Tripura polls: Only a ‘Congress Mukt Tripura’ can help BJP defeat Left Front
Suman Deb has the tone of a loyal footsoldier let down by his generals, whenever he speaks about the Congress. “I worked for the party for 30 years, since I was a young boy. We braved every challenge and fought the Left Front here in Tripura. But what did the party do? They allied with the same Left Front in West Bengal. Where does that leave us?” Deb asks.
In 2016, the year Congress and the Left fought as allies in the West Bengal Assembly elections, Deb was was among the hundreds of Congress workers in Tripura who left the Congress and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“Some of them also joined Trinamool Congress back then. But now even they have come to the BJP,” Deb says. Deb is now working for the BJP in the Badharghat SC reserved constituency in the southern end of Agartala. Sitting in a BJP booth along with 20 other party workers, Deb says, “All of us sitting here were in the Congress earlier. Now we are in the BJP”.
“We belong to the Virodh Paksh (Opposition) in Tripura. Earlier Virodh Paksh meant Congress, now it is BJP. Our only ideology is anti-CPM,” says Nityanand Saha, another party worker seated with Deb.
However, ideology and the Congress’ alliance with the Left in 2016 aren’t the only factors that drove party workers away. Several workers who have switched side said that funds had significantly dried up after the Congress’ defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Initially, it was the Trinamool Congress under Mukul Roy which came with the promise of a stronger anti-Left campaign and more funds. Now it is the BJP.
Asked about the difference between the Congress’ and BJP’s organisation, Deb says, “discipline is the key in BJP. If we have been given a position, we have to remain in that position, not try to occupy a much higher rank”.
The main question that will determine the BJP’s prospects in Tripura is whether the party manages to get the entire anti-Left Front vote that completely went to the Congress until the last Assembly elections.
Tripura’s ‘Opposition vote'
The Left’s uninterrupted stint in power since 1993 often makes outside observers forget the fact that Tripura has always had a strong Opposition vote. Since 1983, when the Left Front first came to power in the state, the Congress and its allied party which represented Tripura’s indigenous communities have consistently secured over 40% of the total vote share.
In 1988, the Congress under the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi even managed to defeat the Left Front. The Congress won 25 of the 46 seats it contested and its ally, the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti (TUS) won seven out of 14.
At that time, Gandhi enjoyed a brute majority in the Lok Sabha. The Northeast was a special area of focus for Gandhi, under whom the Assam Accord and Mizo Accord were signed, bringing stability to the two insurgency-affected states.
“Rajiv Gandhi was the only leader with the vision and will to take on the Left in Tripura. After his death, the Congress weakened nationally. It often had to take the Left’s help in the Centre. This weakened it in Tripura,” says a senior Tripura Congress functionary on the condition of anonymity.
What has emboldened the ‘Virodh Paksh’ voters is that under Narendra Modi, BJP is appearing as a party which has the national might as well as the hunger to defeat the Left in Tripura, much like Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress.
Modi is the first prime minister since Gandhi to have a single party majority in the Lower House. His focus on the Northeast, is evident from the Centre’s agreement with Naga outfit NSCN(IM) as well as the formation of BJP governments in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.
As an acknowledgement of the BJP emerging as the main Opposition force, the dominant tribal party the Indegenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) has entered into an alliance with the saffron party, much like its predecessors did with the Congress.
However, for the BJP to even come close to defeating the Left, it would need to ensure a complete wipeout of the Congress. But this is easier said than done.
“A party whose vote share (including allies) has never gone below 40%, cannot be completely wiped out this easily. Watch out for older voters, who have voted Congress for so many decades. They won’t ditch the party,” the senior Congress functionary said.
On the ground, this reality is being felt by BJP workers.
Sanjib, a BJP worker, looks angrily at crowd at the Congress office in the Badharghat constituency in Agartala.
“The bigger the crowd there, the better the chances are for the Left. And this is supposed to be an Opposition seat,” he says.
Badharghat is one of the seats where BJP fancies its chances. The sitting MLA Dilip Sarkar, who won on a Congress ticket in 1988, 1998, 2008 and 2013, is now contesting from the BJP.
Dhirendra Saha, who runs a tea stall in Badharghat, says that the division of votes between Congress and BJP could create an opening for the Left. “Some Congress workers in the area left with Sarkar, but some stayed back. The anti-Left votes might get divided. Dilip Sarkar could lose, I feel,” he says.
In Banmalipur in the heart of Agartala and Kailashahar in Tripura West, the situation is the reverse. Here a section of workers have shifted to the BJP but the MLAs are still with the Grand Old Party and have a personal connect with the voters.
Birajit Sinha, presently the state Congress chief, has represented Kailashahar five times since 1988, losing only once in the Left wave of 1993. The case of Banamalipur is similar as Congress hasn’t lost the seat since 1983. It is represented by three-time MLA Gopal Chandra Roy, who is also the Congress Legislative Party leader.
“It is a tough choice for anti-Left voters, whether to choose the person or the party. Gopal Chandra Roy is a respected person here,” said Binod, a shopkeeper in Banamalipur
Sanjib, however, consider Banmalipur a “sure seat” for the party.
“Gopalbabu is a good man. But there’s no one with him. We shall surely win the seat,” predicts Sanjib, who is equally confident of BJP winning in his area Badharghat.
He is interrupted by an auto-rickshaw playing Lata Mangeshkar’s ‘Vande Mataram’ on a loud speaker, He stops talking to listen to the song and gets up to take a look at the auto as it passes, only to see that it is Congress campaign vehicle.