New Delhi: It is not uncommon to see Panchali Bhattacherjee returning on a cycle rickshaw from the neighbourhood market near her official bungalow.
To put it into context, Panchali is the wife of Manik Sarkar, who has been Tripura’s Chief Minister for the last 20 years. The ‘poorest CM of India’ survives on the fee that he gets from his party, the CPI(M). He donates his CM’s salary to the party.
But Manik Sarkar is probably fighting one of the toughest electoral battles of his lifetime. The BJP has been on a winning spree in the North East, but CPM’s Sitaram Yechury feels Sarkar is the general who will give the BJP its ‘Waterloo’ moment.
The battle in Tripura has always been between the Congress and the Communists. But this time, the BJP has made a direct entry at No. 2 by virtue of acquisition.
In the 2013 Assembly elections, the CPM won 49 seats in the 60-member House. The CPI won one and the Congress won the remaining 10 seats. Ahead of the 2015 Assembly elections in West Bengal, six MLAs from the Congress had quit to join the Trinamool Congress, upset by the fact that the Congress had allied with TMC in West Bengal, which made their position difficult in Tripura.
The same set of six MLAs — Sudip Roy Barman, Ashish Kumar Saha, Biswa Bandhu Sen, Pranjit Singh Roy, Dilip Sarkar and former tribal face of the Congress Hrangkhawl — joined the BJP on August 2017. Thus, by acquiring six MLAs, the BJP is now the main opposition party in the state.
The leitmotif of Tripura’s political battle has been the fissures between the Bengali-speaking majority and the 31% indigenous people. The violence reached its peak in 1997, when the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts (AFSPA) was enforced in Tripura.
Members of two separatist groups — the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) — were on a terror spree, demanding the secession of Tripura from India.
But the situation improved, and by 2015 the peace, however fragile, was strong enough for all stakeholders to agree on removal of the draconian Act.
Politics of the state, however, would continue to explore these fault lines.
The BJP, essentially an urban party, finds its base primarily among the Bengalis. In Tripura, however, they have decided to ally with one of the main tribal parties. The Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura has been given nine seats, while the BJP is likely to fight on rest of the seats.
The exponential growth of the BJP in the North East has been cast using the same dice — acquiring local talent, mostly disgruntled Congress leaders, and teaming up with the indigenous parties. In Assam, they acquired Himanta Biswasarma from the Congress, arguably the best electoral mind of the region, and tied up with the indigenous parties like Bodo People’s Front and Asom Gana Parishad.
In Manipur, the entire party is made up of former Congress leaders, and has tied up with the hill parties like NPP and NPF to form the government.
In Arunachal Pradesh, Congress MLAs moved en masse to the BJP. So while the ruling team remained the same, the party changed overnight.
WILL THE FORMULA WORK IN TRIPURA?
The BJP has made Himanta Biswasarma the election in-charge for the state. Himanta, in a freewheeling conversation many months ago, had conceded that Tripura could be the most difficult battle for the BJP in the region.
Today, though he sounds confident, it isn’t that the party is without problems.
The old guard and the new imports are at loggerheads. While it is clear that the biggest local face is going to be home-grown party chief Biplab Kumar Deb — someone who comes from a RSS family and has been groomed by the Sangh for Tripura — the senior opposition leaders who joined the party recently want more control.
And therein lies the problem. The set of legislators who joined the BJP are known turncoats in Tripura. Whether they add value or pull the party down is a question that is weighing on the minds of some of the party workers.
But the party says the additions have only made the BJP stronger. Bullish about the party’s chances this election, a senior spokesperson from the state Mrinal Kanti Deb says, “These are the leaders who won even at the peak of the Left wave, so their popularity is unquestionable. This, along with the fact that the party is led by a young, dynamic and organic BJP state president Biplab Kumar Deb, will ensure that the BJP wins the elections in Tripura.”
But even party insiders agree on the rumblings. The party has delayed declaring the candidates and those disgruntled will be left with very slim chance to file candidature either as Independent or go to the Congress for a ticket.
Whatever the dispute in local leadership, the party hopes that once tickets are distributed and Prime Minister Narendra Modi comes to campaign, the prospect of the party would turn gold.
As of now, there are two rallies scheduled in north and south districts of the state on February 8. The party is hoping that Modi would have time to visit the state once again before the elections in February 18, 2018.
While senior ministers and BJP leaders, including party president Amit Shah, have been frequently visiting the state, they feel it is the Prime Minister’s visit which will have the cherry-on-the-cake effect.
In Manipur last year, the Prime Minister had arrived towards the last leg of first phase campaigning. It is believed that the tide took a decisive Right turn after that. And this hasn’t gone unnoticed even by the Left front.
LEFT SIDE STORY
CPM spokesperson and member of its Central Committee Gautam Das says that earlier the fight was with the Congress, and now the BJP has become the main challenger.
But what has also changed according to him is the way the BJP is “using the central government machinery to fight elections”. Das claims that “unlike before, the BJP not only uses the central ministers but also the central PSUs to further its political cause. Every month, one or the other central minister comes to Agartala and after a brief meeting with the ministers, they straightaway engage in party works. The BJP leaders are invited as guests in the official programmes of central PSUs.”
But unlike in Manipur or Assam, the BJP doesn’t have its favourite poll plank of corruption. While Ibobi Singh and Tarun Gogoi’s tenures were marred by the baggage of corruption, their Tripura counterpart Manik Sarkar’s kurta remains starch white.
A man of frugal means who donates even his salary to the party, Sarkar has never had to face charges of corruption. In the 20 years that he has been the Chief Minister, even his strongest opponent has not been able to accuse him of corruption.
Thus, though the Left Front has traditionally been about cadre, it is the personal charm of the Chief Minister that is driving them for a record fifth attempt at power. At every meeting, Manik Sarkar harps about how he would “rather invest money in fixing the irrigation problem than print flashy campaign material like the BJP”.
The state has mostly seen a two-way fight between the Left and the Congress, but will see a three-way fight in certain areas. The Congress, though well past its prime in the state, is seen essentially as a vote cutter, which is trying to align with a couple of tribal parties.
Traditionally, a three-way fight has always benefitted the incumbent, with the anti-incumbency vote splitting two ways. In a number of seats in Tripura, there will be a three-way fight between the Left, BJP and the Congress. In some of the tribal seats, it could even be a four-cornered fight after the possibility of alliance between National Conference of Tripura and Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura fizzled out.
THE LAST WORD
The fight between the BJP and the Left goes beyond the electoral numbers. It is a fight of two divergent ideologies. While the Congress was just a political rival, for the 20-year-old Left Front government in Tripura, this is the first time they would be waging an ideological battle as well.
Though Tripura election results won’t have much of an impact in the larger scheme of things, in the Left’s tryst with democracy, Manik Sarkar would certainly rise up the ranks if he manages to keep the BJP at bay.
No wonder his party secretary, too, has already sounded the poll bugle, calling Tripura Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘waterloo moment’.