"Throw the old Manik, adopt HIRA BJP."
This was the leading theme of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's political rally in Tripura's Sonamura and Kailashahar. HIRA was another of his acronyms - standing for Highway, Iways, Roads and Airways. Manik was soon trending on Twitter.
"The BJP government was the first, after Independence, to take forceful multi-pronged steps to develop North East India," Modi said. Attacking the Left Front government in the state, Modi said that the northeastern state can't be cut off from the rest of the country as India's development depended on the development of Tripura.
Tripura is India's only state ruled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM. The state has been ruled by the Left Front since 1978 with only a five-year break in between (1988 and 1993) when a Congress-led coalition ruled the state.
Since 2014, when the BJP formed the government at the Centre, Modi and his core team's strategy in the North East has been a significant part of the saffron party's agenda of extending their ever-increasing electoral base in the country.
It was in the early 1990s when the Indian government introduced its "Look East" policy for the first time ushering the region at least in the perspective of development and growth. Unfortunately, while the erstwhile "Look East" policy opened up significant bilateral cooperation with Southeast Asia and the ASEAN regional group, the North East per se did not feature much in this initiative beyond the rhetoric.
It was only with the coining of the "Act East" policy by the Modi-led government that the perspective of this region has undergone some change. The government has positioned the North East as the gateway to Southeast Asia and beyond and, through multi-pronged efforts of a sustained engagement, developing physical connectivity and encouraging greater investment flows, has given rise to a distinct upbeat view about the region.
This brings us to Modi's rally in Sonamura and Kailashahar on Thursday. The prime minister attacked the CPM government for failing to "develop" the state despite staying in power for two decades. He also slammed the Sarkar government over unemployment among youths and the "stagnant" quality of life in the state. However, Modi's speech was repetitive of prime minister's earlier promise of acche din and vikas that the BJP has been selling in all elections.
The incumbent chief minister Manik Sarkar has been in power since 1998, making him one of the longest-serving state chiefs in the country. As with any long-serving governments, Tripura, too has seen its share of good and bad days.
While the Manik Sarkar government has been lauded for reducing militancy in the state and getting the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) repealed, it has also been criticised for its stand on demands for a separate state of Twipraland (also called Tipraland). Let's take a look at issues which could pose an electoral headache for Sarkar.
According to the Economic Survey, India's unemployment rate has registered a slight increase since the BJP government began its term in May 2014, despite the government's professed emphasis on job creation. The unemployment rate in 2015-16 was five percent of the labour force, up from 4.9 percent in 2013-14, the year before the BJP assumed power. The 2016-17 Economic Survey, based on data from the labour ministry, stated: "Employment growth has been sluggish."
Among states, Kerala has the third highest unemployment rate in the country, just after Tripura and Sikkim. According to this document, Tripura has the highest unemployment rate of 19.7 percent followed by Sikkim (18.1 percent) and Kerala (12.5 percent).
During his two-day visit to the state, BJP chief Amit Shah claimed that in a small state like Tripura, which has a population of a little over 36 lakh, seven lakh youths were unemployed. "Those in the CPM say, (Tripura) chief minister Manik Sarkar is a good man. We know that the unemployment problem is acute here, but they say Manik babu is a good man. What I want to know is, if he is good, why is the condition of the people of the state not so good," he said.
>Allegations of corruption
Several media reports have dubbed this year's election in Tripura as the "toughest electoral battles" in Sarkar's lifetime. After a winning spree in the North East (Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh), the BJP will hope to consolidate its hold over the other five states. While fissures between the Bengali-speaking majority and the 31 percent indigenous people has been the leitmotif of Tripura's political battle and political parties in the fray continue to explore these fault lines, the saffron party has raised issues of corruption against the Sarkar government.
Addressing a rally in Tripura's Kulai in early February, Shah alleged that many Tripura ministers were directly involved in chit fund scams and added that they would be sent to jail if the saffron party wrested power from the CPM in the upcoming Assembly polls. The BJP chief said that the party had demanded a CBI inquiry into the Rose Valley chit fund scam in the northeastern state and alleged that the Left Front government did not order a probe to protect their own interest.
Out of the 30 years that the CPM has been in power in the state, Sarkar has governed Tripura for 20 years and his known for his "scrupulous honesty". The chief minister was also found to be the poorest chief minister of the country. In his election affidavit, he said he had Rs 1,520 in his wallet and about Rs 2,410 in his bank account. According to the affidavit, he does not own a car, house, or any other assets and has never filed an income tax return.
Addressing the Sonamura rally on Thursday, Modi said while the chief minister wore white kurta, he has a "dark side" which is hidden from the public. Modi claimed that the Left government, he said, "cheated the people by giving poor wages" when people in other parts of the country got paid more. "The Manik Sarkar government is unable to spend Central money properly. The Left government is looting the money of the poor. Out of every Rs 100 spent in Tripura, the Central government is giving Rs 80," the prime minister said.
>'CPM has not delivered anything to the state'
Sarkar is a formidable opponent for the BJP. With all the claims of corruption, unemployment and the lack of development in the state, the BJP knows that hike to Tripura won't be an easy one. Himanta Biswa Sarma, who has been appointed as the in-charge for election in Tripura, had conceded that Tripura could be the most difficult battle for the BJP in the region.
However, BJP leader Sunil Deodhar, who has been entrusted with the responsibility of the state, cited several reasons as to why Sarkar won't return as the chief minister of Tripura. "Even though he has been on the chief minister's chair for the last 20 years, the percentage of people below the poverty line is 67 percent. This in itself, proves that he has done nothing for his state. When he became the chief minister, the number of registered unemployed youth was 85,000 and now it is 7.25 lakh in the state. The crime rate is high, the conviction rate is low. He is running the government for the party and not for the state. And that is why there is a strong anti-incumbency sentiment in the state against him, his government and his party. That is the main reason why I think that this time CPM is going to lose the state."
Even though the News X- Jan Ki Baat opinion poll has predicted that BJP-IPFT coalition in Tripura is likely to win 31-37 seats out of the total 60 Assembly constituencies in the state, it is too early to say anything at all at this point. The survey also predicted that the ruling CPM may get 23-29 seats; while the Congress and other parties may not win any seat in the state. View More