On the last day of the campaign, just 20 km far from Agartala in Majlispur assembly constituency in Tripura, there was a huge street march. More than a thousand BJP workers and supporters were walking with their candidates — a long queue with women and energized young supporters.
In the last two-three days, the people of the state have seen many BJP and CPI (M) rallies and road marches, but this one was particularly large. I asked a young bystander, It’s huge isn’t it, bhai? He replied, yes with a smile, “Yes, but this is nothing. When we have our rally, then you see how big that is!” Sure enough, a huge Left rally was taking place just as we reached Ambassa in Dhalai district.
Huge rallies are not a new phenomenon in Tripura, where the Left has ruled for years. What is new is the kind of BJP presence visible on the ground. Left supporters insist they will still win, but the question remains: What explains the sudden upsurge of the BJP in Tripura? And how is the Manik Sarkar-led government, which has run the state for 25 years, going to fare?
To understand the BJP upsurge, we need to look at the voting behaviour of people in the state. BJP secured a paltry 1.5 per cent of the vote in the 2013 Assembly election, and despite the Modi wave, got only around four percent of the vote in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. In Tripura, the electoral contest has always been bipolar, as the aggregate vote share of the Left alliance and the Congress alliance has been more than 90 percent and sometimes around 95 percent. In fact, the average vote share of the Left alliance in last five elections has been around 50 percent, suggesting a significant anti-Left population in the state. Before this particular election, these anti-Left votes were with Congress and its ally, the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT).
This time around, the BJP seems to have substantially captured the anti-Left vote. Frustration with the Left stem from its party cadre which guarantees a biased distribution of benefits to their own party supporters — a clear case of patronage politics. This direct involvement of the party cadre in biased benefit distribution naturally creates dissatisfaction among those who are not with the party.
Moreover, there is a long tradition of violence between the Left and Congress cadres. In Ambassa, a 45-year-old small businessman, a traditional Congress supporter now supporting BJP, said that those not with the Left had been continuously targetted and harassed by the Left cadres and that the Congress had failed to protect them. “We have lost hope with the Congress, so we are supporting the BJP this time,” he said.
The BJP slogan “Chalo Paltai”, meaning, Let us Overturn (the existing political formation) is not only giving voice to anti-incumbency sentiments but also the frustrations of the long-suppressed Congress cadre. And so a large chunk of Congress supporters have simply moved to the BJP. The saffron party has worked hard to mobilize and generate these sentiments through their organisational machinery.
The BJP is also getting a major push from the salaried middle class chiefly because of its promise to implement the Seventh Pay Commission. Much of the tribal population is also said to feel ignored by the Left. With prime minister Narendra Modi in charge at the centre, the BJP has been pushing hard its advantages.
Peace and Manik Sarkar is the key
With so many things going in favour of the BJP, does it have a real chance at victory? Fact is it’s not easy to defeat a party that has continuously secured 50 percent of the vote. Two of the biggest worries for BJP this time constitutes its alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) besides fullscale importing of Congress leaders and cadres. A significant proportion of the state’s population is of Bengali origin, and they fear the IPFT’s demand for separate statehood. If it comes to the power, will Tripura will go back to the old period of unrest? This is where Manik Sarkar comes into the picture.
Like any other state in the North-East, Tripura has a history of insurgency. But the Manik Sarkar regime has largely established peace and stability in the state. The fourth term chief minister (the third longest serving chief minister after Jyoti Basu and Pawan Kumar Chamling) broke new ground by making Tripura the first state to lift AFSPA in 2015. Apart from his clean image, every section of the population acknowledges his work on peace and different social security schemes – there are 33 (including three central government schemes) and social security schemes (allowances and pensions) which are run by the state government. The PDS system has been implemented well and ensures delivery on time. Even my BJP-supporting taxi driver admitted, “I can’t deny the fact that almost everyone gets their food ration almost on time.”
The people of Tripura will be voting on February 18 to elect their next government. To defeat the Left, the BJP will need to get at least 40 per cent vote share — and the CPI(M) will have to lose a significant share of its previous supporters. And no one can predict how much of the electorate will stay with Congress.
The jury is out in Tripura. The nation eagerly awaits its decision.