Meet Sunil Deodhar, the Man Who Changed the BJP's Fate in Tripura

Sunil Deodhar, the man behind the BJP's campaign against the Left Front government, talks about how a party without any electoral hope has been readied to become the prime challenger in just two-and-a-half years.

BJP’s in-charge for Tripura Sunil Deodhar in Agartala. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Agartala (Tripura): The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may have been contesting assembly elections in Tripura for years, but not only has it failed to open its account in the 60-member House, rarely have its candidates managed to even retain their deposits.

With a vote share of 1.54% in the 2013 assembly elections against the incumbent CPI (Marxist)’s 48.11%, it should have been a foregone conclusion that the BJP holds no chance in the state’s February 18 assembly polls. And yet, across Tripura, BJP is being talked about as the possible winner.

Led by Sunil Deodhar, RSS pracharak-turned-BJP poll strategist, the party, for the first time in the state’s electoral history, has mounted a formidable onslaught on the 20-year-old Left Front government. After years, the ruling CPI (M) is faced with a neck-and-neck contest in its stronghold.

In an interview to The Wire, Deodhar delves into how a party without any electoral hope has been readied to become the prime challenger in just two-and-a-half years’ time. Deodhar, who helped BJP wrest from CPI (M) the lone seat it held in Maharashtra in the last assembly polls, told this correspondent, “Maybe it was then that Amit bhai (Shah) thought of me for Tripura.”


You were leading Narendra Modi’s 2014 campaign in Varanasi. Though you have lived in Meghalaya as an RSS pracharak, but never in Tripura. Any particular reason the party picked you to lead its Tripura campaign?

Narendra Modi made me the in-charge of his Varanasi campaign because of my work in Gujarat. In his third elections as Gujarat chief minister (in 2013), he asked me to manage the Dahod district where there were five Congress MLAs and one BJP MLA. I was sent there six months before the elections. Modiji had 117 seats; he wanted to retain them though the target was to get 125. It was a crucial election for him. Because more he would get, stronger would be his claim for prime ministership. He knew that BJP would lose some seats where it had been there, but where it was not, the party could gain. I delivered him the results; from the ratio of 5:1, it became 3:3 in Dahod.

In the book Modi Effect written by the famous British journalist Lance Price, when Modi was asked about his Varanasi campaign, he told him to interview me. I was quoted thrice in it.

I was also in Delhi. When Arvind Kejriwal was contesting from Delhi for the first time (in 2013), I was in charge of south Delhi. BJP won seven out of the ten seats. There is another interesting thing. It was in the run-up to the 2014 Maharashtra assembly polls. By then Amit Shah had become the party’s national president but the team was not named yet. Since I was a Mumbaiwallah, I was told that you have to go to Maharashtra. Shiv Sena was not with us. Amit bhai arrived in Mumbai. He was told I have been given charge of 32 constituencies. He said, ‘Why is Sunil required in Mumbai? Send him to the jungle’. So I was sent to Palghar where the CPM had one seat in entire Maharashtra. BJP won from there. Maybe it was then that he thought of me for Tripura.

The BJP has launched a formidable fight against the Left government. How did you manage to build the buzz around a party that was almost non-existent in the state in such a short time?

The campaign has not fallen from the sky. For the last two to two-and-a-half-years, we have worked hard. I had RSS training, know how to manage a small sakha and then build an organisation. It helped. I have managed many elections prior to it. That experience also helped.

Sunil Deodhar addressing youth a rally in Tripura. Credit: Twitter/@Sunil_Deodhar

Sunil Deodhar addressing youth a rally in Tripura. Credit: Twitter/@Sunil_Deodhar

First, I toured the state. Putting up a strong fight against a well-entrenched party in just two-and-a-half years was next to impossible. This happened because, from many places, local Congressmen came to meet me; they wanted to join the BJP, wanted me to visit their places, which I did, organised various sabhas there. I picked up the talented people among them, gave them party responsibility. That is how, from the Congress, we built the basic unit at the lowest level. It is only in the last six months or so that disgruntled CPM workers have begun joining us.

Also read: Interview: Tripura CM Manik Sarkar on How The Left Plans to Fight BJP

You also set up different morchas?

We set up various morchas, of youth, women, farmers, of OBCs. The OBCs comprise 35% of Tripura’s population and have been totally deprived. I can now say confidently that no OBC will vote for CPM this time and that BJP will win eight of the 10 Scheduled Caste reserved seats. The Schedule Tribes, who have 20 reserved seats, are the angriest here. So, I gave them the pride of place in the party, made two of them vice president, four core committee members.

When Diba Chandra Hrangkhawl, who was the leader of the opposition (from Trinamool Congress), moved to the BJP (in August 2017 along with five others), we let him remain LoP because he is a janajati leader. We began doing andolan on tribal issues. We readied 60 vishtarak for the 60 constituencies. When one-and-a-half years ago, CPI (M), for the first time, realised that we are expanding, our vishtarak Chand Mohan Tripura was murdered.

One month after his death, we planned an andolan. We organised a shanti yagna in Gandhacherra from where 60 swahid rath carrying 60 pots of ashes from the yagna were sent to the constituencies. For ten days, the raths toured through the state where people came out to see what was happening. We made some of them BJP members on the spot. There was anger against CPM; it helped us firm it up.

Thereafter, we held a protest when on one day at the same time at 62 places, as many as 42,000 people did jail bharo against the murder. No opposition party ever did such a thing in Tripura. Till then, they would do a dharna, get a newspaper mention and were happy about it. One day before the Uttar Pradesh election results were out, we did a Pratibad rally, which had 40,000 people. Next day, the BJP won UP, the tempo was created.

Sunil Deodhar receiving UP CM Adityanath in Agartala . Credit: Twitter/@myogiadityanath

Sunil Deodhar receiving UP CM Adityanath in Agartala . Credit: Twitter/@myogiadityanath

You also launched the Modi Doot Yojana, how did it help?

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. My war room started two years ago, people still don’t know where it is. From there, we engaged social media experts, people who can edit videos, make small capsules, can draw cartoons. From the trains, on an average, I would get about 700-750 mobile phone numbers out of which 200-300 would have WhatsApp. We made Excel sheets, started sending them messages. Then, we divided them assembly-wise.

The next step was a call centre. In the trains, if someone said I stay in this particular area and face this problem, we would call them and send our mandal adhyaksh. He might not be able to solve the problem but would visit anyway. Many joined the BJP that way too.

Now that one can be a BJP member online has also helped. It was a masterstroke by Amit Shah. Because earlier, if someone within the BJP doesn’t like you, he would not even give you the membership book. It is also a democratic party, so anyone who has the largest number of councillors can become the district president. So there was competition. Half the people failed to make new members because of those in power. The online membership solved that problem. In 2009, we had 10,000 members in Tripura. In 2015, it rose to 1,75,000 through online membership. Where there was no network, we went physically and made 25,000 members. This state has only 25 lakh voters, out of which, quarter to two lakh became BJP members. Then count the Congress and CPI (M) supporters. So now, we have about four lakh members in total.

CPI (M) didn’t have any social media presence. They comprise mostly of old people who never realised its reach and importance. They have little youth support. Most of the youth are angry with them for not being able to provide adequate job opportunities.

Sunil Deodhar addressing youth at a event in Agartala. Credit: Twitter/@Sunil_Deodhar

Sunil Deodhar addressing youth at a event in Agartala. Credit: Twitter/@Sunil_Deodhar

Another feature that worked for us was the roster that Modi ji wanted made as per which one Union minister would visit the state every fortnight. (BJP leader) Ananth Kumarji is in charge of it. As many as 52 Union ministers have visited Tripura in the last three years. We took additional time from each minister for party work. We arranged press meet for each minister in Agartala. They did programmes in the interiors. For the first time, people saw Union ministers in many of the areas, the atmosphere changed.

Another thing we did was create slogans. Before the election slogan, ‘Chalo Paltai’ (Let’s flip it), we created another, ‘Tripura te garib mor-e, mukhya mantri chopper te chor-e.’ (Poor die in Tripura, the CM rides on chopper). It was formulated around the death of 100 children due to malaria in Gandacherra where we said that he could have used the chopper to airlift the children to the hospitals in Agartala or send doctors and medicines there. After that criticism, for the first time in 20 years, the chief minister boarded a train in April last year.

The Congress mounted a strong campaign against the Left government in 2008 assembly elections but it failed to topple it. What makes you confident that BJP can?

Not only in 2008, in 2013 too, the people of Tripura were ready for a change. The state Congress has always been ready to give a strong fight to bring that change but they never got the support from the central leadership. During the 2008 assembly elections, the central Congress party was uncertain of its power after four-and-a-half years of UPA I rule.

Even during UPA II rule, (when the 2013 assembly polls took place in Tripura), the Congress was comfortable but to pass bills and other things in parliament, it needed the support of the Left. Also, to oppose any move by the BJP, it needed the Left. That is why the central Congress party let the Left Front government continue in Tripura.

There were many good leaders of Congress in the state but they were increasingly getting frustrated because of this stand of the central leadership. One example is of Ashok Sinha, who was the state Congress general secretary. He is with us now, is our party’s state spokesperson.

Also read: BJP’s Campaign in Tripura Is Bringing Back Memories of More Violent Times

In the run-up to the 2013 polls, he, 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 the 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 a mass resignation from the party. So they were given a two-minute audience. In those two minutes, Sinha tried to convince him to give a good fight in Tripura but Shinde’s final comment was, Manik Sarkar is such a good man, why are you all after him? They returned dejected.

Then at the last moment, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cancelled his election rally in the state, so did Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

Secondly, unlike the BJP, the Congress never tried to enter the tribal areas of the state. It remained a Bengali party. A reason behind this is that Congress is not a cadre-based party, has no ideology as such. Without ideology, there is no motivation for the ground level workers to be with the party. So the tribal areas either had the tribal parties or the CPM.

Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar. Credit: The Wire

Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar. Credit: The Wire

CPM started working among the tribals since the independence. That is why Ganamukti Parishad was founded by Dasarath Deb but after he merged it with CPM, he became a communist leader. If you say that Communist Party is a national party, then the presence of a national party among the tribals was CPM, not Congress. And the regional parties; sometimes it was Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti (TUJS), then Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT), Indigenous Peoples’ Front of Tripura (IPFT). Many times they broke up, formed factions. Ultimately, there was a vacuum of a strong regional party in the hill areas.

RSS and our swayamsevaks had been making inroads into the tribal areas in the name of Kalyan Ashram. RSS presence was there but not strong enough to help establish a BJP unit with strong ideological commitment. Leaders were coming from different outfits, from Congress etc, but we didn’t have the ideological drive to win elections. That is why, in the 2013 polls, 49 of our 50 candidates lost their deposits. Only one candidate could retain his deposit in the Kadamtala Kurti constituency. The Congress got 36.53% vote shares, BJP 1.54% and the others some votes. Together, the entire opposition put together got 48% vote share while the CPM alone garnered 52%. In such a scenario, one couldn’t even think of BJP in Tripura.

BJP supporters at rally in Tripura. Credit: Twitter/@Sunil_Deodhar

BJP supporters at rally in Tripura. Credit: Twitter/@Sunil_Deodhar

But there has been anti-incumbency. It was there in 1998 too when Manik Sarkar government came in first. The CPM won by mere 298 votes. The anti-incumbency continued in successive elections. In 2013, the Congress lost the elections by 33,000 votes. In 20 constituencies, the Congress lost by a margin of 65 to 2,000 votes. People were ready for change but they always felt Congress cheated them. Why I am confident today is, if there was anti-incumbency in 2008, in 2013, so obviously in 2018, it has grown. Because, in the last five years, this government has done nothing to counter it.

The other factor that I am confident about is that Congress is finished here. 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, (Pratapgarh and Surma) BJP got 5-6% vote share. From 1.5%, it rose to 5-6% for the first time. Then came the success in the 2016 gram panchayat elections.

In that election, for the very first time, we won 121 seats. 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. Then, the prime minister started the Jan Dhan Yojana. It gave us popularity here. Because it is a poor state with 67% BPL (below poverty line) cardholders. But the fact of the matter is, there are about 20% more poor people deserving of the card but are denied because they don’t attend CPM party meetings, don’t become members. So there is resentment on the ground.

Also, out of this 67% BPL cardholders, some 20% belong to CPM party members who live in comfort; their wives are government employees and the husbands are working for CPM. Through the BPL card, they are taking all the benefits and depriving the poor who wouldn’t join the party. Then came demonetisation. In a poor state like Tripura, many were ready to face hardship only because they felt the rich had it tougher. So anti-incumbency on one side, and Modiji’s schemes like Mudra Bank, Pradhan Mantri Ujjala Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, on the other hand, is giving us confidence.

Narendra Modi addressed rallies on February 8 and is coming back for some more on February 15. So you are saying the Modi magic, which didn’t work in 2014 here, will work now?

Go to village schools. The children may not know who their chief minister is but they know who Modiji is. Even children here know who their prime minister is. If we win Tripura, the first credit should go to Manik Sarkar because people have been angry with him. The second credit should go to Modiji. People are asking themselves, if not Manik Sarkar, then whom? People here know that the local BJP is not very strong yet but they also know that Modiji is there, ultimately he will see us. They now have that confidence.

BJP president Amit Shah (centre) in Tripura. Credit: PTI

BJP president Amit Shah (centre) in Tripura. Credit: PTI

You have entered into a pre-poll alliance with IPFT to contest in the tribal majority areas. Are you confident of its public pull, considering its best show in the assembly polls so far has been winning just one seat in 2013?

Yes, they are confident of winning all the nine seats they are contesting. (As per the alliance, IPFT is contesting nine seats and the BJP 51.)

IPFT has been demanding a separate state of Twipraland since 2009. The BJP has launched a joint declaration with it recently which doesn’t mention the statehood issue. However, IPFT president N.C. Debbarma or anyone from that party wasn’t present in the press meet held in Agartala. Do you want to comment on it?

N.C. Debbarma might not have been present but the signature in the joint declaration was his. A party like the BJP wouldn’t forge his signature. Secondly, Debbarma hasn’t given up his demand (for statehood). We haven’t left our stand either. Our stand is that we don’t support a separate state. We may go for a state council, amend the Sixth Schedule to ensure direct funding of the council from the Centre.

We have promised to do it before the 2019 elections. The 2019 polls are crucial for us, so we wouldn’t make a hollow promise. We also told them that in order to do that, the state assembly has to be with us first. First, help us remove CPI (M). We will keep the promise, we will work in the tribal areas. Once they see that the promises have been fulfilled, that there is real development in the tribal areas, the demand for statehood would automatically dissolve. We are confident about it.

Who is BJP’s chief ministerial candidate? Though the party is taking on not just the CPI (M) but also its chief minister Manik Sarkar, it hasn’t named a CM face, unlike in Assam where Sarbananda Sonowal was declared the one. Also, if BJP wins, will there be a Tiprasa chief minister?

I can say one thing for sure, it’s not me (laughs). If the party which came from 1.5% vote share in the state today declares a chief ministerial candidate, it will be a bit of an arrogance. That is why we didn’t name any chief ministerial candidate. In Assam, we had our MLAs, we had won the MP elections. Here, we are going on the basis of 121-gram panchayat seats.

There have been recent media reports that Manik Sarkar is the poorest chief minister of the country with very little money in his personal bank account, that he doesn’t own a house, a car or a telephone donates his salary to the party. Do you want to comment on it?

Well, his yearly chopper bill comes to Rs 10 crore. The poorest chief minister of the state was Nripen Chakraborty. I admire him. I disagree with his ideology, oppose his method of working, but as a person, his thoughts, principles were admirable. He was a true Marxist. Manik Sarkar shows he is poor, wants that impression to prevail but a little digging of his lifestyle will show he is not.

I was also caught in that impression. I run an organisation called ‘My Home India’ where I focus on the Northeast. We give annual awards in Mumbai to people who have worked dedicatedly in the Northeast to make India proud. I thought of awarding him but later found out many contradictory things. The wife travels in auto-rickshaw, it is the truth. But it is also true that three of her sisters have land and that land was given to a person accused in a chit fund case and is out on bail. Why only him?