The election day enthusiasm among the people of Tripura, which often translates into staggering turnouts exceeding 90 per cent, has few parallels in most other parts of India where “urban voter apathy” has emerged as a major concern, a fact acknowledged by the Election Commission of India.
In Tripura, while the lead-up to polling day witnesses hectic campaigning — marked by rallies, corner meetings and doorstep visits by candidates — on the day of voting, people, particularly women with children in tow, queue up in front of polling booths from early morning in a show of remarkable political consciousness. In the last three Assembly elections, the polling percentages were 89.95 per cent, 91.38 per cent and 93.57 per cent.
However, soon after voting winds up, the democratic spirit appears to dissipate overnight, giving way to a vortex of political violence and a climate of fear and intimidation. This year has been no exception, with reports of clashes and arson pouring in from across the state ever since the elections were held on February 16. The intensity of the violence increased after March 2, when the results were announced.
On Thursday, Chief Minister Manik Saha claimed that a group with “vested interests” was trying to “foment trouble”. “I have directed the DGP to handle the situation firmly. The law will take its own course,” Saha told reporters, adding action would be taken against miscreants irrespective of party affiliation.
The Left Front-Congress combine, which contested the polls under a seat-sharing pact, has squarely blamed the BJP for the violence. “Out of over 1,000 incidents, in which so far three lives have been lost, details of 668 cases have been submitted to the state administration as the Governor remained unavailable to meet the CPI(M) and Left Front delegation,” the CPI(M) Polit Bureau has said in a statement.
A joint delegation comprising Left and Congress leaders is also headed to Tripura as part of a fact-finding mission on the post-poll violence. Such a joint delegation is also indicative of the changed political topography in Tripura. Before the rise of the BJP in the state, the Left and the Congress were sworn rivals. With the CPI(M) governing Tripura uninterruptedly between 1993 and 2018, the Congress repeatedly alleged that its workers and supporters were attacked, intimidated, and victimised by the Left. While changed circumstances forced the leadership of the two parties to mend fences, misgivings remained on the ground despite attempts to bridge the gap.
The striking similarities in the nature of the political violence in Tripura and West Bengal provide a useful window through which the phenomenon can be studied. In both states, the emergence of the Left set in motion a series of changes that crushed the feudal elites. But as the years went by, a patronage network took shape for which party affiliation emerged as the most powerful determinant of a person’s identity. In the absence of employment opportunities, the unemployed youth saw incentives in being part of these structures — also involved in terrorising political rivals — that made them feel important and empowered at some level.
The demographic shift in Tripura caused by the entry of displaced Bengalis from present-day Bangladesh — in phases from the 1940s till the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971 — also created fissures that the state has been struggling to contain to date. This time, the rise of TIPRA Motha on the plank of “Greater Tipraland” has added another dimension to the post-poll clashes, with fears being expressed over the implications of those faultlines getting reopened.
Unofficially, the BJP has attributed this concern among the reasons for its move to open a dialogue with TIPRA Motha, which won 13 out of the 42 seats it contested and emerged as the second-largest party in the 60-member Assembly.
Speaking at The Indian Express Idea Exchange recently, TIPRA Motha chairperson Pradyot Debbarma observed that the political violence was also linked to poverty and the clashes were triggered by people who “are paid to commit violence”.
“The best solution for this is not to accommodate such elements in either of the parties. This also largely comes from three states — Kerala, Tripura, and West Bengal. In West Bengal, there are no Communists left, it is the Trinamool and BJP. But the culture of violence has been passed on, it is a legacy issue. It is the same in Tripura,” he said.