Web Exclusive: Battleground Tripura

‘Red Flags Suddenly Disappeared’

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Signs of BJP storming this CPM citadel had been in the air several weeks ago

It was a fortnight to go before the election in Tripura. The taxis in Agartala had already been hired by political parties, mainly the BJP. Nokul Gup, a young autorickshaw driver, agreed to go down to the CPM office. “I have been voting for CPM, but it looks like the BJP may win this time,” he said pointing to a building where communist red flags had “suddenly disappeared.”

At the CPM office, it was all quiet. Most of its four floors were vacant with leaders away, campaigning. “They will come in the evening,” an office functionary said. Gup agreed to take the autorickahaw to the BJP office. A modest entrance with a poster of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, party president Amit Shah and former Tripura’s king Bir Bikram Kishore Debbarma Manikya led to a room where a party leader sat with around 20 people. The BJP was the first party to go down below the booth to the “prisht (page)” level and has devoted one party worker to every seven households in the state, he said.

Meanwhile, Biplab Dev, who was then the BJP’s undeclared chief ministerial candidate, was holding a road show in the heart of the city. Gup took directions from a BJP worker in Bengali. As the auto neared the road show, traffic slowed down. With crowds on either side of the road, Dev, along with his wife Niti, waved to people from a jeep, accompanied by 1,500 motorbikes. “Chalo paltai (lets bring change)”, some in the crowd shouted. Dev echoed the slogan. A young girl, who had come with her partly paralysed father, gave him a rose. Dev returned it to the old man. As it started getting dark and the road show was about to end, Gup repeated what he said earlier. “Looks difficult for Manik Sarkar this time.” He, however, does not change his mind about voting for CPM, the party which had been in power in the state for the past 25 years.

At the BJP’s election office, Dev, the 46-year-old former RSS worker who returned to Tripura three years ago to work for the party, said “people have stopped smiling in this state.” He had identified three priorities— law and order, employment and seventh pay commission— if the BJP came to power. Undaunted by the fact that he was taking on four-time Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, Dev said he was promising “smiles as against fears caused by CPM.” As trays of tea and local samosas werr served, Dev still has a long night ahead. Outside, a local BJP functionary said that if the Sarkar government was not defeated this time, the Left Front would remain in power for the next five decades.

It was at Sonamura two days later that the extent of the BJP’s breach of a long-held Marxist citadel became palpable. Hours before Modi was to address his first rally in the run-up to the Assembly election, people--Bengalis, tribals, Manipuris, youth and Muslims— walked distance of 5-7 km just to listen to the Prime Minister.

As the venue ground got filled, people stood on hillocks around it, jostling for a view. Standing on one of them, looking at the sea of people below on a clear morning, the winds of change blowing across Tripura’s political landscape felt BJP inclined. The crowd burst into thunderous applause when Modi said that nobody in the country had a clue what “kind of revolution is coming to Tripura”.

The discontent, weariness and cry for change had grown loud, reflected in the popularity of the part ‘Chalo Paltai’ slogan. More than anything else, it seemed to be a fear of missing out on a chance to test the BJP’s promise of development and jobs. That night in the hotel where BJP leaders including Ram Madhav, Himanta Biswa Sarma and Sunil Deodhar were camping, there was a muted sense of celebration. Modi’s rallies had caught the CPM on weak ground.

While the state’s political narrative revolved around the BJP storming the CPM’s last bastion in the country, the Congress had gone into oblivion. It was apparent that the Congress, many of whose local leaders--and voters--had switched allegiance to the BJP, had reconciled to this. That afternoon, a Congress rally addressed by party veteran Tarun Gogoi in the heart of Agartala was attended by barely 60 people. Last minute efforts were still being at the Ujjayanta Palace, where Pradyot Kishore Debbarma, working president of the state Congress party, was huddled with party leaders and candidates, to save some space for the party in the state. By then, it was too late.

CPM leaders clung on to hope. For a party which had won 49 of the Assembly’s 60 seats in the last state election, it was difficult to imagine being overthrown by a party with just 1.5 per cent vote share to form the next government. Sarkar was banking on what he described as his biggest achievement— tribal and non-tribal unity— and the “committed” Left vote.

But, as the results emerged on March 3rd to give the BJP a landslide victory, one wonders how many like Gup really voted for the CPM.