For the first time in 25 years, the Left appears precariously perched

Pratim Ranjan Bose Recently in Tripura | Updated on January 22, 2018

A BJP supporter during party President Amit Shah’s recent rally in Ambasa, Tripura   -  PTI

For Joydeb Goswami, 45, who sells a cheap meal of rice and fish at Ambassa on the sole National Highway in Tripura, life has suddenly become exciting. “ Mone hochchhe poriborton hoye jabe (I think the government will change),” Goswami says.

Some 40 km from Ambassa, jhoom (shifting cultivation) farmer-couple Sagar Burman and Sitadevi sell coconuts on the roadside. They, too, anticipate change. The Burmans belong to the Tripuri, or Tipra, tribe, which once ruled the State and are now a Christian minority.

They will vote for the NC Debbarma-led Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), which has allied with BJP. Revived in 2009, this is the strongest force in the State after the ruling CPI(M), the IPTF has its base in the hill constituencies and has been demanding a separate tribal State of ‘Twipraland’.

While formal announcements are due, the IPFT has reportedly been offered 10 of the 20 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes.

Charged atmosphere

Goswami and Burman are no exceptions. From Sabroom in Tripura’s southern-most tip, to Dharmanagar on the northern corner, many believe the reign of the 25-year-old Left Front government will end as the State votes on February 18. Some reserved comment but confirmed that the contest is evenly poised.

And only a few who spoke to BusinessLine from within earshot of the CPI(M)’s offices, expect an easy win for the Left.

This is unprecedented for a State where the CPI(M)-led Left Front won 50 of 60 seats in the 2013 Assembly election, cornering nearly 54 per cent of votes polled. Also unprecedented is the spate of political violence.

Clashes between BJP and CPI(M) activists has now become a routine affair. On January 18, the day elections were announced, at least seven persons were injured in different parts of the State.

“I’ve never seen such a charged atmosphere for a long time,” said a small grocery shop owner at Baramura, approximately an hour’s drive from the capital city of Agartala.

Shift of the Congress vote

There are many reasons behind the change, the most important of which is the near-complete shift of Congress votes — of approximately 40 per cent — to the BJP.

The Congress ended 2013 with 10 seats and is now left with two. This is largely due to defection, initially to the Trinamool Congress, and eventually to BJP.

But the shift of the vote bank was not driven by leaders. On the contrary, traditional Congress activists, like Kartik Singh (56) of Sabroom, who are now upbeat about the BJP’s win, accuse the State Congress leadership of working as a ‘B-Team’ of the ruling CPI(M).

Singh, a commerce graduate, did not land a government job, practically the sole employment opportunity here, allegedly due to his affiliation to the Congress. None of the four children of Chittaranjan Saha (70) of Chakma Ghat got a job either.

Senior Congress leaders confide that the party’s common agenda with the CPI(M) at the Centre, and especially the Left-Congress coalition in West Bengal in 2016, had a serious impact on their image in Tripura. They are now hoping to play a spoiler to the BJP’s prospects in 2018.

Jobs, a major issue

But the shift of the Congress’ vote bank is not the CPI(M)’s biggest worry. In Chief Minister Manik Sarkar’s 20-year rule, Tripura witnessed much development: access to public utilities — electricity, roads, water — improved. One rarely comes across a beggar in Tripura.

What is missing though are revenue generation and employment opportunities. Officially, nearly two-third of the 35 lakh population is in the BPL category, and NREGA and other Central assistance schemes are a major income generator. This is creating unrest among the youth, who may play deciding roles in this election.

To add to the trouble, the Supreme Court recently ordered the termination of over 10,000 teachers, recruited in violation of parameters set by the Right To Education Act, 2009. The BJP has tapped this vote-bank by proposing a one-time concession by the Centre.

The party is also expected to gain the support of a significant section of State employees who are deprived of the benefits of the last two pay commission recommendations. To recruit more employees at same wage bill, Tripura freezes the salary of entry-level group C- and D-level staff for five years at barely ₹500-7,000 a month, lower than the earnings of a driver.

Rainbow alliance

Riding on the resentment against the Left, the BJP has tried to form a rainbow alliance. So far, they have been partly successful. An alliance with the IPFT has been struck. According to party’s State in-charge, Sunil Deodhar, discussions are on with Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl’s Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT), which wields significant influence in at least three seats.

Sources said efforts are also on to rope in Rajeswar Debbarma’s IPFT (Twipraha) which controls the fate of at least one seat.

Will these parties be able to stitch together a coalition? Both the INPT and the IPFT (Twipraha) oppose the IPFT’s claim for separate State. Naturally, their inclusion in the alliance will improve the prospect of the BJP-led coalition in the Bengali dominated plains.

But, if the votes are divided, the Left will surely have a clear edge in the 20 tribal districts that they traditionally pocket.

BJP convinced IPFT to drop the demand for Statehood in the poll manifesto. They also expect the demand to die a natural death once Parliament clears a Bill for creating a State Council, replacing the existing district councils that have limited freedom.

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Published on January 22, 2018
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