Tripura election results: Winning over tribals, organisational investment pay handsomely for BJP
The BJP’s spectacular political rise since 2015 and victory in the 2018 Assembly election in Tripura defies the dominant commonsensical assumptions about the rise and electoral decline of political pa
The BJP’s spectacular political rise since 2015 and victory in the 2018 Assembly election in Tripura defies the dominant commonsensical assumptions about the rise and electoral decline of political parties. The man who commandeered this stunning saffron rise in Tripura is the BJP’s state in-charge Sunil Deodhar. The 53-year-old leader-activist heading the BJP’s mission in Tripura has had an old and thick association with north-east India since 1991, when as an RSS pracharak he spent 10 years in Meghalaya. This was followed by his stint as convener of the BJP’s North East Sampark Cell since 2010, after which he was entrusted with the responsibility of being campaign manager of Narendra Modi’s Varanasi constituency in 2014.
In the aftermath of the BJP’s stunning victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when it publicly declared a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ as its political motto and entrusted its chosen lieutenants with the responsibility, Sunil Deodhar was called in by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah and asked to assume the mantle of another mission—politically and ideologically more profound for the party— of realising the aim for a ‘Communist-mukt Bharat’.
Consequently, he was made the BJP’s state in-charge of Tripura in November 2014. He was warned that the existing BJP in the state was just a namesake with a mere 1.54 per cent vote share in the Assembly election of 2013 that witnessed a meagre increase up to 5.7 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. To his advantage, he was told, would be the 25 years of anti-incumbency against the Left Front government in the state in 2018 when the next Assembly election would take place. Thus, he had only three years to transform the party as well as the political dynamics of the state.
Fast forward to 2018 and the fact that the BJP has registered a historic victory against the CPI-M in Tripura is testimony to Sunil Deodhar having succeeded in both—the stunning transformation of the BJP in the state and making Tripura a successful electoral arena of a direct fight between the Left and the Right, the first of its kind in the electoral history of independent India. After becoming the state incharge, he visited Tripura in January 2015 and toured the state three times to take stock of ground realities. His strategy was clear since Day One, that is, to know the core of CPI-M’s preponderance in the state vis-a-vis its political rival.
It took no time to realise, he states, that the Left’s polemical strength lay in encashing the perception of being invincible in all the 20 ST seats. However, his own reading of the ground was more complex and he claimed to witness a deep alienation of the tribal people not only from the CPI-M but also other parties on account of their hostility and apathy to de-historisation of the tribal identity and loss of cultural symbols in the wake of a concerted attempt by Left governments to dishonour and destroy their shared bonding with the royal symbols.
In a nutshell, he opines, the tribals’ sense of pride was crushed and the first and foremost challenge he faced was to attempt to take some measures in that regard. This objective had its own electoral calculation, as in his own words, “upon my first tour of the state in 2015, I was told that in the assembly elections the CPI-M starts its seat counting from 20, that is, all the ST seats are considered confirmed seats for the Left.”
This got him his first strategic drive, and the old pracharak in him with experience of working among tribals in Meghalaya guided him. “I decided to take the bull by the horn”, he continues, “and therefore decided to deprive the CPI-M of its tribal base by following a two-pronged strategy. One, in the long term, the tribals needed to be made to feel as the core of the power discourse of the state. However, that could be done only if the BJP first transformed itself as the true representative of the tribal identity and their pride.”
Hence, adequate tribal representation at all levels became his prime motto. Subsequently, he got the tribal morcha of the BJP re-activated by giving the tribals adequate representation at all levels by having two vice-presidents and one secretary, besides them being represented in all party morchas except SC and OBC morchas. Besides, four out of eight members of the core group-highest body of the party in the state hail from the tribal community. “My motto was simple, that the BJP in Tripura must not be merely a Bengali-dominated party but rather should be true to its name, that is Bharatiya Janata Party, both in its intent and its composition”, he states.
It was this investment in the tribal question that got him to successfully cement the electoral alliance with the IPFT without accepting the latter’s core demand of having a separate state for the tribals. This also reveals the systematic, strategic part of his political moves that he clearly laid out since his arrival in the state. Having invested in the tribal issues, he then shifted to more generic political aspects and got Biplab Deb as the local face of the party in the state and in tandem they succeeded in making the BJP the fulcrum of the anti-CPIM space in a matter of just two years.
Thirdly, he claims to have a layered web of party cadres by measures like ‘one booth, 10 youths’ in all the 3,214 polling booths in the state, besides having one panna-pramukh for every 60 voters from the voter list, thereby having a team of almost 48,000 cadres. Similarly, he got a team of professional and dedicated youths heading various cells like the IT cell, media cell etc., to process information dissemination and reception on an hourly basis.
These cells have a presence of enthusiastic youths. For instance, Prangshu Deb (25) and Mukesh Raj (22) are part of the BJP’s IT cell and state that all members of the cell fall within the age bracket of 25-35 years. They coordinate a total of 150 WhatsApp groups for 60 constituencies, besides having a similar set of other groups on social media to constantly interact with people from all walks of life. It is this mammoth maze of organisational investment guided by Sunil Deodhar that culminated in saffron vanquishing the red in the first-ever direct electoral contest between the Left and the Right.
March 3, 2018 will go down as a historic day in the electoral history of India. (Sajjan Kumar has a Ph.D. from the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He is associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabadbased research organisation specialising in fieldwork-based political and electoral research; Pankaj Chakraborty is faculty of Political Science at Holy Cross College, Tripura University).