tripura tribes that have ensured that the CPM stays in power for over two decades in the state. Now, as the BJP encroaches on the Bengali vote, so far split between the Congress and CPM, it is these 20 tribal seats that may count in the ruling CPM’s battle to keep the BJP at bay.
Tripura will go to polls on Sunday, with 307 candidates contesting for 59 of its 60 constituencies. Voting in Charilam Assembly constituency will be held on March 12 due to the death of the CPM candidate for the seat. A resurgent BJP has ensured that this is the closest electoral contest Tripura has seen in a while, and authorities are apprehensive of violence. State Director General of Police Akhil Kumar Shukla said tight security measures were in place, with 300 companies of central armed forces deployed across the state along with the state armed personnel and police.
The BJP is banking on its alliance with the regional tribal party Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), to see it through in the 20 tribal seats. The IPFT is contesting 9 seats in the polls, with the BJP the remaining 51. “The IPFT-BJP alliance will sweep the 20 (tribal) seats and wipe out the CPM,” claims BJP Tripura prabhari Sunil Deodhar. “People from all parties in the areas have joined us. There are four tribal leaders in our core committee here. We have included tribal leaders in all our morchas and not just our tribal morcha, so that they are well-represented. We have given them respect within the party. And we have carried out andolans in these areas raising issues that are pertinent to the community,” he says.
In the Takarjhala constituency, for example, from where IPFT president N C Debbarma is contesting, the IPFT is a formidable force. Samir Debbarma (26) is among the many tribal youths who says he will be voting for the IPFT. Admitting his parents are old CPM supporters, he says, “That is how it is with most of us. The younger people are voting for the IPFT and the older people for the CPM.”
The CPM’s hold in the tribal areas goes back to the late 1940s, when Tripura was ravaged by famine after WW II. At the time, the Left helped tribals organise themselves into an uprising against the administration, leading to the formation of the Tripurar Upajatai Ganamukti Parishad, later known simply as the Ganamukti Parishad. But things are changing with the younger generation. “I have a BA and there are no jobs in sight. Most people in these areas don’t have jobs. My grandparents are illiterate and my parents aren’t well-educated, but if they didn’t get jobs, neither did I. Then what is the difference in this state between getting an education and not having one?” says Samir.
Amal Debbarma (31) will be voting for the CPM, but his three siblings for the IPFT. Amal says he will go with the CPM again as he “feels bad” for the party. “But there has been little development. Lot of villages don’t have clean drinking water and many people still don’t have homes. I am voting for the CPM because at least someone in the family should vote for them.”
In the last election, CPM candidate Niranjan Debbarma had won Takarjhala by a narrow 1,207 votes, against the INPT (Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra). Both the IPFT and BJP had a mere 600-odd votes then. However, since then, the INPT has ceded the tribal space to the IPFT.
In another tribal constituency, Bagma, the INPT’s Jyotish Jamatia says the IPFT has gained from its tie-up with the BJP. “Their stance of demanding a separate state has also helped it among the tribal youth. This is an emotional issue, but it is a ploy. The tribals feel left behind, we have a high percentage of dropouts from schools and high unemployment, but we are against a separate state as we don’t want Tripura to be divided,” Jamatia says.
He also believes that the CPM stands a good chance in the 20 tribal seats, and that the IPFT-BJP alliance will not get as many seats as it anticipates. “We may not win, but we will ensure that we cut into the IPFT vote,” says Jamatia, adding, “None of the Assembly constituencies is purely tribal in Tripura; most also have large segments of Bengali voters. With the IPFT demanding a separate state, the Bengali voter in the tribal areas is likely to vote against them and for the CPM.”
The Bengali wariness over the demand for a separate state had prompted BJP president Amit Shah to recently announce that “Triperaland and a separate state is out of the question”. The BJP will not allow Tripura to be divided, he said.
Explaining his reasons to stick with the CPM, Subhash Debbarma (36), a farmer and a father of two from Ramanipara village in Golaghati Assembly constituency, says, “In one of the ADC (Autonomous District Council) elections in 2005, we voted the INPT to power, but got no benefits. So many of us are done with the regional tribal parties. The CPM is our safest choice.”