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Nuances of the Left Debacle in Tripura

V Bijukumar (vbijuk@yahoo.co.in) is with the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The electoral and political debacle of the left in Tripura is a culmination of long-term social churning. Discontent among the tribal population as well as the divide between tribal and Bengali communities were effectively utilised by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has led to precipitous erosion of the base of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The loss in the hitherto stronghold of Tripura added to the colossal defeat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(M)—in the general elections in 2019. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) captured both seats—West Tripura and East Tripura—from the CPI(M) in the state. It is noteworthy that since 1996, the CPI(M) has been winning consecutively from both these seats. West Tripura and East Tripura witnessed a multi-cornered contest between the Congress, BJP, CPI(M) and the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT). The BJP captured both the constituencies from the CPI(M). The IPFT, an ally of the BJP in the 2018 assembly election, pulled out of the BJP government over its difference over the BJP candidacy in East Tripura. It also raised protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) and renewed its long-standing demand for a separate tribal state within Tripura. With its alliance with the BJP, it won eight seats out of the nine it contested in the assembly election, and the party was instrumental in dislodging the left government. However, close to the 2019 elections, many leaders of the IPFT shifted to the Congress. In West Tripura, the CPI(M) won the seat 12 times since the first Lok Sabha election in 1952, while the Congress won four times. The Congress for Democracy, a breakaway faction of the party, secured the seat in 1977. In 2014, the CPI(M) candidate Sankar Prasad Datta had won by a huge margin. In West Tripura constituency, the BJP’s Pratima Bhowmik defeated Congress candidate Subal Bhowmik. In East Tripura, the BJP’s Rebati Tripura defeated the Congress’s Pragya Debburman. In the state as a whole, the BJP emerged as the dominant force, bagging 49.03% votes as against the Congress (25.34%), while the CPI(M) and the IPFT got 17.31% and 4.16%, respectively. The BJP with its government in the state could shrink the mass base of the CPI(M), as its vote share plummeted to 17.31% against 64.77% in the 2014 general elections. The Congress is emerging as a major player in the state politics and its vote share has gone up to 25.34% from 1.7%. It emerged as the runner-up in both the seats. Although the CPI(M) has 16 members of the legislative assembly, it could not emerge from the colossal defeat in the assembly election in 2018. It has been pushed to the third position in both the constituencies.

Halting the Communist Rule

In fact, the continuing political slowdown of the left in Tripura began in the 2018 assembly election, which ended the 25 years of the CPI(M)’s continuous rule in the state. The BJP, which halted the CPI(M) juggernaut, represented an ideological contestation between the Marxists and the Hindu nationalists. Its desire for power in the relatively smaller state of Tripura goes beyond mere capture of political power.

The BJP’s slogan of “Chalo Paltai” (Let’s Change) invoked a magnetic effect on both the dominant Bengali and the indigenous tribal communities. In the state with 60 onstituencies—30 for the general, 20 for the Scheduled Tribe (ST) and 10 for the Scheduled Caste (SC)—the party capitalised on the discontent of both the Bengalis and the tribals and caught the imagination of a cross section of the society.

In the 2018 election, the BJP contested in 50 seats and nine seats went in favour of the IPFT. While the Congress contested 51 seats, the CPI(M) put up candidates for 57 seats and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) for 24 seats. In the election verdict, the BJP secured more than absolute majority by winning 35 seats and the ruling CPI(M) could secure only 16 seats. The IPFT, which inked a pre-poll alliance with the BJP, secured eight seats and the Congress drew a blank. Although the BJP secured 35 seats, the difference in percentage of votes was marginal as the BJP’s vote share was 43% against the CPI(M)’s 42.7%.

We need to remember that Tripuraattained full statehood in January 1972, along with Meghalaya and Manipur. With a literacy rate of 87.22%, it is the second largest state in the North East after Assam. In 1977, the Left Front formed its first government and repeated the same performance in elections held in 1983, 1993, 1998, 2003, 2008 and 2013. During 1988–93, the Congress ruled the state with the support of the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti, a tribal party. In 1998, Manik Sarkar became the chief minister, beating the anti-incumbency wave. During the 25 years of the communist rule, the government was able to bring peace in the once trouble-torn state. In the 1990s, the state witnessed turbulent years in its history with massive abductions and killings. The Left Front was able to consolidate its mass base by transforming the state from militancy to normalcy, strengthening the public distribution system and implementing other welfare policies. The communist regime was able to maintain social harmony between the majority Bengali and the minority indigenous tribal communities, even though its popular support largely came from the Bengalis. It needs mentioning that 80% of the state’s 37 lakh people are Bengali-speaking Hindus, mostly having migrated from Bangladesh. It is often argued that while the left in Kerala is rooted in the social reform movement, the left in West Bengal is rooted in the trade union movement. In Tripura, it is based on the support extended by the immigrant Bengali community.

Simmering Tribal Discontent

Perhaps, the CPI(M)’s colossal defeat in the assembly election was the result of the decline in social harmony between the tribal communities and the Bengalis. The social balance and harmony between the two communities were worn out over the years of the Left Front rule. Around 60% of the state’s total area is inhabited by the tribal community called Tripuris and the tribals constitute around 20% of the state population. Hence, the tribal community is a dominant factor in around 20 constituencies. A simmering discontent engulfed the tribal communities as they felt that the communist regime unduly tilted towards the dominant Bengali community and denied them employment opportunities and other material benefits. The IPFT often raised the issue of systematic marginalisation of the indigenous communities at the hands of the Bengalis. In fact, such marginalisation has been traced back to the 1960s, when a large portion of tribal lands were transferred to non-tribals. It has been observed that

the Tripura Land Reforms and Land Revenue Act was passed in 1960 to stop land alienation from tribal to non-tribal communities. However, the steady inflow of migrants has complicated this problem. (Debbarma and Debbarma 2009: 173)

Adding to their worries, the non-tribal moneylenders gave loans against land to tribals at exorbitant rates of interest. In addition to the material deprivation, there was a growing feeling of cultural impoverishment among tribals due to illegal migration. On 10 June 1967, Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti was formed to revive the traditional cultural symbols and practices of the tribals against Bengali culture. Since 2009, the IPFT has been demanding a separate state called Twipra for the tribals by carving out the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) from the state of Tripura. During the Left Front rule, unemployment emerged as a grave problem among the tribal community. In 2017, the state witnessed violent activities like blockade and bandhs by the tribal organisations to press the demand for employment.

In its assembly election campaign, the BJP highlighted the insensitivity towards the condition of the tribals in the state. The BJP could mobilise the simmering discontent of the tribals in its favour. It was able to create a misconception that during the 25 years’ CPI(M) rule, the Bengalis mostly benefited at the cost of the tribals, as there was only minimal representation of tribals in the ministry and government services. At the same time, the BJP adopted a pragmatic strategy striking a political balance between the Bengalis and the indigenous tribal communities in its mobilisation strategy. Without antagonising the interests of the Bengali community, it was able to champion the cause of the tribal community, who over time became minorities in their own land due to the migration of Bengali community and their access to resources and political power in the state. Pitching its development agenda during the 2018 election campaign, the BJP promised special economic zones for food processing, bamboo, textile and information technology sector. Close to the election, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the convener of the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), stitched together the alliance between the BJP and the IPFT. Going along with the IPFT, it once again underlined the need for aligning with the smaller parties and making use of the resources. The BJP broke the class politics of the left with a pragmatic use of identity politics as it also utilised both ethno-regionalism and Hindu nationalism to achieve political power. In the election campaign, the left heavily relied on
the personal image of the Chief Minister Manik Sarkar as the “poorest chief minister” in India. The BJP highlighted the non-implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission because of which the state employees were getting their salaries according to the Fourth Pay Commission. In fact, the BJP’s vision document promised the implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission and thereby secured the support of the employees too. As a result, a sizeable number of Bengali Hindus shifted their loyalty to the BJP. Thus, the party strategically used the state’s demographic composition to firm up its foothold in the state.

Appropriation of Tribal King

The BJP adopted a strategy of appropriating Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Debbarman Manikya Bahadur (19 August 1908–17 May 1947), the last tribal ruler, to the Hindu fold. The Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government took the decision of installing a 184-feet bronze statue of Bir Bikram Kishore, the 184th king of Tripura’s Manikya Dynasty, which ruled Tripura for more than 300 years. In fact, such appropriation came in the light of the BJP’s indictment of both the Congress and the left for not giving due recognition to the king’s contribution to Tripura’s development.

Bir Bikram Kishore, who ruled Tripura from 1923 to 1947, merged Tripura with independent India. Commonly described as the architect of modern Tripura, the king initiated land reforms and reserved land for the indigenous Tripuris in the 1930s, and also set up schools and colleges and constructed an airport. Adorned at the age of 16 and died at the age of 39, the king also played a critical role in the formation of the present TTAADC. However, the premature death of Bir Bikram Kishore engulfed Tripura in political uncertainty as his son Kirti Bikram Kishore Manikya was too young to become king which forced Kanchan Prava Devi, his mother and widow of Bir Bikram Kishore, to become the Regent who ruled on behalf of her younger son. In fact, the Regent signed the agreement of accession on 13 August 1947 and on 15 October 1949 Tripura merged with the Indian Union.

On 19 September 2013, speaking in a seminar in Agartala on the occasion of the golden jubilee of the Tripura legislative assembly, Chief Minister Manik Sarkar revealed that the members of Tripura’s Manikya Royal family under Bir Bikram Kishore wanted to merge Tripura with the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). However, sensing the public sentiment, Bir Bikram Kishore before his death expressed his desire to keep Tripura with the Indian Union. He revealed that Bir Bikram Kishore also planned its integration with Assam. It needs mentioning that the States Reorganisation Commission constituted in 1953 proposed to merge Tripura with Assam. However, the proposal was finally dropped and Tripura became a union territory on 1 November 1956 and achieved statehood in 1972.

The BJP’s appropriation of Bir Bikram Kishore can be seen in the larger context of wooing the tribal community in its fold. It, in fact, has been using the tribal indigeneity to counter the consolidation and domination of the CPI(M) regime in the state. It was also hoping that the appropriation of Bir Bikram Kishore would bring more political dividends in its favour, as well as help counter the emergence of TMC, which has been replacing the Congress, the principal opposition in the state (Bijukumar 2017).

Community Divide

The victory in the assembly election can be seen as a collective work of the BJP leaders like Ram Madhav, Himanta Biswa Sarma and Sunil Deodhar. The BJP could make massive inroads into the Congress vote share. For instance, in the 2013 assembly election, the Congress got 36.5% vote share and in the 2018 assembly election it got considerably reduced to 1.8%. The Congress tally in the assembly reduced to zero against its 10 in the 2013 election. Its vote share among various communities decreased dramatically in the 2018 election. For instance, among the general community, its vote share reduced to 2.2% compared to 45.6% in 2013. The vote share among the SCs was 1.3% compared to the previous tally of 44.1% in 2013. Among the STs, the Congress could garner only 1.4% vote share against 43.4% in 2013.

The BJP could also take away some slices from the CPI(M)’s pie, as is evident from the CPI(M)’s reduced vote share of 42.6% compared to its 2013 tally of 48.11%. The decline in vote share of the CPI(M) was across the communities in the state. For instance, among the tribals, there was a dip in the vote share to 46.3% compared to 53.5% in 2013. Among the SCs, which constitute around 17.8% of the population, the CPI(M)’s vote share reduced to 46.3% in contrast to 53.5% in 2013. Among the general community too the dip was visible, as its vote share reduced to 46.6% compared to 52.3% in 2013. The BJP made major inroads among the various communities increasing its vote share as compared to the 2013 election. For instance, among the general community, the party got a vote share of 49.7% in contrast to 2% in 2013. Among the SCs, the vote share jumped to 50.6% as compared to 1.3% in 2013.

Although the victory is astounding, it was the culmination of systematic campaign and mobilisation by the BJP in the state. It needs mentioning that, though the CPI(M) was the dominant force in the state, the BJP has been making inroads in rural areas over the years. For instance, the percentage of votes secured by the BJP in the CPI(M)-ruled state was 7.82% (2004), 2.72% (2009) and 5.7% (2014). Although there was a slight decline in the percentage of votes secured by the BJP in the 2014 general elections in contrast to the 2004 general elections, the subsequent trends proved that the BJP had not abandoned its electoral ambition in the red bastion of the region. On 3 May 2015, in the TTAADC election, the BJP got 7.87% of the votes. In the by-elections for two assembly seats in June 2015, the BJP secured 23.33% votes, though the CPI(M) retained both the SC reserved states. Subsequently, in the 15 July 2014 gram panchayat poll, the BJP won 141 of the 6,111 seats and won a majority in five gram panchayats for the first time. Interestingly, the CPI(M) often blamed the Congress and TMC for the rise of the BJP in Tripura. A detailed analysis of the electoral verdict in 2018 shows that the BJP’s stupendous victory over the communists was due to multiple factors. Its mobilisation and strategy often extended beyond mere political gain. In other words, the BJP’s emergence in Tripura was the result of its long-term multipronged strategy of constructing a counter narrative among the tribal communities and rousing the tribal sentiments against the dominant Bengali community. At the same time, in order to capture the imagination of the Bengali community, the party highlighted the developmental paralysis, growing unemployment problems and the inadequate salary conditions of the government employees. Added to this, the disarray of opposition parties such as the TMC and Congress gave space for the BJP. Both these parties witnessed frequent political defection of their legislators and often fell under the poaching strategy of the BJP.

Since March 2018, in the aftermath of the ascendancy of the BJP, the state witnessed sporadic political violence as left cadres were attacked, its party offices were burned down and the statues of communist icons were demolished by the BJP activists. The BJP cadres with the overt support of the government unleashed a situation of fear and intimidation, which in fact resulted in the demoralisation of the left forces in the state. In the subsequent local body elections, the left alleged that the party cadres of the ruling dispensation intimidated its candidates and snatched their nomination papers leading to the massive win of the BJP in the panchayat polls. In another jolt to shatter and demoralise the left, the Congress was able to re-emerge as the potential alternative to the BJP in the state. Though the Congress’s chief Pradyot Deb Barman and other more than half a dozen leaders left the party and joined the BJP recently, the Congress seems to be filling the political vacuum created by the left.

In Conclusion

The left debacle in Tripura is the culmination of the social and political churning that has been taking place in the state for quite some time. Hindutva’s political project of appropriating the tribal king and constructing counter narratives, arousing ethnic sentiments among the tribal communities and regaining the support of the dominant Bengali community through its development rhetoric not only dislodged the left dominance, but also firmed up the BJP’s footsteps in the state. Although the simmering discontent on the issue of the CAB strained the cosy relationship between the tribal communities and the BJP, the left failed to capitalise the political atmosphere in its favour and regain its lost pre-eminence in the general elections. In fact, the sustained and calculated campaign of the BJP in North East India is inching towards realising its goal of “Congress-free north-east.” However, its subsidiary social and political actions produced a “left-free Tripura.”

References

Bijukumar, V (2017): “Politics of Counter-narratives and Appropriation,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol LII, No 18, pp 12–13.

Debbarma, Sukhendu and Mousami Debbarma (2009): “Fifth Victory in a Row for CPI(M) in Tripura,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 44, No 39, 26 September, pp 172–73.

Updated On : 22nd Oct, 2019

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