The sociopolitical dynamics of Tripura distinguish it not only from other Northeastern states but also from other Indian states. It is the only state where the CPM has remained in power since 1978, barring the period 1988-1992 when a Congress-led coalition held power. Since then, entrenched ideological-ethnic fault lines have ensured that elections in the state are fraught with political violence.
Moreover, of all the states in the Northeast, Tripura witnessed the sharpest demographic change on account of the influx of Hindu Bengali refugees from Bangladesh in the aftermath of Partition and the 1971 war. As a result, the indigenous tribal population has been relegated to the status of a minority, constituting 30 per cent of the state’s population.
Tripura as a party-society
Over the past four decades, the dominant political and electoral narrative of Tripura has become simple: one is either pro-CPM or anti-CPM, a division that permeates all sections of society. As Shekhar Dutta, a senior journalist, says, “The domineering presence of CPM in Tripura is a classic example of the state’s conversion into a party-society in which nothing is beyond the purview of the political gaze. In this aspect, it surpasses West Bengal. Even mundane things are deeply linked to political affiliations and loyalties.”
From our field visits to all parts of Tripura during Sept-Oct 2017, Jan 2018 and Feb 2018, we found that entrenched political divisions inform the everyday lives of the people. There was hardly any village that did not have a narrative of people being discriminated or rewarded in matters of allotment of monthly rations or allocation of works under MNREGA, etc, on the basis of their political loyalties. Every village was politically divided into pro- and anti-CPM camps. If the CPM was seen as a saviour by the former, it was a demon to the latter. Therefore, one has witnessed in recent months several violent intra-tribal clashes based on loyalties to the anti-CPM Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT) and the CPM’s Tripura Upajati Gan Mukti Parishad (TUGMP). This divide exists even among the Bengali ethnic group, which constitutes 70% of the population but is primarily concentrated in 32% of the territory.
Left Front dominance
Since Tripura became a red bastion in 1978 and until the 2013 Assembly election, Congress used to be the focal point of the anti-CPM sections in the state. In five elections since 1993, when the Left Front began its unbroken rule, the Congress-TUJS consistently received more than 40% of the vote. The difference in vote percentage between the CPM and the Congress-led alliance was in the range of 5-8%. The BJP’s vote share was 1.54% in the 2013 Assembly election, and rose only to 5.77% in the 2014 Lok Sabha election despite the Narendra Modi wave. The CPM defeated Congress candidates in the two Lok Sabha seats in the state by margins of almost five lakh votes, bagging a whopping 65% vote share. The wining momentum of the Left Front continued into the elections to panchayats (July 2014), the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (May 2015) and nagar panchayats and municipal councils (2015).
However, this zenith of electoral successes by the CPM during 2013-2015 had a profound bearing upon the political dynamics of the state. The Congress lost the confidence of the vast majority of anti-CPM voters. This created a space for a more credible alternative.
Rise of the BJP
In its post-2014 avatar, the BJP set its eyes on Tripura in a bid to encircle the Left as part of its aim of realizing a Communist-mukt Bharat. Sunil Deodhar, BJP national executive member and Narendra Modi’s poll manager in Varanasi during the 2014 Lok Sabha election, was made the in-charge of Tripura. He immediately set upon the task of an organizational overhaul. Backed by the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, the BJP lost no opportunity to be seen as an alternative to the discredited Congress and as a determined rival of the CPM.
Since early 2016, the BJP’s claim to being the principal opposition force to the CPM was endorsed in the byelections to three Assembly constituencies in which it outperformed the Congress and earned the runner-up status. During our field work across the state, an overarching majority of anti-Left respondents, both tribal as well as Bengali, batted for the BJP while acknowledging that they had been Congress voters in the last Assembly election. This indicates a near complete shift of the Congress support to the BJP. Further, to win the war of perception and increase its winnability quotient, the BJP adopted a strategy of attracting major Congress leaders to its fold. It systematically highlighted the failures of the Left Front government; it made economic and cultural promises that have a popular resonance; and launched a high-profile campaign with star campaigners at the top and thousands of activists and volunteers at the base.
Unlike the Congress, BJP mirrors the CPM in terms of its organizational structure and cadre base. By turning the 25 years of anti-incumbency into an advantage, making populist promises such as the 7th Pay Commission to 1.5 lakh government employees, and entering into an alliance with the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT), the BJP has emerged an an altogether different proposition in Tripura.
In the forthcoming election -- the first-ever direct contest between the Left and the Right in post-Independent India -- the CPM has to contend with the fact that the party ruling at the Centre tends to have a strong sway over electoral choices in the Northeastern states. Irrespective of the electoral outcome, the BJP has set off tremors in the last surviving red bastion.
(Sajjan Kumar has a Ph.D from the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He is associated with People’s Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research organisation specialising in fieldwork-based political and electoral research; R K Satpathy is a professor of political science at NEHU, Shillong.)