The Congress, which is facing an existential threat in Tripura, is desperately seeking an alliance with the Left to take on the BJP in the northeastern state.
Congress leader Sudip Roy Burman, who retained his Agartala Assembly constituency in the bypolls held late last month, has the idea of an alliance or an electoral understanding with the CPI(M)-led Left Front in order to take on the ruling BJP.
The CPI(M), which was trounced by the BJP in the 2018 Assembly polls, was quick to with veteran Marxist and former chief minister Manik Sarkar saying that his party would welcome an alliance with other opposition parties to take on the BJP in the Assembly elections due next year.
The BJP, which barely had a presence in Tripura before 2016, swept the 2018 Assembly polls by winning 36 of the state Assembly’s 60 seats. The BJP’s ally--the tribal Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT)--won eight seats while the CPI(M) bagged the remaining 16.
The CPI(M suffered the biggest blow in 2018 with its tally in the Assembly going down by 33 seats; it had won 49 seats in the 2013 Assembly elections. The Congress, which had won ten seats in 2013, drew a blank in 2018.
What’s more, the BJP was the runner-up in all the 16 seats won by the CPI(M). That indicated the groundswell of support in Tripura for the BJP, a new entrant in the state’s political landscape. And also the complete rejection of the Congress by Tripura’s electorate.
Over the past four years, the BJP has grown significantly in strength. The saffron party swept the civic polls held in November last year, winning 329 of the 334 seats in one municipal corporation, 13 municipal councils and six nagar panchayats.
In the bypolls to four Assembly seats held last month, the BJP bagged three--it wrested one from the CPI(M), whose strength in the Assembly has come down to 15.
The only consolation for the opposition was the victory of Sudip Roy Burman from the Agartala seat. But Sudip, son of the state’s former Congress chief minister Samir Ranjan Burman, had been winning from that seat since 1993 when he defeated CPI(M) stalwart and the state’s former chief minister Nripen Chakraborty. This (the bypolls) was his sixth consecutive win from Agartala.
Sudip defected from the Congress to the Trinamool in 2016 before crossing over to the BJP in 2017. He contested the 2018 Assembly polls on a BJP ticket and was made the health minister in the Biplab Deb ministry. But he wanted the chief minister’s post and led a revolt against Deb. He was expelled from the cabinet and returned to the Congress in March this year.
The byelection to the Agartala seat was necessitated by Sudip’s defection to the Congress, due to which he had to resign from the Assembly and seek a fresh mandate.
“Sudip Roy Burman’s victory from the Agartala seat was no setback to the BJP. He is popular in his constituency, and would perhaps have won even if he contested as an independent. But his victory margin has come down very significantly this time,” said urban development minister Manoj Kanti Deb.
Sudip defeated the CPI(M) candidate in 2018 by 7,382 votes. The BJP candidate lost to him this time by a little over 3,000 votes. “Sudip’s victory margin has come down by much more than half and this shows his decreasing popularity in his own constituency,” Deb added.
An analysis of the bypoll results show why Roy Burman is apprehensive of the possible outcome of the Assembly elections next year, says state information minister Susanta Chowdhury.
“Our (BJP) candidate in the Agartala seat polled 14,268 votes and his vote share was 35.57 per cent. That’s a very creditable performance considering the fact that Sudip had won from that seat five times earlier and the constituency is his bastion. The CPI(M) candidate came a poor third with less than half the votes polled by our candidate and garnering a vote share of less than 17 percent,” Chowdhury told Swarajya from Agartala.
The BJP won the three other constituencies (where bypolls were held) and alarmingly for the Congress, it (Congress) came a poor third in two of the seats. The Bardowali seat, for instance, was bagged by BJP’s Ashish Kumar Saha in 2018.
Saha, a camp follower of Sudip Roy Burman who had followed in the latter’s footsteps from the Congress to the Trinamool and then to the BJP, had contested the seat on a BJP ticket in 2018 and polled more than 24,000 votes.
After returning to Congress in March this year, he had to resign from the seat and seek re-election on a Congress ticket.
But this time, Saha polled just 10,930 votes and lost to incumbent chief minister Manik Saha (BJP) by more than 6,000 votes. The Left came a distant third by getting a little over 3,200 votes.
The BJP also wrested one seat (Jubrajnagar) from the CPI(M). In 2018, the BJP candidate lost to the CPI(M) by a narrow margin of 649 votes. This time, the BJP defeated the CPI(M) by over 4,500 votes.
“This shows that we (BJP) are gaining in strength and are in a far better position now than in 2018. That’s why the Congress wants to enter into a shameful and unholy alliance with the CPI(M),” said Chowdhury.
But such an alliance, or an electoral understanding, will not work. Chowdhury says it would be too simplistic to assume that the votes of the two parties (the Congress and Left) would get seamlessly transferred to each other in case of an alliance or poll understanding.
Chowdhury was also in the Congress and was once close to Sudip Roy Burman. “The Congress and the Left had fought each other, often violently, in Tripura till the BJP started emerging as a spirited opposition force in 2016. Innumerable Congress workers faced the brunt of the CPI(M)’s violent politics and they, and their families, suffered a lot. They cannot be expected to support Left candidates now,” explained Chowdhury.
“On paper, it may seem that if the votes polled by the Left and the Congress in 2018 are added, that figure will be more than the votes polled by BJP candidates in many constituencies. And that’s the premise for Congress’ proposal to the CPI(M) to join hands. But that premise is deeply flawed. There is a legacy of deep animosity between the Left and the Congress at the ground level. That will prevent, even to a significant extent, a transfer of votes from one party to another,” said political scientist Sujit Bhowmik.
Bhowmik agrees with the BJP’s assertion that it has gained strength since 2018. That is reflected in the BJP’s higher vote share in the bypolls--from 43.5 percent in 2018 to over 45 percent this time.
“If the Left and the Congress manage to reach an electoral understanding despite all odds and field common candidates, it does not mean that the Opposition votes, or the anti-BJP votes, will not get divided. For instance, in case the ‘common’ candidate in a seat happens to be from the Left, most Congress workers and supporters will either abstain or will vote for other parties or independents. And the same will happen in seats where the ‘common’ candidate is from the Congress; the Left supporters will abstain or will vote for an Independent,” he said.
Sushanta Das, a former CPI(M) functionary who dissociated himself from the Marxist party in 2015 over deep differences with the party leadership on ethical issues, told Swarajya that the Trinamool will play the prime spoilsport to a Congress-Left alliance or electoral understanding. “Anti-BJP votes will go to the Trinamool in many places and the BJP will romp home to victory,” he said.
“In 2018, the people of Tripura voted for the BJP to end 25 years of Left rule. They rejected the Congress with greater vehemence. But since then, the BJP has carved out an impressive mass base for itself. The Hindutva ideology has taken roots in Tripura which has nearly 84 per cent Hindus. Today, people vote for the BJP or support the saffron party not because they are opposed to the Left or the Congress, but because the BJP’s ideology and policies find a resonance among them. Also, one reason for people supporting the BJP is Narendra Modi’s appeal and the party’s ‘double engine sarkar’ pitch. The Left-Congress combine, even if it happens, will find it very hard to match that,” said Das.
Urban development minister Deb asserts that “all the good work” done by the BJP-led alliance government’s work will ensure the saffron party’s victory in 2023. “Tripura has witnessed unprecedented development since 2018, the likes of which it hadn’t seen under Congress and Left rule. That will be enough for us to retain people’s support,” he said.
Independent political observers agree with this assessment. A Congress-Left alliance or understanding, they opine, will not work.
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