Agartala (Tripura): Tripura, one of the smallest states of India, which shares its borders with Bangladesh on three sides, goes to polls on Sunday.
Till the 2013 assembly elections, the state was largely below the radar of the national media blitzkrieg.
Not in 2018.
This time round, not just all major Delhi-NCR-based news channels, newspapers and portals but quite a few from other states and international media houses have mobilised their correspondents to send as many election dispatches as possible from the north-eastern state.
It is not difficult to see why. This tiny state with only 25.05 lakh voters can actually be the harbinger of hope for the 2019 general elections – both for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), facing an electorate not so overwhelmingly open to it as it was in 2014, and a united opposition, which plans to take on the Modi Sarkar, riding on its growing anti-incumbency.
On March 3, when the results of an election, which saw an unprecedented use of money, manpower, social media and violence, are announced, either the BJP or the CPI (M) would come up trumps. However, none of these would be the real losers. By the standards of electoral politics, it will certainly be the country’s grand old party, the Congress.
The party, which in the 2013 assembly elections, had a 36.53 per cent share of valid votes polled in the state to win 10 seats out of the 60 assembly seats, is likely to slip to the third position for the first time in the state’s history.
In fact, it is common knowledge now that BJP, whose best show so far has been it recently winning three of the 591 of the state’s gram panchayats, has succeeded in challenging a well-entrenched CPI(M) only because there has always been a formidable Congress voter base in the state.
Having aggressively farmed on that base, it now hopes that the entire anti-Left vote share (it was 48% of the opposition in total against the Left Front’s 52% in the 2013 assembly polls) comes under the umbrella of the BJP-IPFT (Its poll partner, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura) and help it grab not just the state for the first time but tame its biggest enemy – the Left – in a straight fight.
So why has Congress been reduced to a position it is now in Tripura?
Both state-based poll-watchers and the BJP bigwigs associated with the party’s 2018 campaign blame it on the Congress’ dependence on the Left in national politics to help stop BJP’s march. This is no breaking news. A look back at the electoral history of Tripura has clear examples of this. Perhaps the clearest would be the one in 1993, when the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao sacrificed the year-old Congress government led by Samir Ranjan Barman. Rao came under the Left pressure to do so only because he needed their crucial support after the AIADMK, led by J Jayalalithaa, walked out of the alliance prior to the budgetary vote. Both Barman and Congress’ spin master in the north-east, late Santosh Mohan Dev, who is credited for Congress’ victory in Tripura in 1988, threatened to rebel but finally swallowed their anger against the central leadership.
The Barman government’s fall led to President’s Rule in Tripura and in the subsequent election, the state went to the Left, and remains so till date. Barman, who in the subsequent years, was thrice expelled from the party, was expelled again last April for six years for “anti-party activities”. Barman’s son, Sudip Roy Barman, who was a Congress MLA, is now with the BJP and is one of the chief ministerial hopefuls.
However, to be fair, that central action of 1993 to short-change the state leadership never dislodged the Congress from its second position in the state’s politics. In 2018, it will.
So who is responsible for pushing down the party? Who is at fault for compromising the party’s position and inability to formulate a strategy to face the onslaught launched by the BJP in the Northeast to make it “Congress-mukt”?
State party functionaries squarely put the blame on the “laziness” of a clasp of AICC leaders in charge of not just the state but the entire region for some years now. Many accuse them of even playing “divisive politics” within the state units, which, in turn, robs the party of the robustness it needs to have to face elections unitedly. It’s common knowledge in Tripura that the communication between the working president Pradyot Debbarma and the state president is almost nil.
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BJP’s in-charge for Tripura, Sunil Deodhar, recently related to The Wire an incident about the treatment Congress meted out to its former general secretary, Ashok Sinha. “In the run-up to the 2013 polls, Sinha, along with some state Congress leaders, went to Delhi to meet Sushil Kumar Shinde, who was then the Union home minister. They sought an appointment with Shinde to tell him about corruption, crime, etc. under Left rule in Tripura. The whole day, Shinde kept them waiting and finally said he wouldn’t meet them. They threatened to go back and submit mass resignation from the party. So they were given a two-minute audience.” Sinha is now the BJP’s state spokesperson.
To better understand this “laziness” of the Congress central leaders in acting swiftly in the face of a rising BJP in the North-east, one has to first talk about Arunachal Pradesh. About the party’s rebel MLA Kalikho Pul.
Before shifting to the BJP and becoming its chief minister in Arunachal (in February 2016), Pul camped for months on end to convince V. Narayanasamy, the Congress’ in-charge for the state, to facilitate a meeting with Rahul Gandhi about the need to change the party leadership in the face of growing discontent among the MLAs against the then chief minister Nabam Tuki. It was obvious that the BJP was reaching out to the rebels to install its government. What greatly helped the BJP was the ability of leaders like Narayanasamy to downplay the growing rift within the party.
In a chat with this correspondent in early 2016, Pul categorically said, “I am saying to the leadership that Tuki has lost his position as a leader as more and more MLAs are unhappy with him, but all they say is, ‘we can’t do anything about it’.”
The tardiness of the Congress’ central leadership in-charge of the Northeast didn’t wane even after the Supreme Court ruling reinstating the Nabam Tuki government in Arunachal. Rebel MLA Pema Khandu did move back to the Congress and became a Congress chief minister. But when he visited New Delhi in July 2016 and sought appointments, through the party in-charge, to meet Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, they kept him waiting. Speaking to The Wire then, Congress general secretary C.P. Joshi, who was made party in-charge for all North-eastern states about a month ago then, said, “It’s a week-end.”
Khandu sought an appointment with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, and was given one at once. Khandu soon left Congress and became a BJP chief minister.
A senior Congress member in Arunachal, who recently moved to the BJP, rued, “Instead of making him accountable for the mess he created in Arunachal, the central leadership made Narayanasamy the chief minister of Pondicherry.”
In the run-up to the Tripura elections, state party functionaries complained that Joshi visited the state “just two-three times like a tourist while over 50 Union ministers from BJP held programmes across the state to take away our votes.” Joshi was openly criticised in the party office in Agartala for failing to provide funds to the candidates. “Money is yet to come to the candidates,” said a party contestant on February 16, a day before electioneering ends in the state.
Many are also upset with the central leadership in-charge of the region for ignoring local leaders. “Look at the BJP. It may have a central leader like Deodhar to lead the campaign in Tripura but the man on the ground is Himanta Biswa Sarma, a North-eastern face, and good at election management in the region. In Nagaland, too, it is Kiren Rijiju because of his tribal lineage. To mobilise the sensitive equations between the tribes, the party uses the Bodo MP from Assam, Biswajit Daimary. He was useful both in Manipur and now in Tripura,” pointed out a Tripura Pradesh Congress Committee member, frustrated at the behaviour of the central leadership. He said, “For Tripura, the Congress named Assam leader Bhupen Borah. He is good but he should work closely with someone who knows Tripura politics better than him. The BJP, which took away most of our MLAs, also tried to woo our working president. They must have seen something in him, and we keep sleeping.”
Another disgruntled Congress member said, “The biggest mistake of the Congress central leadership was to allow Himanta to go so easily. He is an ambitious leader but the party should be able to address that ambition. Even now, we have capable young leaders who can take on Himanta’s strategies in the North-east but the central leadership is still in a slumber, doesn’t give them a free hand.”
That the North-eastern states usually go with a party in power at the Centre “is a myth in today’s politics”, say some local Congress leaders. “It is a constitutional right; the more a party at the Centre does it (non-cooperation), the better it is for a state government under opposition rule to go to town against it. In times of social media, this can dent the public image of a party in power at the Centre,” said a Congress MLA in the present Tripura assembly.
A former BJP Union minister who is electioneering in Tripura, told this correspondent, “If you see Tripura in terms of seats for the 2019 elections, it is just two seats. The entire North-east has 25 seats while Rajasthan alone has 25 seats. So, by that logic, we should be more worried about Rajasthan. Still, we are putting our best foot forward to win Tripura. Because, if we win, it will be good for optics; will send out a strong message that in spite of opposition shouting allegations against the Modi government, he is winning states. The Congress is failing to get it.”
On February 15, addressing a public rally in Agartala, Prime Minister Modi accused the Congress of helping the Left to win the elections. That Congress president Rahul Gandhi held a rally in a crucial tribal area in the state on the last day of campaign (February 17) besides dispatching leaders from different states to canvass for party candidates at the last moment, has firmed up BJP’s worst fears. The party, with a big vote share in the last polls, could divide the anti-incumbency votes which, in turn, would help the return of the CPI(M).
“In the process of indirectly helping the CPI(M in these elections, the Congress is willing to even give up its strong position in the state. (Rahul) Gandhi and others are coming at the last moment only to cut our votes. What kind of politics is this?” said a local BJP functionary, who shifted from the CP((M)’s youth wing to the party a few months ago.
As per media reports, Rahul Gandhi has formed a new 25-member team keeping the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in mind. The names are yet to be made public. In the coming days, it will be clear whether the Congress president is keen on changing the status quo in the North-east, or prefers to go with what has helped his party lose its core vote base in states, such as Tripura.