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BJP, Left’s Tug-of-War Over Tribal Votes Heats Tripura Polls

The state is set to witness direct contests between the Left and the Right across 60 constituencies.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
BJP, Left’s Tug-of-War Over Tribal Votes Heats Tripura Polls

Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar is, literally, fighting with his back to the wall as the tiny northeastern state surrounded by Bangladesh on three sides prepares to go the polls on 18 February. The challenge to the CPM-led Left Front government, headed by Sarkar for the past 20 years, comes – unsurprisingly – from the BJP which has made deep inroads in not just Tripura but a few other northeastern states, where it has resorted to an aggressive brand of politics to break the traditional parties, including the Congress, in their bid for power.

File photo of Tripura Chief Minister and CPI(M) leader Manik Sarkar. 
(Photo: IANS)

Tough Fight Between the Left and The Right

While for the BJP, West Bengal is still a far cry, the essentially Bengali-speaking third smallest state in India will witness direct contests between the Left and the Right across 60 constituencies, a bulk of which are dominated by tribals who have in the past been staunch supporters of the Marxist parties, including the CPM, CPI, the Revolutionary Communist Party of India (RCPI) and the Forward Bloc.

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But this time around, the tribal vote is expected to split in the wake of the BJP’s electoral promise of establishing an autonomous state council which would be a substantial enlargement of the Tribal Autonomous District Council. The council was originally the brainchild of the Left parties, aimed at widening the scope of devolved power to the indigenous peoples – 40 distinct tribes – of the state.

Add to this is the BJP’s decision to not just give recognition to the cultural identities of the tribes but also allocate a larger share of the state budget for tribal welfare.

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The Tribal Vote to Be The Deciding Factor

What makes the tribals critical to the election in Tripura is their sheer number: they make for 30 percent of the state’s population and their vote could be decisive across 20 constituencies.

So, the BJP’s promises have appealed to a fairly large section of the tribal population. The problem that BJP, whose on-the-ground campaign has been masterminded by the party’s Assam leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, will likely face is that of tribals not having a homogenous constituency. Their vote will likely be divided between three outfits – Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), Indigenous National Peoples of Tripura (INPT) and National Conference of Tripura which is a fringe organisation.

Of the three, the NC Debbarma-led IPFT’s pre-poll alliance with the BJP poses the biggest challenge to the Left and the Congress following a steady erosion of tribal support for the CPM and the Marxists’ other constituent parties.

Unlike West Bengal in 2016, the Left and the Congress are not in a formal alliance in Tripura, but in several constituencies the two parties are “helping” each other on the ground in a bid to keep the BJP out. Much will depend on how effectively the INPT, led by Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl, and the Congress, which, despite being in terminal decline has fielded candidates across all the seats, are able to keep their vote share intact in the face of the BJP’s formidable challenge.

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Unemployment a Big Issue This Election

Political observers in Tripura claim that a combination of anti-incumbency and growing “restlessness” among the youth, especially new voters, with little or no employment – the jobless constitute 7 lakh of the state’s 37 lakh population – could hurt the Left’s prospects and end Sarkar’s bid for a fifth consecutive term as chief minister.

They agree that over the last three terms in power, Sarkar has been instrumental in battling and subsequently ending militancy and extremism, took decisive and effective steps to usher in some economic development across most parts of the state and virtually discontinued the Left’s doctrinaire politics which proved detrimental to its fortunes in West Bengal. “In this regard, Sarkar, an important member on the CPM Central Committee, broke free of the rigid politics of the party and found innovative ways towards some redistribution of wealth in the hill-tribal regions,” one political observer said.

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While Sarkar and his government have remained untouched by grave cases of corruption, his singular failure has been the inability to usher in investments to a state in crying need for manufacturing units. Consequently, drawing a blank on investments has affected the employment situation, leaving an unemployment rate of slightly over 19 percent.

This issue, which the CPM has shied away from addressing in any great detail in its manifesto, could alone be the single-largest factor in the Left’s erosion of vote this time around. What could, additionally, turn the Left’s electoral pitch is the resentment of the state’s educated job-seekers who have, over the years, steadily migrated out of Tripura to other parts of India, including Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru and Pune for employment opportunities.

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The BJP’s Tall Promises This Election

The BJP has promised big this election – special economic zones for the food processing, bamboo, textiles and info-tech sectors – but in the absence of a clear, realisable roadmap, what is questionable is how far the party could realistically achieve these targets, if voted to power.

The BJP has been able to successfully harness the support of the jobless youth, including tribals. The party has steered clear of raising issues bordering on Hindutva and of immigration which otherwise would have raised the hackles of the Bengali-speaking Hindu voters.

At the same time, by pushing UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath as a star campaigner, the BJP is playing on the “Nath” factor that could potentially appeal to voters with Nath (who have the status of other backward caste) as a patronym.
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Although the Trinamool Congress has previously contested one assembly election in Tripura, since the party’s spectacular victory in West Bengal, its presence in the state is identified with former heavyweight Mukul Roy who recently drifted towards the BJP. The BJP will certainly benefit from Roy’s influence, if any, but the CPM’s cadre base of over 89,000 committed supporters will be a force that it will have to contend with.

Several of the CPM’s central leaders have been campaigning across Tripura, but Sarkar remains the party’s biggest draw especially at a time when the organisation has been faced with an uncertain future and he remains the only credible face of the Left ideology. Sarkar may well scrape past with a wafer-thin margin when results are declared on 3 March, but the outcome will have an impact, for both the BJP and the CPM, in West Bengal.

(The Quint, in association with BitGiving, has launched a crowdfunding campaign for an 8-month-old who was raped in Delhi on 28 January 2018. The baby girl, who we will refer to as 'Chhutki', was allegedly raped by her 28-year-old cousin when her parents were away. She has been discharged from AIIMS hospital after undergoing three surgeries, but needs more medical treatment in order to heal completely. Her parents hail from a low-income group and have stopped going to work so that they can take care of the baby. You can help cover Chhutki's medical expenses and secure her future. Every little bit counts. Click here to donate.)

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