Battleground Tripura

Breaching the Bamboo Curtain

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It’s a direct fight between CPM and BJP in Tripura. Amita Shah reports from the last Marxist bastion under threat

SITTING OUTSIDE HIS fertiliser shop at Dhanpur—the Assembly constituency that Tripura’s Marxist Chief Minister Manik Sarkar has won for four consecutive terms—Manuranjan Debnath looks at vehicles packed with people heading towards Sonamura, 25 km away, to attend Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally. “This time there will be a tough fight. The last time this happened was in 1988 while fighting the Congress,” he says.

The BJP had shifted Modi’s rally from Santirbazar to Sonamura, the sub-division under which Dhanpur falls, causing some resentment among the people in Santirbazar. When Modi got wind of it, he asked BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma if a rally could be accommodated there along with one in Agartala a week later. After Modi reached Delhi, Sarma got a call from BJP President Amit Shah about Modi addressing a rally in Santirbazar as well. The south Tripura town was added to his schedule of three rallies in the country’s third smallest state, which Sarkar has ruled for 20 years. In Sonamura, just before addressing the crowd, Modi had another query—the spelling of the BJP’s slogan in Tripura. “Solo Paltai,” he said, in a typical Bengali accent. The crowd went into a frenzy. By the time he flew out on his chopper from Sonamura—about 60 km from Agartala on Tripura’s south west border with Bangladesh—to address another rally at Kailashahar in Unakoti district, ‘cholo paltai’ (let’s go for change) had started echoing louder.

“We have seen the Manik Sarkar government for 20 years. We should give the BJP a chance,” says Pulpati Chakma in broken Hindi. The young woman—in a blue, black and red pinon and hadi, the traditional two-piece attire of her Chakma tribe—travelled 50 km to attend the rally. Others, scrambling in the crowd to get a glimpse of Modi, echoes such sentiments. Engineering student Sailab Chaudhury, who will vote for the first time on February 18th in the state’s 60-seat Assembly elections, says Modi has promised employment to the youth. “Under him. BJP has won states, including in the northeast.” People got on to tempos, trucks and motorbikes to get to the Sonamura rally, since buses—controlled by unions of the CPM-affiliated CITU—were unavailable, says a BJP leader. Modi, who promised job opportunities, better education, minimum wages and development, greeted the people in Kokborok, the lingua franca of the majority of indigenous tribes in Tripura. In Kailashahar, he began with a few words of Bengali, the first official language in Tripura, where two-thirds of the population is Bengali and a third Tribal.

Back in Dhanpur, Dipankar Debnath, a poultry shop owner, is also heading for Sonamura. “I am going to the rally but that doesn’t mean I will vote for Modi. He is good at the Centre, but for Tripura, Sarkar is good.” A devoted CPM supporter, he says that under the Modi regime, petrol and diesel prices have gone up.

Down a narrow road leading to the border with Bangladesh, Sabiya Khatun, whose home is barely ten metres from the border, says she will vote for Sarkar again. The back door of her house opened into Bangladesh territory before the fencing. Her neighbour, Morumnisa, a young housewife who has learnt Hindi by watching films, says Sarkar is a poor man’s leader. “We are too far away from Modi’s eyes,” she says. Ali Hassan, a 24-year-old farmer and former Congress supporter, is contemplating a vote for the BJP. “The state government has given houses to some and not to others,” he says.

At Lakhinkalamchura village in Sipaijuala district, on the road from Dhanpur to Agartala, a message from Airtel says ‘Welcome to Bangladesh. Switch over to international roaming.’

THE TRIPURA ELECTION has taken an unprecedented turn—the BJP, the Left’s ideological foe, has emerged as a formidable contender, decimating the Congress, the principal opposition earlier. For the first time, the state, where red flags jostle with saffron ones, is witnessing an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the two parties. Some say that for over two decades, a viable alternative to the Left Front had eluded the state, with the Congress failing to topple the CPM government in five consecutive elections. The BJP has weaned away Congress leaders and votes, laying out its political roadmap in a bid to capture the last Left citadel, and break past another geographical barrier. This time, it is also an ideological exercise.

Sitting in the conference hall of the CPM office in Agartala, Sarkar, who will beat Jyoti Basu’s record as the longest Marxist chief minister—Basu served for 23 years in West Bengal—if the Left Front wins another term, seems unfazed by his new challenger, saying the only difference this time is that the BJP is in power at the Centre. Turning around the BJP’s ‘Cholo Paltai’ slogan to target the NDA Government at the Centre, he says, “Our people are giving an alternative slogan—‘Cholo Paltai Delhi Te (let’s bring change in Delhi)’, prepare for the next Parliament elections. For that, in Tripura we should get more votes, win more seats and the Left Front government should be constituted for the eighth time.” Past 10 pm, the media is still waiting for him and it will be a while before he calls it a day. The 69-year-old Chief Minister has been addressing around three rallies a day. “He has a lot of stamina,” says a party functionary.

A day before Modi’s first two public meetings on February 8th, Sarkar had addressed a rally at Kumarghat, 30 km from Kailashahar, arriving on time at noon. Shaktimoni Chakma, who had come with his family from Uttar Machmara village, 20 km away, is sure the CPM will win another term. “The BJP has taken Congress leaders into its fold and there is a lot of anger here against the Congress which has been in opposition for 25 years,” he says, while acknowledging that the youth are inclined towards the BJP. At the rally, which is bereft of slogan-shouting or eulogising, Sarkar takes on the Modi Government’s policies at the Centre and accuses the BJP of playing divisive politics. Sudhana Debbarma, a middle-aged man from the dominant Debbarma tribe, who has attended Sarkar’s rallies in the past four elections, says it has always been like this. “Nothing has changed.” But eatery owner Liton’s eyes light up when he speaks of Modi, or the steaming khichdi he sells. Waiting for customers at the venue of the rally, the first-time voter points to a large vessel and says “it’s tasty, try it.” He puts two large servings of yellow dal khichdi with brinjal and dry fish chutney on a paper plate and says, “Rs 10”. So will it be another term for Sarkar? “No way. We will vote for Modi this time,” he says. Standing next to him, Nipen is more aggressive in his opposition of the Manik Sarkar government. A CPM cadre, he is angry because the party did not take care of him when he had an accident, and also because his 13-year-old daughter was “made to carry bricks in Navodaya School”. His relative, Nikhil Das, is upset with the CPM for giving “half-built houses”. Sarkar, India’s poorest chief minister whose affidavit says he has Rs 2,410 in his bank account, blames unemployment on the policies of the Centre.

AWAY FROM THE clamorous campaigning, on the smooth, winding road through the hills with modest bamboo and tin homes of local residents, our barnstorming is overwhelmed by the beauty and serenity of the forests. Yet, an air of political bellicosity escapes the quietude. In Ambassa, inside a neat eatery made of woven bamboo walls, Seema, who belongs to an aboriginal Tripura tribe, reluctantly admits her family has decided to vote for the BJP this time instead of CPM. “I have put a lot of chillies,” she cautions, as she serves rice, chicken, pork, dal and a spicy banana stem curry. Along the same road, Sangeeta Debbarma sits outside her small hut with her two children, boiling chicken skin which she will sell at Rs 20 per kg. She cannot vote because her family could not get voter cards “despite bribing with money, tea and cigarettes”. A few kilometres down the road, a young man among a group of Tripura tribals selling brooms says they have heard that this time there will be a change of regime. “What’s the point of voting for the CPM then?” says Kishna Tripura. The others sit silently before bunches of green brooms, which they sell at Rs 10 for 20 brooms, earning Rs 150-200 by evening. Their long day begins at 5 in the morning, when they cut the plants to make the brooms, which they then sell. As the sun starts setting, a saffron hue casts its spell over the hills, where life goes on at its own pace. Making tea in his tiny shop, Dev Debbarma replies tersely to a question about the elections. “I have been a committed CPM supporter. I will vote for the party,” says Joy Debnath, a Bengali cab driver, who has been travelling across the state, adding that it will not be easy to defeat the CPM.

The CPM, which holds 49 seats, is relying on its ‘committed’ vote bank to counter BJP’s aggressive campaign. The Left Front had a sway over Tribal votes, winning all 20 Scheduled Tribe seats; the state’s 19 tribes include the Tripuri, Debbarma, Reang, Chakma, Jamatia, Noatia, Lusai, Uchai, Chaimal, Halam, Kukis, Garos and Mog. The BJP, which has aligned with the NC Debbarma faction of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), is leaving no stone unturned to upset the Manik Sarkar government’s calculations, as it banks on ‘anti-incumbency’ against the CPM-led Left Front, which has ruled the state for 34 years—from 1978 to 1988 and then from 1993 till date. Sarkar denies any anti-incumbency or erosion in Tribal support, and says historically there was always a section which was anti-Left. He accuses the BJP of disturbing the peace between Tribals and non-Tribals by aligning with the IPFT, floated in the 1990s with a demand for a separate state of Twipraland.

THE BJP IS optimistic in Tripura. In the two other election- bound northeastern states of Nagaland and Meghalaya, it is banking on alliances. “We are facing the toughest opponent here, someone who has mastered the art of electoral manipulation. Fortunately, our ‘Cholo Paltai’ call seems to have a huge traction with the people and that gives us hope,” says BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav.

Party sources say with the CPM banking on its committed vote bank, the BJP first aimed at consolidating the opposition vote in its favour. After ‘neutralising’ the Congress, the BJP then aimed at dividing the CPM vote. Of the 51 BJP candidates in fray, 23 are former Congress members. “We created a situation where there would be a direct fight between the BJP and Left. That itself took care of 46-47 per cent of the votes. Modi’s charisma and anti-incumbency added to it,” says Himanta Biswa Sarma, himself a former Congress man, and now a key BJP strategist for its northeast foray. Two years ago, had someone asked him which state would be toughest for the BJP, Sarma would have replied ‘Tripura’. But “not any longer.”

Many in the state say the arithmetic may be easier said than done. From 1.5 per cent in the last Assembly election, the BJP’s vote share had risen to just 5.87 per cent even during the Modi wave of the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The CPM’s vote share in the 2013 Assembly polls was 52.4 per cent and that of the Congress 44.1 per cent. BJP leader Sunil Deodhar, in charge of Tripura since 2014, says it is still a tough fight: “But we are confident because people are fed up. They want to breathe the fresh air of development.”

Amidst the Modi versus Manik battle, Biplab Dev, the 46-year- old undeclared face of the BJP in the state, is quietly trying to win hearts. He reels out a list of ‘discontentment’ with the Sarkar government, which he says includes cases of atrocities against women, high rate of unemployment and salaries for government employees going bby the Fourth rather than the Seventh Pay Commission, as elsewhere in the country. “Manik Sarkar is the Dritharashtra of Mahabharata. All those in his team are Duryodhans,” he says.

The CPM argues that Tripura’s rating was high on Human Development Index in terms of education, health, sanitation and social security measures. It, however, is not playing down the threat of the BJP, which now rules in three northeastern states. “Every election is difficult. This time the BJP has replaced Congress. Organisationally, it is stronger than the Congress, but I don’t think their campaign will have the edge to dislodge this government,” says CPM state secretary Bijan Dhar. Accusing the BJP of social engineering, he says the CPM has tried to ensure Tribal and non-Tribal unity while the BJP was attempting to divide them.

Meanwhile, the Congress, which has ten seats in the Assembly, seems to have reconciled to the race being between the Right and the Left. At Ujjayanta Palace, Pradyot Kishore Debbarma, working president of the state Congress party, meets around 20 party members. When he enquires about a youth Congress leader, Pradyot is told he is planning to switch over to the BJP. Pradyot picks up the phone and manages to convince him to stay in the Congress. “There’s anti-incumbency. There is also a lot of resentment. Communist ideology does not sit well with the youth. With social media and increasing awareness, there is a feeling they don’t have enough employment opportunities. People are yearning for more than Rabindra Sangeet,” says Pradyot, grandson of Bir Bikram Kishore Debbarma Manikya, Tripura’s former king, whom the BJP has been promoting as a Tribal icon representing the state’s culture.

“It’s ironic the BJP is cashing in on it. My grandfather was very secular and he allowed churches, mosques and temples to be built. It was post-1957 that millions of people came from outside into the state,” he says. What he refrains from saying is that his own party did not capitalise on Bir Bikram’s appeal. A recent meeting between Sarma and Pradyot sparked off speculation that the BJP, which does not have a credible Tribal face, was trying to get Pradyot on board.

Both Congress and BJP have refrained from launching a direct tirade against Sarkar, but have charged him with protecting corrupt party leaders. Tapas Dey, the state’s Congress vice-president, says, “He is not dishonest, but he is presiding over a corrupt government.” Dey, who studied with Sarkar in college where they were on opposite sides of the political divide in the students movement, recalls he was a good student from a poor family. Dey was in the NSUI, the Congress’ student wing, and Sarkar in the CPM’s SFI.

For now, they are fighting a bigger battle on different sides of the political aisle. But this time Sarkar faces an unfamiliar opponent— the BJP— which is pulling out all stops to conquer Tripura, one of only two Communist bastions left in the country.

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