Tripura’s outgoing BJP Chief Minister Biplab Deb has made it clear that he was asked to step down by the party’s central leadership. He resigned immediately after returning from Delhi in the presence of Union minister Bhupendra Yadav and BJP general secretary Vinod Tawde. The speed with which Deb’s successor was announced pointed to the high command having decided on Manik Saha as the new CM, before they had decided to ask Biplab Deb to step down.
Deb has had his fair share of controversies coupled with his failure to handle dissidents within the party and his uncomfortable relations with ally Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) may have proved to be his undoing.
But removing less popular CMs now seems to be part of the BJP playbook. Biplab Deb, is the fifth incumbent BJP CM to have been removed in the past one year, either before the party faced a fresh election or before it made an attempt to form a government.
In Gujarat, the home state of PM Modi and home minister Amit Shah, Vijay Rupani was removed last year, fifteen months before state polls were due. Like Deb, Rupani also abruptly resigned and was replaced by Bhupendra Patel. Those who closely watch Gujarat believe Rupani’s ouster was because of his poor management of the COVID pandemic in the state, though it was never explicitly stated by the party’s central leadership.
In March last year, the BJP replaced Uttarakhand then CM Trivendra Singh Rawat with Lok Sabha member Tirath Singh Rawat. Four months later, Tirath Singh Rawat was replaced by two time MLA Pushkar Singh Dhami, who was made CM, after the party came back to power in the hill state. After Uttarakhand, the BJP also replaced B S Yediyurappa with Basavaraj Bommai as CM in Karnataka.
So, the removal of incumbent CMs before the state polls is a familiar pattern evolving in the BJP over the past one year or so. In the north-east, Assam and Manipur did not fit the pattern, though.
The BJP changed the CM in Assam after winning the polls with a decisive margin in what many saw as a reward for Himanta Biswa Sarma for his role in the victory. Also, most of the party legislators who won had been handpicked by Sarma, when party tickets were handed out.
In Manipur, the party went to polls with N Biren Singh as CM, and they kept him in the position after winning the polls. Again, this seemed to be the reward for getting the BJP a better-than-before victory margin.
What went wrong for Biplab Deb?
The official version for the change in Tripura, put forward both by the party high command and Biplab Deb, is that the party needs to beef up its organisation and Deb’s energy and organisational drive can be put to good use only if he is relieved of the CM’s position. But that version has been taken with a pinch of salt.
Biplab Deb was made CM in 2018, after the BJP’s maiden victory in Tripura ending decades of Left rule. As state party president in charge of the BJP’s massive outreach program ‘Mahasampark’, he seemed to have been rewarded for the saffron victory.
But the BJP’s grand showing of 35 seats plus 8 by ally IPFT was largely made possible by a huge swing of the Congress votebank that was always pronouncedly anti-Left in Tripura.
The prominent BJP legislators were mostly Congress defectors, who had been around in state politics much longer than Biplab Deb, who was a relative non-entity until 2015, when he was made BJP president.
His RSS background helped him secure the top job but he could never handle the stiff dissidence from the Congress turncoats like health minister Sudip Roy Barman, son of a former Congress CM.
Roy Barman returned to Congress recently after failing to convince the high command to change the CM but Biplab Deb added to his woes by falling out with ally IPFT.
One-third of Tripura’s 60 Assembly seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribes. In 10 other seats, the tribal vote is considered a major swing factor. Indigenous tribespeople constitute 31 per cent of the state’s electoral rolls.
Historically, the communists had won most of these ST reserved seats since the 1950s. Only when they lost out on many of these seats to local tribal parties like the Tripura Upajati Yuba Samity (TUJS) did the communists lose power in Tripura.
In the 2018 elections, the BJP won 10 of these 20 ST reserved seats and its ally IPFT won 8. But, ahead of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) elections in 2021, the IPFT went against the BJP and joined hands with the TIPRA Motha led by royal scion ‘Maharaja’ Pradyot Kishore Debbarman to ensure a BJP wipeout in the TTAADC polls.
The IPFT switchover followed long discontentment but Biplab Deb, instead of patching up with IPFT, has been accused of trying to split it and beef up the BJP’s tribal wing. The IPFT’s warring factions led by revenue minister N C Debbarma and another younger IPFT minister Mevar Jamatia, had been attacking each other in the past few days bitterly over party elections.
This seems to have unnerved the BJP central leadership which wanted not only to retain the alliance with IPFT but also explore possibilities of roping in Tipra Motha, led by royal scion Pradyot Kishore. The consolidation of the tribal vote against the BJP is what the saffrons can ill afford and removing Deb seems to be an act of damage control in that direction.
His successor Manik Saha is a respected dental practitioner and a former medical college professor. He joined BJP in 2016 after deserting the Congress. Unlike the assertive Biplab Deb, Saha is seen as someone who will reach out to all factions and antagonise none. He is also more amenable to heed directives from the high command.
By sacking incumbent CMs, the BJP also seems to be driving home the message that it will not put up with non-performance and none can take things for granted. Removing Biplab Deb in Tripura is part of that message from the top to the states.
( Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent and author of books on India’s north-east)