After failing to stitch an alliance with royal scion Pradyot Kishore Debbarma’s Tipra Motha, the BJP has come out strongly against the tribal party’s demand for a separate tribal state and vowed to keep Tripura united.
“Vote for us because the BJP is determined to keep Tripura united and in one piece. We strongly oppose the demand for a separate Twipraland,” said the top party poll manager and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.
BJP’s high-profile rallies
The Assam chief minister created a last-minute hype with back-to-back rallies addressed by PM Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP president J P Nadda in a rare display of high voltage VIP campaigning the tiny state has rarely seen. He has landed into a major controversy by pushing for deployment of Assam and Gujarat police contingents for election duties in Tripura, which the Opposition cried foul about as a move to ‘rig the polls.’
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All these seem to point to a worrying level of urgency in the saffron camp to retain Tripura and also to ensure a victory that just cannot be taken for granted.
“The BJP suffers considerable anti-incumbency that forced the high command to remove Biplab Deb and make Manik Saha chief minister with just over a year left in the rundown to the assembly polls. This led to factionalism with some party leaders suggesting the need to project Union minister Pratima Bhowmik as the chief ministerial face. The high command has projected Manik Saha as the next chief minister because of his clean image, but he faces a very tough fight against Congress veteran Ashis Saha,” says Benu Ghosh, former intelligence official with considerable experience of Tripura polls.
Ghosh said the factionalism is reflected in BJP’s limited ability to mobilise supporters, specially party cadre, which is evident in less than expected turnout in rallies even those addressed by Modi.
“So, the only card BJP has now is to project itself as the saviour of Tripura and its territorial integrity, specially after it failed to work out an alliance with royal scion Pradyot Kishore’s Tipra Motha, which demands a separate tribal homeland,” said Ghosh.
But a regional party in Assam’s Bengali-dominated Barak Valley, the Barak Democratic Front (BDF) has appealed to all Bengalis in Tripura to not vote for the BJP in view of “horrible treatment faced by Bengalis in Assam”.
“Two million people, mostly Bengali Hindus and Muslims, have been excluded from Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC). They are hounded by Assam police, thrown into detention camps, deprived of livelihood and threatened with loss of citizenship, all because of BJP,” said BDF chairman Pradip Dutta Ray, who hails from Tripura.
In contrast, the Congress-Left alliance, despite being on the backfoot for five years due to aggressive BJP domination, has played its cards well.
The Congress has allowed the Left, specially CPI-M, to take the lead in the charge. Communist tribal leader Jiten Choudhury has been projected as the CM face of not only the Left but also of the Left-Congress alliance. This has brought back many tribals to the Left fold and has also send a reassuring message that a moderate tribal leader like Choudhury will not only ensure Tripura’s integrity and tribal -Bengali amity, but also future development of the state.
“Choudhury is a moderate Marxist in the mould of former Bengal CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya who prioritizes development over populist rhetoric,” says businessman Tamal Bhowmik, a Congress supporter who thinks Choudhury has the ability to carry everyone with him.
Royal scion’s stand
That includes royal scion Pradyot Kishore, whose party calls for a separate tribal homeland but also has hinted at resolving the issue if tribals get greater autonomy. He has also pitched for decommissioning the 10-MW Gumti hydel project because it submerged 46 sq km of prime agricultural land owned by tribals.
“Now that we have enough natural gas and huge power projects based on it, we can decommission this micro hydel project and free prime land for resettling tribal landless people. It can resolve the problem of tribal alienation in one stroke,” said Pradyot Kishore in a rally last week.
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Choudhury has hinted he is open to such suggestions that seek to financially empower tribals rather than ask for political reservations, which only benefit a creamy layer of the indigenous people.
Since negotiations between the Maharaja and BJP broke down, the royal scion has attacked the saffron brigade in strongest terms. In contrast, he jumped out of his car while passing by a Left-Congress rally addressed by Congress supremo Sudip Barman in Agartala’s Ramnagar area.
“Sudip said on mike he wanted the Maharaja to address the rally as he is in the area. Maharaja climbed the dais and made a brief speech after embracing Sudip and the Left candidate Purosottam Ray Barman, asking all Tripura residents to stick it out together. This appeal for communal peace and his overt bonhomie with the Left and Congress is a sure enough pointer what the anti-BJP parties are planning,” said local scribe Debraj Deb who was covering the rally.
So even if the BJP remains the single-largest party but falls short of the 30-seat mark which would give it majority in a 60-member house, it could face the unsettling effect of the Left-Congress alliance and Tipra Motha drawing close to each other. Since the Motha looks to get the most seats of the 20 reserved for Scheduled Tribes, it could be the decisive factor in government-making if BJP fails to win 30 of the 40 general seats.
If the Left-Congress alliance makes the most of BJP’s anti-incumbency and inches close to the BJP in a what seems to be a tight fight, the Maharaja will emerge the king-maker if not the king.
Since he is not contesting the polls himself, the royal scion might well allow a tribal leader like Choudhury as CM. So, even though the coalition looks a loose grouping, its leadership issue looks settled. In contrast, despite projecting Manik Saha as CM, the BJP local unit seems divided on the issue.
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But if it emerges as the single-largest party using its advantage as a ruling dispensation, it stands the chance of being first invited by the Governor.
“That will then give BJP to play out something it does well with its huge financial resources — horsetrading,” says business Rakhal Saha.