In India's 65-year electoral history, the country's dominant Left party, the CPM, has never been in direct confrontation with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with such ferocity as it is now in a northeastern state. Political developments in Tripura however, have set the stage for a face-to-face battle in the February 2018 Assembly poll as the saffron outfit has emerged as the key opposition party in this Communist-ruled state.
The Assembly poll is likely to be held in the state in February. The state has 60 Assembly seats and the term of the current Assembly expires on 14 March.
After about a four-and-half-month-long summary revision of the voters' list, the final electoral rolls were published with 1 January, 2018, as the qualifying date of age. Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machine attached to the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) would be used in all the polling stations of the state.
High literacy in a small population
The state is one of the smallest in India with a population of a little over thirty lakh. Around one-third of the population are members of Scheduled Tribes. According to the 2011 census, the state's population is 36.74 lakh, with a density of 350 persons per square kilometre.
The population pattern and the demography have been fluctuating in the state. In 1941, the total population was 5.13 lakh with tribals accounting for 50.09 percent of the whole. But by 1981, the tribal population dipped to 28.44 percent of a total population of 20.5 lakh. The 2011 Census put the state's literacy rate at 87.22 percent which had risen to 96.82 percent by September 2014.
For years, the state government swung between the Congress and the CPM. However, in recent years the Congress has shrunk in influence and the Left has held nearly undisputed sway.
Over the past two decades, Manik Sarkar's CPM has held a stranglehold over the state. In the last three elections, it got 49, 46 and 38 seats in the 60-member Assembly. Sarkar’s government scripted what has been called one of the rare success stories of insurgency in the North East.
Interestingly, however, the vote share has not been as overwhelming as one would expect from the number of seats won, as Congress has run the CPM fairly close in terms of the votes cast.
The demand for Tipraland
The main issue which has kept the state in the news is the demand for a separate state called Tipraland (also spelt Twipraland) by the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT). The party has demanded that a separate state be carved out for the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) areas, which constitute two-third of the state territory and is the home to the tribals, who form one-third of the population.
In July, the IPFT blocked the vital NH8, the state's lifeline, and the lone railway line for more than 10 days to demand a separate homeland, causing an acute shortage of essential items and much hardship to the people. It withdrew the blockade after the Union home ministry agreed to hold discussions to resolve the issue.
Most of the political parties, including the ruling CPM, Congress and the BJP had earlier rejected IPFT's demands saying it is not practical to divide the small state. The INPT and NCT also opposed the IPFT's separate state demand.
The state was also rocked by a teacher recruitment scandal after the Supreme Court in March upheld a Tripura High Court verdict terminating the jobs of 10,323 government school teachers, citing irregularities. But, in a fresh order on 14 December, the apex court extended the termination deadline to 30 June this year instead of 31 December, 2017.
The tribal and non-tribal population have been at odds with each other in the state and the ethnic tension along with a demand for autonomy of tribal regions have been deciding factors in the political history of Tripura since the 1940s. Partition and Bangladesh's independence led to the migration of a large number of displaced persons into the state.
According to the state government’s Tripura Human Development Report of 2007, "Although the majority of the refugees returned within a year to Bangladesh under the largest repatriation programme since the Second World War, the episode left a deep imprint on the local economy and society."
The contenders in 2018
Tripura's main tribal-based party is the IPFT which has been agitating for Tipraland. In January, it said it would forge an alliance with the BJP for the Assembly election due in 2018, while the saffron party said talks are still on in this regard.
For its part, the BJP has been constantly attacking against the CPM with its party president Amit Shah saying said a regime change in Tripura had become inevitable as the incumbent government had failed on many fronts, including combating crimes against women and unemployment.
Two other important tribal-based parties are the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT) and National Conference of Tripura (NCT). The two parties have also started talks to form an electoral alliance with the Congress and Trinamool Congress (TMC) in Tripura.
Political analyst and writer Sekhar Datta said that in the outgoing year it had become explicitly clear that the Congress had become insignificant and that the BJP would take its place next February. "Since 1952, the Congress has played a considerable role. But, for the first time, it would fight for the third or at best second position in the polls," Datta told IANS. The Congress strength has been reduced to three in the 60-member assembly from the original 10 as six of its members quit, joined the TMC and then the BJP. Another Congress MLA joined the CPM.
Finally, the TMC has long eyed Tripura as it makes a push to expand beyond West Bengal.
With inputs from agencies
Updated Date: Jan 16, 2018 09:06 AM