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Tales from Tripura
One of the last strongholds of the Left is under serious threat by a resurgent BJP
Irregular verbs are meat and drink to Indian politics. So, just as you perspire while he sweats like a pig, the North-eastern State of Tripura is ‘tiny' when it comes to the BJP making inroads but was routinely described as a ‘significant Left stronghold' in the years that it was one omitting any mention of size. Well, surrounded by Bangladesh on three sides, the State is in geographical terms not too large; electorally, too, sending just two MPs to the Lok Sabha, it has for decades not really been considered a priority by major national parties (excluding the minor CPI-M). All that has changed, however, and despite the coolness that is said to exist between BJP patriarch LK Advani and party president Amit Shah, in a strange twist of fate or perhaps an irony of history, it is under the latter's leadership that the ‘main ideological foe' identified by the former is being taken on, on the ground.
As the countdown begins for the Assembly poll in Tripura, votes for which are scheduled to be cast on February 18 for all 60 seats up for grabs, the incumbent 69-year-old, four-time Chief Minister Manik Sarkar of the CPI-M is being made to sweat like never before. In power since 1998 in the erstwhile Hindu kingdom which among others boasts of the legendary Dev Burman clan in Hindi film music as its proud children, the leader is known for his spartan lifestyle and was in a recent survey identified as the poorest Chief Minister in India. Indeed, it is the very ‘povertarian' politics promoted by the resolutely middle-class leadership of the CPI-M that seems to be coming back to bite it in its soft parts. For, the main issues that a resurgent BJP — which has built up its cadre in the State over the past three years filling the vacuum created by the shrinking of the Congress Party and other anti-Left forces — has raised and is gaining traction on are unemployment, poor transport links, lack of connectivity and the absence of industry. On the flip side, the party-state model of the Left Front which kept it in power in neighbouring West Bengal for over three decades has provided a template for Tripura too and to dislodge deeply entrenched interests of a highly literate populace will not be as easy for the BJP as some reports indicate.
The 40 seats in the plains of Tripura are going to be closely fought by all indications and the consensus seems to be that it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi's appeal that has provided the BJP with the fillip it needed; in a final push, the Prime Minister will address two rallies in the State on Thursday while Amit Shah has been camping in the State capital Agartala since February 11. It must not be forgotten, however, that the gains very likely to be made by saffron forces may not convert automatically into seats given the BJP started with a really low base of under two per cent of the popular vote in the 2013 Assembly Poll compared to the CPI-M's 48 per cent. The BJP electoral strategy seems to be premised on breaking through in about 20 targeted seats from the plains and aggressively wooing Tripura's 30 per cent tribal population (comprising 19 tribes), once considered a firm Left vote-bank, to maximise their wins in the 20 Tribal seats in alliance with the dominant faction of the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT) which it has convinced to drop its demand for a separate State carved out of tribal areas, offering an autonomous state council in lieu.
Whatever the result, the battle certainly has been joined.
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