In the recently-concluded Tripura polls, the BJP-led alliance galloped to power by steamrolling the CPI(M) and the Congress. The latter, in particular, finds itself in tatters as its vote share dipped drastically to 1.8% in 2018 from 36.5% in 2013.
Pradyot Deb Barman, the Working President of Tripura Congress, opens up on a range of issues in an exclusive interview with Yahoo India.
Are you surprised by the crushing defeat in Tripura where Congress couldn’t even open its account?
We expected that Congress would be up for a tough fight. We had lost most of our MLAs, who left the party and joined Trinamool Congress. There are indications that we have to rebuild and restructure. This was not a defeat of the Congress, but a victory for the anti-CPM sentiment in Tripura. Everybody who could throw out the Communists got votes. Most of the guys who have defected to the BJP are seasoned Congress leaders and they will come back to the Congress once there is a change at the Centre.
But there is a general perception that Congress did not put up a fight against the Left and was instead co-opting them?
We never co-opted the Left. There may be individuals who may personally hold (former Tripura chief minister) Manik Sarkar in high regard, but as a party we haven’t co-opted them. The perception may have been created because in a poll environment everything has to be either totally Left wing or Right wing. Even the leaders who left Congress did not join the BJP directly. They first hung around then TMC and then went on to join the BJP.
Despite a stronger base than BJP in the State, why couldn’t Congress capitalize on the anti-Left sentiment?
Of the 51 BJP candidates who contested, 46 were (former) Congress people. They (BJP) have taken the Congress party structure and formed a party. This is unlike the situation in Assam, where the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was actively mobilized.
So many senior Congress leaders have left the party. Is this mass defection not a matter of grave concern?
I admit this is a serious concern and a problem we need to address. I also admit that the perception created that we were soft on the Communists is something we need to aggressively counter. Our fight in Tripura has to be against the Communist party. NGOs in Delhi may look at the Communists and ideologically romanticize them, but in Tripura they are a rogue organization. They have systematically prevented development, not allowed businesses to flourish, created unemployment, and selectively picked out opponents and denied them opportunities.
Are you in agreement with BJP’s view of rampant Communist violence against political opponents?
The opposition towards the Communists for the last 30-40 years was not from the BJP, it was from the Congress. It was Congress workers who were being targeted and killed in far greater numbers. Congress has been longer in West Bengal and Tripura and Kerala than has been the BJP. For example, when Mamata Banerjee was rudely beaten up she was a Congress MLA. It was not like she was victimized when she joined Trinamool.
But BJP has never sought an alliance with Communists, while CPI(M) was a Congress ally in the UPA regime?
For Congress and BJP both, the Left has been equidistant. If Sitaram Yechury was a Communist leader we would have had a lot less problems. But the problem is that he is not in control of the party. Individually, people may have admired Jyoti Basu or EMS Namboodiripad, but the fact is the Communist ideology and the politics that we practice in Tripura can never go hand in hand.
Rahul Gandhi praising Yechury is a personal relationship, but in the same breath, I have read enough criticism of Rahul Gandhi by other Communist leaders. We do not need the Communists’ help right now in the national space.
Do you think that Rahul Gandhi snubbing Himanta Biswa Sarma has been the biggest political blunder because he has virtually wiped out Congress from the North East?
In 1996, there was a Samata Party government in Manipur largely because it was in power at the Centre, too. In 1998, from zero MLAs, the BJP came to power in Arunachal when Vajpayee-ji formed the government at the Centre. It is a very harsh reality that the states in North- East gravitate towards any party which is at the helm of affairs at the Centre. Coming back to Himanta Biswa Sarma: from 2004 till 2014, he was considered the architect of the Congress governments in North-East when the party was in power at the Centre. He has been very effective for the BJP from 2015 onwards. And who is in power at the Centre? It's the BJP-led NDA. The real challenge will be when the BJP is not in power at the Centre and then they try to break governments in the North-East. Because it is very clear that money plays a huge role in defeating the incumbent and the fact is the North-East states largely tend to gravitate towards the Centre whether it is the NDA, the UPA or at one point even Samata Party.
So, what you are saying is that the political acumen and the role of Himanta Biswa in the BJP victories in North-East states are overhyped?
I am not saying it is over-hyped. According to me, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the day there is a change in the Centre, will renegotiate his entry back into the Congress. He did not leave Congress only because of Rahul Gandhi; there are other reasons as well. Since I’ve known him from his days with the Congress, I don’t want to get personal about him. But he was under intense pressure to leave the Congress. Some factors were external and some personal. Let me leave it at that: I don’t want to bring up issues about what the BJP leadership has said about him.
Do you think the Congress cadre is enthused by the elevation of Rahul Gandhi as the Congress president? How do you see the road to the 2019 General Elections? What are your hopes and expectations?
Honestly, the Congress party has to rework and not only look at Rahul Gandhi as the only shining light. We need to create strong regional leadership. We need to create a robust regional base. Secondly, his elevation, no doubt, has made a lot of people happy because it was for far too long that we were waiting for change and this has brought some clarity. Also, more proactive people, younger leaders coming into the AICC will definitely make the Congress a well-oiled machine. We all agree that the Congress AICC is in need of restructuring. And in the states, as I said before, we need to create stronger regional voices because eventually, it is the state which puts people at the Centre and not the Centre which puts people in the states.