Agartala: Tripura's tryst with bipolar political struggles continues as it goes to polls on 18 February, only difference being replacement of Congress by the BJP as the main Opposition to the Left Front government.
The saffron party, which is in power in 19 states, including three in the North East, has allied with the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT), carefully negotiating the regional party's demand for a separate state while strengthening its chances to replace Manik Sarkar, the chief minister from past 20 years. CPM led Left Front has been in power in Tripura continuously for 30 years since 1988.
Sarkar never faced a challenge whatsoever to his regime in his four successive terms; thanks to faction riddled Congress and its reluctance to topple the Left regime despite garnering a minimum 40 percent vote share in every election since 1993. "Congress High Command never wanted to take on CPM for compulsions in national politics," said Asish Saha, an MLA elected on a Congress ticket in 2013, who had moved to Trinamool Congress in 2016, before joining the BJP. Saha is the BJP candidate from Town Bordowali constituency this election.
The scenario for BJP in Tripura has changed fast after the Narendra Modi government came to Centre in 2014. While the last Assembly election saw BJP score only 1.54 percent votes, the two Lok Sabha seats in the state were claimed by CPM in 2014. In the state Assembly elections since 1983, BJP never secured more than 2 percent vote share, except in 1998 when it polled 5.87 percent.
(Note: Click on the year to see changes in vote share percentages)
Data source: Election Commission of India reports. Chart by 101Reporters
BJP's reviewed interest in North East has paid back with the party gaining power in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur since last general elections. In Arunachal, the party wooed more than 30 legislators of the ruling People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA) to overthrow the elected government, and came to power in Assam riding on the anti-incumbency against Tarun Gogoi government and Narendra Modi’s popularity. Subsequently, the BJP installed a rainbow coalition government in Manipur amid a controversial election.
In the current election season, while the BJP is exclusively dependent on regional players in Meghalaya and Nagaland, in Tripura, many of the prominent leaders of the Congress and indigenous parties have moved in to the saffron party fold, positioning the BJP as the main opposition to the Left Front rule.
The BJP, unlike Congress, could not make a dent in tribal areas and had to form an alliance with Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT), a regional party that came into political centre stage with its demand for separate tribal state called Tipraland to meet aspirations of state's 33 percent indigenous population. Their demand, aimed at carving out a state from the three-fourth land area falling under the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC), generated fear and resentment among Bengalis, who constitute more than 65 percent non-tribal population in a state of four million people.
"Not all tribal parties, like the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT) and National Council of Tripura (NCT), favour Tipraland demand, and in fact, they talk about empowerment of the TTAADC. But, IPFT's speedy growth in hills and the support it garnered among youths guided the BJP to go for a electoral pact, though the national party categorically rejects any demand that could hurt geographical boundary of the state and create tension between communities," said political analyst Nabendu Bhattacharjee.
The architect of alliance with IPFT, Assam minister and BJP's election in-charge in Tripura, Himanta Biswa Sarma justified the alliance saying his party is only committed to improve economic status of indigenous people, to protect heritage, culture and language of the tribal people. "Empowerment of TTAADC is on the cards of BJP-led NDA government and bill to amend 6th schedule of the Constitution will be presented in the Parliament soon," Sarma has assured IPFT.
Rajeshwar Debbarma, a former MLA who had deserted the IPFT with several disgruntled leaders to form the IPFT–Tipraha, said, “Division of state is an unrealistic demand that will never be achieved. But, rights and aspirations of tribal people can be addressed through empowerment of TTAADC and other welfare measures.”
Debbarma's splinter IPFT faction, too, recently merged with the BJP, as the latter wanted to refrain it from contesting on 20 seats reserved for tribals in the 60 member Assembly. IPFT is contesting on nine of these 20 seats while the remaining 11 are with BJP.
"Our intention is to dislodge CPM from power. We merged with the BJP after they assured to work towards empowering TTAADC," Debbarma clarified.
Political observers believe that the 20 tribal constituencies hold key to success in the ensuing election. CPM has a traditional support base among tribal clans, because the communist movement marked its footprint in the hills in late 1940s, even before the erstwhile princely state merged with Indian Union on October 15, 1949.
The urge to dislodge the Left Front regime made IPFT imperative to BJP, which is desperate to take another northeastern state into its kitty. Political parties understand this isn’t a simple contest, but involves larger ramifications at the national level.
BJP-IPFT an 'unholy’ nexus to divide state: Sarkar
The BJP–IPFT bond has forced CPM to double its effort in campaigning across tribal seats as it publicises the ‘unholy’ nexus between the two parties. "IPFT is face of underground extremists and its alliance with BJP smacks of conspiracy and ill motive," alleged CPM state secretary Bijan Dhar.
CPM, led by Sarkar, is lashing out at opposition alliance in every nook and corner of the state alleging nefarious political arrangement tvide the state. Tipraland has been an emotive issue for many tribal people, but also a sensitive subject for majority Bengalis, most of them refugees from Bangladesh. Even the CPM central leadership campaigning in the state is pressing on the contentious Tipraland issue to target the IPFT-BJP bond.
The Left Front is, perhaps, reminded of the success it had achieved in 2003 Assembly elections by capitalizing on a Geneva Convention speech of extremist leader turned politician Bijay Kumar Hrangkhawl, where in he had justified the right to self determination in context of secessionist movement in the state. The alliance between Hrangkhawl’s INPT and Congress was a favourite in that election, but they lost to CPM's design of creating confusion amongst Bengalis and a section of tribals over issues of safety, integrity and peace.
Since the outcome on the 20 tribal seats largely depends on the non-tribal electors residing in these constituencies, the CPM is hopeful of reaping benefits of its ploy on Tipraland issue.
The presence of Bengalis in all 20 tribal seats ranges between 40 percent and 60 percent, said Debbarma, citing example of Golaghati, a reserved tribal constituency with 60 percent non-tribal voters. In such a situation, the IPFT may find it difficult to convince the non-tribal voter base in its nine tribal constituencies, if the BJP’s senior leaders concentrate their campaigning efforts on the remaining 11 seats alone.
BJP’s Sarma said that the INPT and the BJP have both urged other indigenous outfits to work together towards ousting the CPM from power. The anti-incumbent voters of Tripura are visibly relying on BJP given the party’s past gains in North East and its pre-poll promises of delivering good governance, generating employment and restoring social amity.
The author is a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporter.
Updated Date: Feb 13, 2018 18:15 PM