Tripura: A Left Bastion Turns Saffron

The BJP seems to have managed to get a large part of the Congress's vote share.

New Delhi: In the first ever straight electoral fight between Right and Left political forces in Tripura, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pulled off a massive victory over the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist). The assembly polls results declared on March 3 ended with the BJP, along with its ally the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), at the top of the tally with 35 and eight seats respectively. The CPI(M) won only 16 seats.

In a seat-sharing arrangement, while IPFT contested from nine constituencies, the other 50 were fought by the BJP. Elections in the Charilam constituency were postponed to March 12 after CPI(M) candidate Ramendra Narayan Debbarma passed away on February 11.

Both the BJP’s and IPFT’s wins are significant as till the 2013 elections, the two parties were nowhere in the traditional straight fight between the CPI(M) and Congress. Though the IPFT first contested the assembly polls in 2013, it failed to win a seat in the 60-member assembly. The BJP too had failed to open its account in the house till 2013. In the last polls, 49 of the BJP’s 50 candidates lost their deposits. In the 2008 elections, all of its 50 candidates failed to protect their deposits. Until the March 3 results, the only success the BJP had had in tripura was winning in 121 of the 6,111 seats in the gram panchayat elections in 2016.

“Three complete panchayats were conquered for the first time. It was great news for BJP as our vote bank increased for the first time from 5-6% to 18%. So the rise of BJP in Tripura was step by step,” Sunil Deodhar, BJP’s incharge for Tripura, told The Wire in a recent interview.

A dip into the numbers, however, shows that BJP’s grand victory in the northeastern state today is more of a loss for the Congress than the CPI(M), which has been ruling the state continuously for 20 years under the leadership of chief minister Manik Sarkar. At the end of counting, the Congress’s vote share in the state, as per the Election Commission of India, reduced from 36.53% in 2013 to below 2%. While the CPI(M) may have come down from 49 seats to 16 in 2018, it has been able to hold on to quite a bit of its vote share. In 2013, it was 48.11%, as against 42.7% in 2018.

What has been Congress’s loss is clearly a gain for the BJP. From a negligible 0.54% vote share in 2013, the party’s share has shot up to 43% in the 2018 polls.

BJP party workers celebrate at party headquarters after Assembly election results, in New Delhi on Saturday. Credit: PTI/Shahbaz Khan

BJP party workers celebrate at party headquarters after Assembly election results, in New Delhi on Saturday. Credit: PTI/Shahbaz Khan

BJP leaders do admit that the saffron party could make inroads in the state because of the Congress’s failure to challenge the ruling Left Front in successive assembly polls. “In 20 constituencies, (in 2013), the Congress lost by a margin of 65 to 2,000 votes. People were ready for a change but they always felt Congress cheated them, keeping the party’s equations with the Left at the Centre in mind. The lowest rate of attendance of Narendra Modi’s rally in the run-up to the 2014 general elections was in Tripura. It had only 6,000 people. However, after 2014, Tripura voters saw that Congress was finished at the Centre which led them to very slowly come towards the BJP. In the 2015 by-elections, (in Pratapgarh and Surma) BJP got 5-6% vote share. From 1.5% (in 2013 assembly polls), it rose to 5-6% for the first time. Then came the success in the 2016 gram panchayat elections,” said Deodhar.

Besides attracting a number of Congress leaders and its voters in the last two years, the party also used various strategies to extend its reach across the state and mobilise anti-Left votes. Besides appointing 42,000 panna pramukhs to mobilise support for the BJP (each pramukh was in charge of 60 voters), the party also put in place an interesting plan under the name of Modi Doot Yojana.

“At 6 am every day, the train from Agartala to Dharmanagar would start. As part of the Modi Doot Yojana, our youth wearing Modi t-shirts would distribute booklets that talk about Modiji’s schemes in both Bangla and Kokborok languages. In the villages, it is difficult to talk to people. They fear that some CPM member would see them. But in the trains, they were free to talk. We sensed that there was strong anti-incumbency against the Left Front government,” Deodhar added.

Though the BJP faced initial opposition for allying with the IPFT, which has been demanding a separate state of Twipraland, an idea strongly opposed by the majority Bengali population, the party succeeded in diluting it by declaring that it doesn’t support the demand and instead would work for the cultural promotion of the indigenous people and for the development of the Tripura Tribal Autonomous District Council (TTADC) areas, mostly populated by the state’s tribals.

In a press statement issued in New Delhi after the results were announced, the polit bureau of the CPI(M), however, blamed the BJP for “utilizing massive deployment of money and other resources to influence the elections”.

Among the prominent winners from the IPFT-BJP combine are IPFT president N.C. Debbarma (who wonTakarjala by 22,056 votes), BJP state president Biplab Kumar Deb (who won Banamalipur by 21,755 votes), former Congress leader and BJP candidate Sudip Roy Barman (who won Agartala by 25,234 votes). The results from Dhanpur constituency, where the state chief minister and CPI(M) stalwart Manik Sarkar is pitted against BJP’s Pratima Bhoumik, are awaited. Citing “anomalies” in counting and alleging that the central security forces were “pushing out the CPI(M) agents” from the counting hall, the party has demanded re-polling in some booths.

The winners among those MLAs who shifted allegiance to the BJP from Congress and Trinamool Congress included Ratan Lal Nath (won in Mohanpur by 22,516 votes), Surajit Datta (Ramnagar) Biswa Bandhu Sen (Dharmanagar by 19,854 votes), Dibachandra Hrangkhwal (Karmachara by 19,397 votes), Manoj Kanti Deb (Kamalpur by 20,165 votes), Biplab Kumar Ghosh (Matarbari by 23,069 votes), Dilip Sarkar (Badarghat with 28,561 votes) and Ashish Kumar Saha (Town Borsowali with 24,269 votes).

Prominent losers include CPI(M)’s Rajya Sabha member Jharna Das (Badharghat) and Tripura Pradesh Congress Committee president Birajit Sinha (Kailashahar).

BJP national secretary in charge of the northeast, Ram Madhav, told reporters in a press meet in Agartala earlier in the day that the party’s parliamentary committee would meet tonight to decide the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate. Among the hopefuls are state BJP president Biplab Kumar Deb and Congress-turned-TMC-turned-BJP leader Sudip Deb Barman.

Late in the evening, speaking to The Wire from Agartala, Deodhar said, “The party leadership has appointed Nitin Gadkari and Jual Oram to weigh the options and decide the chief ministerial candidate. They will also discuss it with Amit Shah ji and Narendra Modi ji and thereafter suggest the name to the parliamentary committee of the party. It will take about two or three days to finalise this.”