Of the three states, Tripura is the most crucial election and its outcome will be keenly watched on March 3. Meghalaya has been with the Congress and it is to be seen whether the party which has been fighting internal troubles will retain power in the state. The Naga People’s Front is in power in Nagaland where the BJP has been a partner
in the ruling Democratic Alliance of Nagaland for the last 15 years. Barring Tripura, the north-eastern region has been a stronghold of the Congress. But in the last few years, the Congress has gradually lost its grip on the region, while the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has expanded its political footprint. Having formed governments in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, the BJP is now eyeing Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya where assembly elections are scheduled to take place between February 18 and 27. Tripura went to the polls on Sunday. Nagaland and Meghalaya will vote on February 27.
In terms of their representation in Lok Sabha (25 seats), the north-eastern states are small. But elections to their legislative assemblies are significant for the north-east politics as a whole. Lately, these elections have become even more interesting because now there is a new national party, BJP, which has made significant inroads in the region where the party has been on a winning spree. With the BJP aiming to get a firm foothold in the region, assembly elections in these states have started gaining political significance. It is therefore not surprising that attention has once again shifted to the north-east.
Of the three states, Tripura is the most crucial election and its outcome will be keenly watched on March 3. Meghalaya has been with the Congress and it is to be seen whether the party which has been fighting internal troubles will retain power in the state. The Naga People’s Front is in power in Nagaland where the BJP has been a partner in the ruling Democratic Alliance of Nagaland for the last 15 years. With political scene in both states still fluid, all eyes are focused on Tripura where, for the first time in the state’s electoral history, the stage is set for a battle between two divergent ideologies: the Left and the Right.
Tripura is India’s third smallest state. It has been the CPM’s strong bastion for the last 25 years. Forced to share power alternately with the Congress in Kerala and having lost West Bengal to Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) in successive elections in 2011 and 2016, Tripura is the Left’s last remaining bastion. And it is here that the BJP has emerged as the main challenger. It is for this reason that the election in Tripura has assumed far greater significance than it usually merits.
In all elections since 1993, the contest in Tripura has always been between the Congress and the Communists. The Congress has never been a serious threat to the Left. Both parties are political adversaries, but ideologically they walk more or less the same path. But this time around, the challenger is a party that is the Left’s ideological adversary. Both the CPM and BJP are organisationally strong and have the support of well-oiled election machinery. The CPM’s major hope to swing the election in its favour is its four-time chief minister Manik Sarkar, though Sarkar is said to be fighting one of the toughest elections in the last 20 years.
The exponential growth of the BJP in the north-east has come about by acquiring local talent, mainly disgruntled Congress leaders, and teaming up with indigenous parties. BJP’s growth in Tripura is no different: six Congress MLAs who had quit the party to join the TMC in 2015 joined the BJP in 2017. Politics in Tripura is dictated by the fault lines between the Bengali-speaking majority and the 31 per cent indigenous people. Though peace, however fragile, has been restored in Tripura after the removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in 2015, politics in the state still thrives on majority-minority fault lines.
In 2013 assembly election, the CPM won 49 seats, the Congress 10 and the CPI 1 in the 60-member House. Of the 60 constituencies, at least 20 are dominated by tribals who have been strong supporters of the Marxist parties in the past. The BJP’s support base comes primarily from urban areas and among the Bengali-speaking majority. Its local ally in the state is the People’s Front of Tripura. The tribal vote, which is expected to split in the wake of promise made by the BJP on establishing an autonomous state council by enlarging the existing Tribal Autonomous District Council, will be a deciding factor in this election. The BJP has also promised to give recognition to the cultural identities of the tribes and allocate a large share of the state budget for tribal welfare.
However, the BJP is not without problems: its old guard and the acquired former Congress MLAs have been at loggerheads for greater control of the party. Whatever the problems, the party hopes that it is in a strong position to win the election, though reports suggest that Tripura may not be an easy election to win for the BJP. Like elections in other states earlier, the BJP is banking on Modi’s popularity to swing Tripura voters in the party’s favour. The party has also invested a lot of energy and resources to win the political-ideological battle.
The BJP’s strategy to woo the youth by focusing on the Left’s poor development record in the last 25 years may yield some result. Unemployment is a big problem in Tripura. The jobless constitute about 19 per cent of the state’s 37 lakh population. Poor infrastructure is another key problem. But what the BJP fears most is Tripura’s immensely popular chief minister. His simplicity, mass appeal and corruption-free record – he is called India’s poorest CM – have given him an aura that’s going to be hard to match. To his credit, the chief minister has been successful in battling and later ending militancy and extremism in the state. Sarkar has also taken some decisive steps towards economic development. But lack of investment has affected faster development and employment creation.
It’s not that the Left is not worried, particularly because it’s not going to be easy for the Marxists to counter 25 years of anti-incumbency sentiment. But more than the electoral battle, the bigger battle in Tripura is the battle of two opposite ideologies. For the Left, it’s a battle of survival: both political and ideological. Defeat in Tripura could easily mean slow death of Left politics in the country. As for the BJP, the Left is an anathema to its far-right Hindutva agenda.
The author is an independent senior journalist.