Tripura is witnessing a political churn. The twenty-five year old Left front government in the state has been ousted, not by it’s longest standing opposition – the Congress, but by a completely new entrant, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
So, how did a party that has never sent an MLA to the Tripura Assembly, manage to lead in 42 of the 60 seats in the state?
1. Development Plank
The BJP has successfully managed to market its development narrative. It succeeded in capitalising on the goodwill of initiatives that were announced and inaugurated by the previous UPA government. Case in point – the decades-long demand for a broad gauge train connectivity within Tripura and to New Delhi was fulfilled in May 2016.
Along with its slogan ‘Chalo Paltai’ (topple the incumbent), the BJP released an election manifesto or ‘Vision Document 2018’ aimed at the burgeoning youth in the state. Along with basic amenities like drinking water, the party promised employment to every household (there are 7 lakh unemployed youth in Tripura, a huge number for a small state), free education for women till graduation, 7th Pay Commission salaries to government employees and smartphones to youth.
Along with a degree college and an AIIMS-like medical institute, the party also promised to build a logistic hub for transportation in the entire northeastern region due to its proximity with Bangladesh and the ports in that country.
For more than a year, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) helped the BJP build a cadre base in Tripura. In an interview to The Indian Express, Sunil Deodhar said, “To win Tripura, we have to be able to fight the communists”.
The 52 year-old RSS leader was shifted to Tripura after he managed Modi’s 2014 election campaign. In fact, it was he who brought his RSS colleague Biplab Kumar Deb, speculated to be the next chief minister of the state, back to Tripura from Delhi.
The Indian Express reported a detailed account of the RSS’ involvement in building a base for the BJP in Tripura.
The party, according to the report, went about building individual party wings at the mandal, district and then state level. These included a youth wing, a women’s wing, a separate wing for SCs, STs, OBCs, minorities and farmers.
In his interview to The Indian Express, Deodhar, said, “These were set up in January last year and have become so strong now that as many as 10,000 women from three districts turned up for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally in North Tripura recently, which is a huge number for such a small state”.
Vistaraks were appointed to ensure there was no infighting and any dissidence did not brew to the surface. ‘Panna pramukhs’ were given one page each out of a 17-18 page voter list. Each page has a list of 60 voters. The ‘panna pramukh’ was in charge of seeing to the needs of each of the 60 voters.
Then came the ‘shakti kendra vistaraks’ – vistaraks in charge of every five booths in the state.
‘Train samparaks’ were also appointed to travel on the daily trains wearing Modi T-shirts and hand out BJP pamphlets.
Apart from a social media team of young people fluent in English, Bengali and Kokborok, some 400 vistaraks were brought in from Assam in the final leg of the campaign.
Tripura has always seen a bipolar contest with the CPM and the Congress launching weak challenges. In the last two years, the BJP nearly managed to bring the working president of the Tripura Pradesh Congress, Pradyot Bikram Manikya Deb Burman over to its side. That, he belongs to the erstwhile royal family of Tripura, has a huge following and would’ve gone a long way in creating a pro-BJP sentiment, did not prompt the Congress to get into damage control soon enough. A last minute effort by Jyotiraditya Scindia and later, Rahul Gandhi is believed to have prevented the BJP from poaching the Maharaja, but it was seen as too little, too late.
The Congress was decimated internally, before it was decimated electorally, according to Shillong-based senior journalist Samrat Choudhury. Choudhury said:
The Congress did not put in anywhere the kind of effort that the BJP did. The BJP always worked hard and in Tripura, it worked extremely hard. The Congress was caught napping and it nearly lost some of its top leadership to the BJP. There was even an attempt by the saffron party to poach Pro Pradyot Bikram Manikya Deb Burman, that’s how confident it was. The Congress should’ve worked to occupy the role of an effective opposition in a bipolar space, but it conceded that space to the BJP.
4. Alliance with IPFT
Along with projecting a youth appeal, the BJP sought to include tribals and indigenous communities, who despite forming 30 percent of the population, were not included in the state’s electoral narrative. To achieve this, the party aligned with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) which represents the interests.
In fact, as may as five IPFT leaders – Subhash Reang, Debendra Debbarma, Ramananda Debbarma, Pushrai Debbarma and Sunil Tripura – joined BJP earlier this year.
Of the 20 tribal seats, the BJP contested only 11, leaving the rest for the IPFT. The alliance swept all 20 seats.
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