Tripura Polls: CM Manik Sarkar Remains BJP’s Single Biggest Threat

BJP hasn’t been able to field a leader to oust Sarkar. It is solely depending on ‘Modi magic’ to win Tripura.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Tripura CM Manik Sarkar (L), PM Modi (R). Image used for representational purposes.
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India’s third smallest state, Tripura, has become the stage for a unique battle of ideologies. For the first time, the Right will take on the Left in a direct fight with the BJP emerging as the main challenger to the CPI(M) in the latter’s last remaining bastion.

After losing West Bengal to Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) and forced to share power alternately with the Congress in Kerala, Tripura is the only state the Left can rightfully claim as a citadel, having ruled there for 25 long years.

Victory has been easy in every election. The Left’s sole rival for two and a half decades, a somnolent Congress, has never posed a serious challenge to its well-oiled election machine. But this time, the citadel is under serious threat from an entirely new player — the BJP, which has been working silently but determinedly for the past three years to break into this Left fortress.

BJP Pulling Out All Stops

A defeat for the CPI(M) in Tripura could well mean the extinction of Left politics in India, which is why the Assembly election on 18 February has assumed a significance far greater than the size of the state warrants.

The arsenal deployed by the BJP speaks of the importance the saffron party is attaching to the upcoming polls. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already addressed two rallies in Tripura last week and will address two more on the penultimate day of campaigning.

Virtually the entire top brass of the Union Cabinet has visited the state: Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari and Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani.

The party’s ‘rising star’ campaigner, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, has done two days of roadshows and BJP President Amit Shah has been spending all his free time in the state. A huge contingent of RSS cadre is hard at work, as is BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav who is the party’s spearhead in sensitive tribal and border areas.

Why the Left is Worried

The BJP convenor for the northeast, Himanta Biswa Sarma, considered one of architects of the BJP’s sweeping victory in Assam in 2016, has also been deployed.

No election is too small for Modi’s BJP. It has devoted all its energies and vast resources to win Tripura. But for the Left, it’s more than just an election. It’s turned into a battle for survival with Left leaders slowly comprehending the BJP’s all-consuming desire to stamp out an ideology it considers anathema to Hindutva interests. A senior Left leader speaking on condition of anonymity admitted:

It’s a tough fight. We simply cannot match the BJP’s money power and state power.

Tripura is a border state, touching Bangladesh on three sides. The army and central security forces guard these areas. The state government has little or no control over them.

What is worrying the Left is the inroads the BJP through the RSS seems to have made into the tribal areas of the state. About one-third of the state’s population is tribal; the rest is Bengali. Although the Bengalis have been the hegemonic force, the Left managed the contradictions with the tribals by creating the Tribal Autonomous District Council in the 1970s to preserve the cultural identity of the indigenous population.

BJP’s Two-Pronged Strategy

However, in recent years, the social pact crafted by the Left in its early years in power fractured, leading to demands for a separate tribal state. Over the past three years, the RSS has managed to exacerbate these fault lines .

Riding on the back of the Sangh’s success in tribal areas, the BJP has struck an electoral alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT). It arranged a secret meeting for IPFT leaders with Rajnath Singh some weeks ago. According to highly placed sources in the Home Ministry, the tribal leaders were promised greater autonomy and more funds if the BJP came to power in Tripura.

Of the 60 seats in Tripura, 20 are reserved ST seats. Under the agreement between the BJP and IPFT, the former will fight 11 of these reserved seats plus all the non-reserved ones while the latter will contest 9 reserved seats.

But the BJP realises that tribal votes are not enough to help it win. It has a two-pronged strategy in place. One prong is the alliance with the IPFT. The other prong is to woo the youth by focusing on the Left’s poor development record in 25 years.

This is a sore point with youngsters who see the lack of road connectivity, water and electricity as signs of being left behind in the development race. In addition, the Left government in Tripura has not yet implemented the Seventh Pay Commission recommendations, keeping the huge state bureaucracy impoverished.

Manik Sarkar — BJP’s Greatest Challenge

Twenty five years of anti-incumbency is a huge burden to carry. But the Left makes up for its sins with its immensely popular Chief Minister Manik Sarkar. He has ruled for 20 of the 25 years the Left has been in power, and his simplicity and mass appeal have given him an aura that the BJP is finding hard to crack.

In fact, the BJP has not been able to throw up a leader to challenge Sarkar. As in all other states, it is depending on the ‘Modi charisma’ to defeat Sarkar’s popularity.

Modi’s rallies have undoubtedly been well-attended. For a party that used to draw barely a few hundreds to its rallies earlier, it is a massive leap forward to attract crowds of tens of thousands today.

Seeing this, the Left is believed to have sent an SOS to the Congress to step up its presence in the election campaign. In fact, the Congress has been strangely absent in Tripura, especially after the bulk of its MLAs and party workers crossed over to the BJP after the Congress-Left alliance in the 2016 West Bengal polls.

The BJP hopes to fill the space vacated by the Congress and capture the anti-Left vote to buttress the social alliance of tribals and youth. Sensing the danger of losing the anti-Left vote to the BJP, the Congress has decided to send Rahul Gandhi to Tripura for a last minute campaign. He will address two rallies in the state the day after Modi tours Tripura.

It may be too little too late. It looks like the Left’s future rests entirely in Manik Sarkar’s hands. Can his personal appeal override the Modi brand?

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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