Written by Subir Bhaumik.

Tiny Tripura, encircled on all sides by Bangladesh and connected to India by a small corridor in Assam’s Barak valley, has only two seats in the lower house of Indian parliament and one in the upper house.

In the country’s ballot box democracy where numbers count, Tripura understandably is consigned to the margins. But February 2018’s polls to the state assembly have assumed much importance for three reasons. Firstly, for the first time, the state witnessed a saffron surge, with the BJP, that has so far failed to win a single seat in the state assembly, emerging as the main challenger to the ruling Left Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The second is the BJP’s alliance with a tribal party, IPFT, that demands the creation of a separate tribal state carved out of the Tripura’s hill region, promises the repeat of the spectre in Kashmir where the saffrons are in a tight spot over their alliance with the PDP. Finally, as the most secure bastion of India’s Left, the polls raised the question of its survival as an effective force in Indian politics.

Two other issues were kicked up by the poll campaign in Tripura. The first is whether regional stability concerns move voters more than national issues – as Chief Minister Manik Sarkar’s success in crushing tribal insurgency (a huge plus in an electorate dominated by Bengali settlers) and opening up of the Asuganj-Chittagong route to connect to Indian mainland by sea was pitted against the BJP’s promise to create a private sector driven job-creating economy (which is not exactly something the Marxists have done well).  The second is whether PM Modi can swing the electorate in a Bengali-dominated state where the BJP lacks local faces and where the party’s main campaign manager from Assam, minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, had touched raw nerves by opening the citizenship issue when he threatened to send Manik Sarkar to Bangladesh after the polls.

Location of Tripura
The state of Tripura in Northeast India. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.

Even the redoubtable Santosh Mohan Dev, Rajiv Gandhi’s Man Friday in the Northeast, did not dare make such a threat when he dethroned the Left Front from power in 1988, the only time the Reds have lost the state since they first assumed office in 1978. Dev, like Sarma, was from Assam, albeit from the Bengali-speaking Barak valley and not from the Assamese-speaking Brahmaputra valley where Sarma hails from.

Therein hangs a tale. Dev was familiar with the dynamics of Tripura and the chemistry of its East Bengali dominant politics; so different from West Bengal and Assam. He generated panic not only among his Left opponents but among his own Bengali-speaking partymen in Calcutta. Rhetoric apart, Dev tied up with the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti and its underground ally, the Tribal National Volunteers (TNV). The TNV unleashed an orgy of violence against Bengali settlers, and Dev hit the streets demanding President’s Rule as well as the induction of the army. Tripura’s then chief minister, Nripen Chakraborty, was opposed to these demands on the grounds that they would alienate the tribal people. Dev lost no time projecting the Left as anti-Bengali to effect a swing of the majority vote towards the Congress. The Left lost out by two seats: it got 28 in a 60-member House with the Congress-TUJS winning 32.

Sarma has touched raw nerves with his threat to send Sarkar to Bangladesh. Given the background of tens and thousands of Bengali speakers not finding their names in the National Register of Citizens in Assam, an exercise in which Sarma played a leading role, Sarma’s comment is being seen as a threat to the citizenship of Tripura’s majority population of East Bengali origin.

The BJP has teamed up with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, giving it nine seats against the BJP’s 51. But Sarma has been silent on the IPFT’s contentious demand of carving out ‘Tipraland’ out of Tripura’s tribal areas. He merely said that the BJP would address the socio-economic, cultural and linguistic issues of the tribal people in Tripura.

The comment on Sarkar and the deal with the IPFT have not only upset the East Bengali settlers who make up more than 70 per cent of Tripura’s population but also challenged the idea of Bengali-tribal unity (jati-upajati aikyo) and the sense of shared destiny.

What works in Assam does not work in Tripura. So Sarma may have done better by building on the RSS’s sustained campaign to create an anti-Left sentiment by playing on the young generation’s fears of unemployment and the lack of development, the bane of the Left’s performance in the state. Sarma’s comments and his demand for President’s Rule on the grounds of failing law and order appear far-fetched in the light of a report by the Union home ministry that shows Tripura to be one of the most peaceful states in the country. Politics is not about playing to the opponent’s strength but its weakness.

Sarkar is India’s only chief minister who ordered and executed a series of covert strikes against rebel bases in Bangladesh to crush tribal insurgency in Tripura without the kind of chest-thumping triumphalism that the BJP exhibited after the surgical strikes in Myanmar or Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Sarma is expecting the IPFT to deliver through its underground ally, the National Liberation Front of Tripura, a separatist organization that staged a violent campaign like that of the TNV’s attacks in 1988. That may scare away voters and Left candidates alike and ensure an IPFT sweep in the 20 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes, leaving the BJP to win a dozen seats to form the government. This means that the BJP is reconciled to a Kashmir-like situation in Tripura where it plays a junior partner to the Peoples Democratic Party. But the weakened NLFT is not able to do what the TNV did in 1988, despite reports that it has helped IPFT terrorise tribal voters in many areas of hill Tripura. The prospect of violence would polarize the electorate on ethnic lines, ensuring a Left sweep in the 40 Bengali-dominated seats.

A BJP victory in Tripura will raise questions about the survival of the Indian Left as a political force in India (because Kerala swings the other way every five years and West Bengal seems lost to the Reds forever). But if Manik Sarkar survives the saffron onslaught, he not only emerges as the tallest Left leader in the country (a grassroot fighter compared to the coffee-house Karat-Yechury breed) and the CPI(M) may do well to consider projecting him as the next party general secretary and sending MP and tribal leader Jiten Chowdhury as chief minister.  West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is closely watching the Tripura polls because a saffron victory (or even a stellar performance close to victory) would expose her to a more determined challenge ahead of panchayat and the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Subir Bhaumik is BBC’s former bureau chief for East & Northeast India and author of three acclaimed books on Northeast India — “Insurgent Crossfire”, “Troubled Periphery”, and “Agartala Doctrine”. Image Credit: CC by India Elections/ Flickr


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