Having tightened its political grip around North-Eastern States after pocketing Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur and with an ally in control of Nagaland, the BJP is strategising a political assault on Tripura, one of the only two States ruled by the left Front and where polls are due next year.
The political momentum seemed to have picked up for the party after its chief Amit Shah undertook a two-day tour — May 6 and May 7 — to assess and review “the support” for the party in the State against the well-entrenched Manik Sarkar, the left Front’s fourth-term Chief Minister.
A third of Tripura’s Assembly is reserved for its tribal population which has traditionally and until now, supported the left party. Though it would not be an easy task to dislodge Sarkar, who holds an image of an “honest” politician, the BJP seeks to tie-up with the regional parties, build it own support base among non-tribal Bengali settlers, the community of Nath ‘Sampradaya’ and the Manipuris and reap the benefits of the long anti-incumbency against the left-rule in Tripura, as was the case in West Bengal.
During this visit, Shah underlined the party’s aim to form a Government in Tripura by trouncing the left before obtaining a ‘Congress-free’ North-East. Firmly in saddle in Assam, the BJP has formed Governments in Arunachal Pradesh and recently in Manipur while Naga People’s Front, a BJP ally, is in driving seat in Nagaland. Congress, which has been checked by the BJP in the North-East, only rules Mizoram and leads a coalition Government in Meghalaya. In Sikkim, the ruling party SDF is a member of the North-East Democratic Alliance, a BJP-forged anti-Congress grouping on the lines of NDA at the Centre.
The BJP hopes to wean away a large chunk of Bengali settlers who took refuge in Tripura from East Bengal. The influx of the Bengali Hindus increased during the Bangladesh liberation War. At present, there are around 2.2 million Bengali Hindus in Tripura, making them the largest ethnic group in the State, constituting around 60 per cent of the population.
Shah’s roadshow in the State this month drew sizeable supporters which was not seen during the 2014 general election. The membership of the BJP has swelled up multi-fold in last three years to more than 21 lakh in the State. In all elections and bypolls since 2014, the BJP has pushed the Congress behind it as the main Opposition party in the State.
The first indication of a change in the BJP’s fortune came in the 2015 Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council polls, when BJP finished second in five seats, gaining around 8 per cent vote share, ahead of the Congress and bringing about a decrease of around 10 per cent vote share for the CPI (M).
In the 2016 by elections, in two Assembly seats, the BJP gained new footholds. It finished second in a close contest, gaining about 35 per cent vote share, and was placed ahead of the other Opposition parties. The change is encouraging for the BJP given the fact that in the last Assembly polls in 2013, most of its candidates had lost their deposits.
In an apparent recognition of the BJP’s growing strength recently an entire block of 400 Trinamool Congress Party members joined it. The BJP also hopes that at least six Congress MlAs who at first moved to the TMC may finally cross over to it in next few months. The party is also looking at a tie up with one of the factions (if split takes place) within the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), demanding a separate State. BJP is willing to offer an autonomous council to IPFT.
Tripura has traditionally welcomed the settlement of non-tribals in its history. According to 2011 census, indigenous tribals comprising 19 communities have 31.05 per cent of the State’s population while 69.95 per cent are non-tribals including Manipuris.
Amongst the tribals, Tripuri or ‘Debbarman’ community form the vast majority of around 50 percent while the non-tribal population comprising by and large the Bengalis and a small number of Meithei and Vishnupriya Manipuris belong to various castes and sub-castes.
As Gujarat Assembly poll is due in November-December this year, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura will go to polls in early 2018.