Agartala (Tripura): On February 18, 2008, 60-year-old Tarun Das saw the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi for the first – and the only – time.
She was addressing an election rally in the state capital Agartala, not very far from where Das’ home is – Barjala.
In that rally, Das recalled, Sonia Gandhi accused the Manik Sarkar-led Left Front government of siphoning central funds for “narrow political interests”, not utilising Rs 500 crore central funds, failing to provide safety to women and children and employment to the youth. Among the promises she made to the voters were salaries to the state government employees as per Sixth Pay Commission recommendations. The Left Front government was then paying them Fourth Pay Commission salaries.
According to the media reports then, she asked the electorate, “How long will you tolerate (this)? Endurance also has a limit and I think the only one alternative is to defeat the Left Front government in the coming elections.”
In the run-up to the 2008 assembly elections in Tripura, besides Sonia Gandhi’s two rallies (the other one was in Dharmanagar), then prime minister Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi, who was then learning the ropes of national politics, also addressed meetings. After a long time, people of Tripura saw a line-up of top Congress leadership stepping up their electoral campaign against the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which had been well entrenched in the state since 1998.
Even though the state Congress leaders had always felt frustrated when their central leadership, keeping the “Delhi equation” in mind would “go soft” on the Left which, in turn, “weakened” their electoral prospects every assembly polls, Das, a retired state government employee, recalled Sonia’s rally in 2008. “In that rally, Sonia Gandhi said that Left have supported us to keep BJP out but that doesn’t mean we will not fight them in the states. What she said sent out a strong message not just to her party men to fight the CPI(M) but also to non-Left voters like us – stressing that Congress meant business that time.”
In the 2008 election, Congress fielded 47 candidates, setting aside 11 seats for its alliance partner with the tribal party, the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT), and two seats for People’s Democratic Socialist (PDS). Reacting strongly against the Congress’ alliance with INPT, chief minister Manik Sarkar called it an “unholy alliance”, accusing INPT of being a front of a separatist outfit which demands the state of Twipraland.
“Seeing the ongoing 2018 campaign, I recall the 2008 elections and it is like déjà vu for me. The issues raised by the opposition leaders coming from Delhi then were more or less the same as the ones in 2018, the CPM’s reaction also is the same. Only the one taking on the Left government now is the BJP – not Congress,” Das pointed out.
In the 2018 elections slated for this February 18, BJP has fielded 51 candidates, keeping aside nine seats for its alliance partner, the tribal party, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT). Like in 2008, the BJP-IPFT alliance too has been called by Manik Sarkar as “unholy alliance”, which he has accused of being a front for an insurgent outfit demanding the separate state of Twipraland.
If you listen carefully to the issues raised and the promises made by the top BJP leadership in the high-decibel election campaign over the last few weeks, as Das pointed out, it is not hard to pin down the similarities. Especially, similarities with the accusations that were made by the Congress in 2008. If Sonia Gandhi then promised to implement the Sixth Pay Commission to the state government employees – government jobs being the main employment option for a huge chunk of the state’s voters – both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP’s national president Amit Shah have pledged to bring salaries at par with the Seventh Pay Commission. The promise has also been mentioned in the BJP’s vision document launched by the Union finance minister Arun Jaitley in Agartala. Though the state government has raised the salaries it is yet to match the allowances recommended by the Seventh Pay Commission.
A chargesheet released by the BJP against the 20-year-old Left Front government accused the state government of having presided over the “highest rate of crime against women” and the “highest unemployment rate in the country”.
Das stated, “Even though the Congress’ national leadership backed the state unit in 2008, it failed to retain all the seats it won in the 2003 elections. From 13, it came down to ten. INPT came down from six to one. CPI(M)’s tally rose from 38 to 46. Together with allies, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and CPI, it became 49.”
Like Das, many voters across Tripura are, therefore, asking the pertinent question: Will this election be 2008 all over again?
In assessing the 2008 and 2018 political contexts, most poll watchers in the state draw a difference between the two national parties in terms of the degree and precision employed to elicit maximum electoral dividend.
“The difference between the Congress’ 2008 campaign and the BJP’s 2018 one is in its sheer intensity. Top central leaders of the Congress might have campaigned in Tripura then (unlike in the 2013 elections), raised similar issues, but it was not as well planned, to the micro level, as the one being carried out by the BJP. It is also because it is an ideological fight,” said Agartala-based senior journalist Jayanta Bhattacharya.
What Bhattacharya was primarily pointing out was the relentless ground work that the BJP has done to outdo the CPI(M) “using the same people who were once with the Congress”.
BJP’s prabhari for Tripura and the brain behind the party’s poll campaign in the state, Sunil Deodhar, did underline in an interview to The Wire that he built the basic structure of his party with the help of Congress workers who shifted allegiance to it, “frustrated” at the central leadership’s unwillingness to aggressively take on the Left Front government but pointed out two “basic differences” between 2008 and 2018.
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While one is related to the BJP’s organisational weave, the other is in its strategy and reach.
“Unlike the BJP, Congress is not a cadre-based party and doesn’t have any ideology as such,” he said. Even if there was support from the central leadership, “without ideology, there is no motivation for the ground level workers to be with the party.”
The other difference is, the Congress never tried to create its base in the tribal areas which have 20 of the state’s 60 assembly seats. “Unlike the BJP, the Congress remained a Bengali party.”
BJP entered the tribal areas under the Tripura Tribal Areas District Council (TTADC) through RSS’s Kalyan Ashram. Deodhar said in order to maintain the BJP’s janajati-friendly face, it also appointed two tribals as its state vice presidents besides keeping D.C. Hrangkhawl as the leader of the opposition of the party in the assembly after he moved to the BJP (all the six Trinamool Congress MLAs, including Hrangkhawl, moved to the BJP in August 2017).
Apart from small tribal parties, if there is any national party that has ever consolidated the tribal votes in the state, it is the CPI(M). What was begun by the state’s first, and only, tribal chief minister Dasarath Deb (1993-1998) with Ganamukti Parishad in the tribal dominated areas, has continued to pay electoral dividends to the CPI(M). In the 2013 assembly polls, the party pocketed 19 of the 20 reserved seats for the scheduled tribes, besides controlling the TTADC. Unlike the Congress, BJP’s concentration in tribal areas has primarily aimed at denting this long-standing equation of CPM with the tribal voters – a key difference in the opposition’s poll strategy in 2008 and 2018.
In the 2018 polls, the BJP is riding on the failure of the TTADC to meet basic expectations of the people, such as, ensure better drinking water supply, access to healthcare and colleges and employment opportunities to tribals. The government has also dragged its feet over promoting the tribal language, Kokborok.
“Tell me what is there in Agartala to make me feel it is my state capital? Everything is so Bengali dominated. My language may now be taught in some schools and colleges but is not given enough state government backing. Forget in Agartala, our people are not given preference even in district council jobs,” said Noloni Debbarma, a resident of Khowai. It is a sentiment shared by many in the TTADC areas.
It is this sentiment that both the BJP and the IPFT are riding on in the tribal areas, sounding highly confident about their electoral success in those areas. However, some social scientists wouldn’t like to completely rule out CPI(M) from the TTADC areas.
“How can a party which had miniscule presence in the last assembly polls suddenly wipe out a party that has been well established in the state, including in the TTADC areas? The Left was born in the tribal areas of Tripura. CPM didn’t foist Bengali leaders on the tribals in the Council areas; the leadership is still in the tribal hands, which will make a difference,” said a senior political science professor at the Tripura University who didn’t want to be named.
“Anti-incumbency has always been there. The sizable vote share of the Congress in every election proves that there are a large number of anti-Left votes in the state. High unemployment rate and lack of industry are making the youth particularly restless. The Left has failed to respond to the aspirations of the young generation. If there is any opposition party that is trying to utilise anti-incumbency to the optimum it is the BJP. Congress did try in 2008 but it its efforts pale in comparison to the efforts mounted by the BJP now. Besides the top leadership, the BJP is bringing its workers and leaders from the BJP-ruled states in the northeast to push the campaign. However, to hope that the entire voter base of the Congress would shift to the BJP just because many of its leaders moved to that party, that the entire anti-incumbency votes would consolidate under one umbrella, is a bit far-fetched,” she said.
State Congress spokesperson Harekrishna Bhowmick reiterated, “Congress has fielded candidates in all the 60 seats for the first time. Some of our leaders may have left but that doesn’t mean all the voters have gone with them. These leaders have been shifting from one party to the other – wherever their ambition takes them. In fact, many would not vote for the BJP only because they have picked up opportunistic leaders instead of grooming their own.”
That Modi chose to attack the Congress in his public speech in Agartala on February 15 confirms these apprehensions of the BJP. With Congress president Rahul Gandhi arriving in the state on the last day of canvassing, February 16, to hold a rally in the tribal majority district of Kailashahar in North Tripura, the BJP’s worries about a possible division of the anti-incumbency votes are rising.
While many are looking at the difference between Congress’s 2008 and BJP’s 2018 campaigns, Congress working president Pradyot Debbarman, however, points towards a crucial similarity between the two. “We lost in 2008 because of our alliance with the INPT, which supported the separate statehood demand. BJP is doing the same mistake. It may work against its success.”
As the poll date nears, the biggest card of the CPI(M) against the BJP’s electoral tide is this alliance of the BJP with IPFT. In July last year, the IPFT agitation demanding a separate state, crippled normal life in the state. The eruption of violence resulted in the majority Bengali population fearing a further widening of the rift between them and the indigenous tribal population.
Though BJP has issued a joint declaration with IPFT without mentioning the statehood demand, IPFT president N.C. Debbarma has told The Wire, “That doesn’t mean we have dropped our demand. It is just an interim arrangement keeping the elections in mind.”
“People of the state are conscious of the fact that there was once AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) in the state and now there is peace. People can now roam around the streets of Agartala late in the night. Also, by catering to the tribals’ demands, it may seem to many among the Bengali population that the BJP is ignoring the majority sentiments. It may end up electorally benefitting the CPI(M),” said a senior journalist with a Bengali daily.