Written by Harihar Bhattacharyya.
The BJP-IPFT alliance swept the Tripura State Assembly elections held on 18 February 2018 by winning 43 out of 59 Assemblies. The incumbent CPI-M led Left Front government, in power for 25 long years, won only 16 seats. Unexpectedly, the BJP secured an absolute majority by winning 35 seats with good margins of victory in the constituencies.
Tripura is a small hilly state in India’s northeast. Tripura’s national electoral importance is meagre because it sends only two Members to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament, and only one to the Rajya Sabha, the second chamber. But for the Hindu right-wing BJP, this victory was ideological. A strong Left influence in the state has sustained since the late 1940s. The CPI-M led Left Front – an Indian version of social democracy – formed the first Left government in the state in 1978 and ruled for 10 years. Although the BJP managed to form coalition governments with regional and local parties in the regions in four of the eight states in India’s northeast, Tripura is the only one where the party has won a majority on its own.
The BJP’s partner, the IPFT, is a tribal separatist party which has been demanding a separate state called Twipraland. A similar demand was made by the now defunct TUJS from which it sprang. The success of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC for short), institutionalised by the Left in Tripura in 1985 as a territorial recognition of tribal identity in two-thirds of the state on the eastern side, has encouraged the newly emerged tribal elites to separate out of Tripura.
The slogan cholo paltai (“let us change” in Bengali) worked particularly for the young voters of both the Bengali and tribal communities, about one-fourth of the total voters, who had not seen any alternative in their life time
However, the support bases of the IPFT party, and its predecessors such as the INPT and the TUJS, dwindled. With only 20 seats reserved for the tribal communities, the chance of sharing in governmental powers was always bleak if the party went alone in the fray. The last time an alliance with a national level party (Congress) was successful was in 1988 when the alliance defeated the Left and formed the state government in 1988 (1988-93). The separatist demand for a state out of Tripura in the mostly hilly and barren land is unlikely to be met, but given the BJP’s own absolute majority in the Assembly, governmental stability is assured. The IPFT got two ministerial portfolios of lesser importance (revenues and fisheries; and tribal welfare) with the Chief Minister, an RSS man, keeping most of the more important departments such as Home, PWD, IT, general administration, Police and so on. Of the 9 ministers, 3 have had criminal charges against them, and 6 are crorepati (billionaires), placing them as clear elites.
There were three factors which made the incumbent Left government’s position too heavy to defend in this election. The slogan cholo paltai (“let us change” in Bengali) worked particularly for the young voters of both the Bengali and tribal communities, about one-fourth of the total voters, who had not seen any alternative in their life time. These voters were promised jobs and smart phones by the BJP. Reliable local sources suggest that many got one during the campaign. Thousands of youth voters deserted from the CPI-M to the BJP. Nearly all Congress voters joined the bandwagon. In the land locked state, entering the workforce is not easy, so the promise of jobs paid off.
Second, there was a beneficial politics of civil society operating in Tripura for the BJP as in some other states in India. Many welfare and charitable associations run by the RSS, the BJP’s ideological mentor, have been working in tribal areas offering education including hostel facilities and heath care. Such successful private welfare support through associations like the Vanavais Kalyan Samity (Tribal Welfare Association) has assured tribal support for the BJP.
The BJP-IPFT’s victory washed out any trace of the TMC and Congress Party from Tripura. This meant that the approximately 40 per cent of votes for the Opposition in Tripura when the Left was previously in power transferred to the BJP in this election
Third, the outgoing 66 year old Chief Minister Manik Sarkar’s image as the least decadent Chief Minister in India did not pay off this time in the face of a younger chief ministerial candidate of the BJP, Biplab Kumar Deb, and a very high profile campaign led by such figures as Prime Minister Modi himself, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, and of course party President Amit Shah. Senior RSS leaders from Mumbai and Madhya Pradesh stood by from quite early on.
On the whole, though, the BJP victory is to be taken with a pinch of salt. Before the elections, leaders and members of the Trinamul Congress (TMC) defected and joined the BJP. They were previously part of the Tripura State Congress. So the BJP-IPFT’s victory washed out any trace of the TMC and Congress Party from Tripura. This meant that the approximately 40 per cent of votes for the Opposition in Tripura when the Left was previously in power transferred to the BJP in this election. The same could not be said though with respect to the Left because in real terms the margins of victory between the BJP (winner) and the Left (loser), is only about 6000 votes. Most of those elected as BJP candidates were former Congress and TMC men and women.
Over the last three decades or so, Tripura has been known as a well-governed state in all the yardsticks of governance: rule of law; growth of State Gross Domestic Product; per capita income; better livelihood opportunity; better physical infrastructural development; better implementation of all the centrally sponsored and funded schemes of development and empowerment, and so on. The state scored the highest rank in many years for implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (promising 100 days rural employment). The Central government’s statistical data and the very recent detailed researches on Tripura confirm that the state’s performance in many respects was even higher than that of the so-called advanced states of India, including Gujarat. No wonder the BJP-INPT’s campaign was ‘cholo paltai’, and not the usual issues of corruption, or the deterioration of law and order. But then, good governance does not always produce good politics.
Democracy’s ‘veto power’ is often unpredictable for all brands of politicians. But the BJP’s Tripura victory does not carry much of a message for the rest of India because of the State and region specific issues and political actors that vary vastly depending on the context.
Harihar Bhattacharyya is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Burdwan, West Bengal (India). He published his research on the politics in North East India, Tripura and other Indian States in Radical Politics and Governance in India’s North east: The Case of Tripura (2018) and co-authored Politics and Governance in Indian States Bihar, West Bengal and Tripura (2018) with Subrata K Mitra.. Image credit: CC by arindambanerjee / Shutterstock.com.