Long Read: BJP Averts A Crisis In Tripura For Now, But Needs To Address Dissidents’ Demands To Ensure Comfortable Win In 2023

Long Read: BJP Averts A Crisis In Tripura For Now, But Needs To Address Dissidents’ Demands To Ensure Comfortable Win In 2023

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Sep 2, 2021 07:03 PM +05:30 IST
Long Read: BJP Averts A Crisis In Tripura For Now, But Needs To Address Dissidents’ Demands To Ensure Comfortable Win In 2023
Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb facing internal dissent.
  • Three new ministers were inducted into the Tripura cabinet on Tuesday.

    However, even that does not guarantee that the remainder of CM Biplab Deb's tenure will be smooth.

The 41-month-old Biplab Kumar Deb ministry in Tripura was expanded earlier this week with the induction of three rebel legislators. With that, the dissident-driven crisis faced by the BJP-led alliance government in the north-eastern state has been averted, but ominous clouds still loom over the horizon.

Dissidence has been stemmed, but not eliminated, through this week’s cabinet expansion.

If the root causes of unrest within the party, and also grievances of it’s ally--the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT)--are left unaddressed, the Trinamool will get an opportunity to fish in the troubled political waters and pose a threat in the 2023 Assembly polls.

The Biplab Deb government hit a rough patch soon after it was formed in March 2018. The BJP had won a decisive victory in the Assembly polls held in February that year by bagging 36 of the 60 seats in the state legislature. The IPFT won eight seats.

With such a decisive mandate, it should have been smooth sailing for the BJP-IPFT government in the state that came to power on the promise of development and good governance after 25 years of Left misrule.

But personal ambitions of some new inductees into the party, and alleged high-handedness of chief minister Deb, took the BJP boat to choppy waters.

The BJP, which didn’t have much of a political base in the state, opened its doors to leaders from the Trinamool and the Congress in 2016-2017. Many top leaders of the two parties, sensing a BJP victory in the February 2018 polls, jumped ship on the eve of the elections. Some even joined after the BJP came to power in the state.

One of the new entrants was Sudip Roy Burman, son of former Congress chief minister Samir Ranjan Burman. Sudip, who was a senior leader of the Congress in Tripura, was wooed by Trinamool strongman Mukul Roy and inducted into the Bengal-based party (the Trinamool) in 2016.

Sudip Roy Burman was one of the six Congress MLAs who joined the Trinamool in 2016. After Mukul Roy, a prime accused in the Saradha scam, defected from the Trinamool to the BJP in November 2017, Roy Burman also followed him into the saffron party.

Sudip Roy Burman is a political heavyweight in Tripura and has harboured ambitions of becoming the chief minister for a long time. He was inducted into the BJP-IPFT government that assumed office in early March, 2018, as the health minister.

But Sudip could never bring himself to work under Biplab Deb, a political lightweight who entered the political scene in Tripura only a couple of years before the 2018 Assembly polls.

Sudip started fanning dissidence against Deb and became the lightning rod for all those who got disgruntled within the party. Deb also did not help matters with his high-handed style of functioning and his arrogance.

Matters reached a head and Deb sacked Sudip from the ministry. Since then, Sudip Roy Burman has been the leader of the dissident faction in the BJP. At least eight legislators and a few senior office-bearers of the party, as well as some senior leaders who had been sidelined, rallied behind Sudip and started lobbying the party central leadership to replace Deb as chief minister.

Biplab Deb is popular among the masses and has a clean reputation, unlike Sudip Roy Burman and some others. He is well-liked by the people of the state. But he is a political novice and lacks political acumen.

Deb also has the tendency to concentrate all powers in his own hands and allows little leeway to even his senior cabinet colleagues. He runs, as Sudip Roy Burman says, a “one-man show”.

Deb is also perceived by many within the party as intolerant of dissent or contrarian opinions. “He is haughty and thinks he knows best. He encourages sycophancy and surrounds himself with ‘yes-men’. He has also concentrated all power in his hands and all bureaucrats report to him. The ‘babus’ ignore their own ministers and bypass them to take files to the chief minister. This has bred acute resentment,” a dissident MLA who did not want to be named told Swarajya over phone from state capital Agartala.

Deb, according to many state BJP leaders, has a tendency to be vindictive. They cite the example of Sushanta Chowdhury, a young party MLA, who was unnecessarily alienated by Deb.

Chowdhury, a business management graduate, debuted in the 2018 Assembly elections from the Majlishpur seat that was considered to be a Left bastion after defeating CPI(M) heavyweight Manik Dey.

Chowdhury grew close to Sudip Roy Burman and after chief minister Deb sacked Sudip from the cabinet, he (Deb) started sidelining Chowdhury and rubbing him the wrong way. “That was totally unnecessary. He (Deb) should have isolated Sudip Roy Burman by winning over all those close to him (Sudip). Instead, he turned vindictive and further alienated many, which only made Sudip stronger,” said a BJP office-bearer.

It was only about two and half months ago that Deb, after a lot of prodding by the BJP central leaders, reached out to Chowdhuy and won him over. Chowdhury was inducted into the cabinet earlier this week and awarded the information and cultural affairs, PWD, and sports & youth affairs departments.

There is also discontent among a section of party leaders holding organisational posts as well as those who have not got such posts. That's because most such posts have been made redundant.

“The Chief Minister is too overbearing and has concentrated even organisational powers in his hands. The post of state party president has been reduced to a ceremonial one and all posts have been packed with the CM's yes men. Deserving leaders with a mass base have been sidelined,” complained the dissident MLA.

Many within the party are also unhappy with the importance being given by the CM to recent 'imports' from the CPI(M) and Congress at the cost of veteran party men who have allegedly been sidelined.

One such leader who revolted after being sidelined is Ramprasad Pal. Pal, an old-timer in the party, was a strong contender for the post of president of the state unit of the party.

Pal also enjoyed the support of a majority of office bearers and workers of the party. But he was overlooked and Biplab Deb was nominated to the post of state party chief by the central leadership of the party in early January 2016.

Many state BJP leaders resented the patronage of Deb by the party central leadership despite the fact that Deb was a political novice with no mass base in Tripura.

That marked the start of resentment against Deb. Many angry party leaders started resenting the primacy given to Deb by the BJP central leadership and the ‘injustice’ meted to Pal. What intensified their resentment was the hurdles allegedly created by Deb and some others in Pal getting a ticket for his Suryamaninagar constituency.

He got the ticket and won that seat, but could never bring himself to forgive Deb for the latter’s attempts to deny him a party ticket.

After Deb was elevated to the post of chief minister, Pal was assured that he would be made the state party chief. But Deb reportedly opposed that and also ensured that Pal got sidelined in the party.

Quite naturally, Pal joined the dissident camp and rebelled against Deb. He was inducted into the cabinet earlier this week, but given relatively unimportant portfolios--prison, fire services, OBC & Minorities welfare and cooperation.

A Ministerial berth has not satisfied Pal and he still wants the state party president’s post. Even after getting to know of his impending induction into the cabinet, Pal posted on social media: "A section of officers and white collar employees are conspiring to defame the government and dislodge it. The cabinet pretends to be sleeping....taking advantage of ineligible leadership, opportunists etc are making money at the cost of our beloved party. Dedicated workers have been suffering, no one is there to take care of them".

It is very clear from this that Pal is far from satisfied with the Ministerial berth and wants a much bigger say in party affairs.

BJP national general secretary (organization) B.L. Santosh, who visited Tripura along with two other Central leaders to quell dissidence in mid-June this year, reportedly assured Pal that his ‘aspirations’ would be met.

Santosh also assured the dissidents that their ‘genuine grievances’ would be addressed. But, say the dissidents, the induction of the three MLAs into the ministry hardly amounts to addressing their grievances which primarily stem from chief minister Deb's alleged arrogance and style of functioning.

“The central leadership is committing the same mistake here (Tripura) like it did in Jharkhand. It allowed (Jharkhand) chief minister Raghubar Das, who enjoyed the patronage of a few powerful central leaders, to function in a very high-handed manner and concentrate all powers in his hands. Das alienated the rank and file of the party. As a result, the BJP lost the Assembly elections only because of Das,” said the dissident MLA.

The BJP's ‘Jana Jati Morcha’ (the tribal outreach of the party) is also very unhappy with the state leadership. The Morcha had expected at least one more scheduled tribe MLA to be inducted into the cabinet.

The BJP has ten tribal MLAs, and two of them (including deputy chief minister Jishnu Deb Barman) are in the eleven-member cabinet. The Morcha has been demanding that at least one more tribal should be made a minister.

A leader of the Morcha told Swarajya that at least two tribal MLAs--retired ONGC executive Ramapada Jamatiya and veteran BJP leader and physician Atul Debbarma--are eminently qualified to be Ministers.

“We joined the BJP with a lot of expectations and worked hard to ensure the BJP’s win in the Assembly polls and also the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But the representation of the tribal MLAs (of the BJP) in the cabinet is very poor,” said a Morcha leader.

“Adequate representation of tribals in the cabinet is important since that sends a strong signal to the community that the party cares very strongly for them. That will make the party (the BJP) stronger in the tribal areas,” he explained.

Moreover, trouble is also brewing in the BJP's relationship with ally IPFT. The IPFT is upset with the state BJP leadership holding secret parleys with the TIPRA Motha led by royal scion Pradyot Bikram Manikya Deb Barma.

The TIPRA Motha is a conglomerate of small tribal organisations that won a majority of the 28 seats of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) for which elections were held in April this year.

The BJP won nine of the 14 seats it contested, but the IPFT could not win a single seat. The Motha was formed just two months before the elections. The IPFT suspects the BJP of helping the Motha and sabotaging the IPFT's prospects.

The IPFT apprehends that the BJP will break the alliance with it and join hands with the Motha before the 2023 Assembly polls.

But the Motha's primary agenda of creation of ‘Greater Twipraland’--a separate state comprising tribal districts of Tripura--is considered to be a dangerous and divisive agenda.

“The tribals were misled by the ‘Greater Twipraland’ promise and thus voted for the Motha. But they have since realised that the goal is an unrealistic one. The BJP will be left high and dry if it joins hands with the Motha,” said Amit Jamatya, an IPFT leader.

Association with the Motha will also cost the BJP the support of the non-tribals who are in a majority in 41(of the 60) Assembly seats in Tripura. The non-tribals (primarily Bengali Hindus) are wary of any move to bifurcate the state.

The IPFT has two representatives in the state cabinet--revenue and forest minister Narendra Chandra Debbarma and tribal welfare and fisheries minister Mevar Kumar Jamatia. It wants one more berth. But the BJP has reportedly turned down the demand.

The IPFT’s disaffection with the BJP became evident from its absence at the swearing-in ceremony of the three ministers earlier this week. Except for ministers Narendra Chandra Debbarma and Mevar Jamatia, none of the IPFT MLAs attended the swearing-in ceremony.

Also, only 19 of the BJP’s 36 MLAs were present at the swearing-in ceremony. The ones present included the CM, the deputy CM, three of the four BJP ministers, the three newly-inducted ministers, the Speaker, Deputy Speaker, BJP Chief Whip and seven MLAs.

Prominent among the absentees were the four dissident MLAs--Sudip Roy Burman, Asish Kumar Saha, Diba Chandra Hrangkhawl and Asish Das.

There is one more vacancy in the state council of ministers--the maximum strength of the cabinet can be twenty percent (one-fifth) of the total strength of the Assembly, which means 12. The vacancy has triggered a lot of speculation with some political observers opining that the berth has been kept for the IPFT while others say that efforts are on to placate Sudip Roy Burman and induct him into the cabinet.

But Sudip had made it clear that he would not work under chief minister Deb. Speaking to a Guwahati-based news channel on the day of the cabinet expansion earlier this week, Sudip Roy Burman said: “Under Biplab Deb, the government is a one-man show and all Ministers are irrelevant. I cannot sacrifice my self-respect and work under him. I cannot accept his policies and style of working”.

Sources close to the chief minister say that many MLAs will be made chairmen of various PSUs (there are 31) in the state. That will, hopes the BJP state leadership, take care of dissidence.

Deb, however, has his share of defenders too. “The chief minister’s top priority is to ensure clean and good governance and that is why he keeps a watch on the functioning of all ministers and bureaucrats. He does not allow any foul or corrupt practices. Some people who may have wanted to make money are unhappy, but the masses are happy,” Sukumar Debnath, a loyalist, told Swarajya.

Debnath added: “The chief minister is keen on timely completion of projects and proper implementation of all schemes and welfare measures. That is why he interacts closely with officers of all departments. Some ministers may resent that, but the CM’s motive is above board. Had all the ministers been delivering, the CM would not have had to intervene”.

Be that as it may, Deb's conduct and his style of functioning has bred acute resentment among some ministers, MLAs and party leaders.

That needs to be addressed, and urgently. The BJP central leadership has to lean hard on Deb to change his style of functioning and be more open, accommodative and democratic. He should be told to delegate powers and responsibilities and accord due respect to his ministers, MLAs and party leaders.

Though some of the dissident MLAs have been inducted into the cabinet and the promise of making other legislators chairmen of PSUs held out, trouble will erupt if the chief minister continues to concentrate all powers in his hands and does not allow ministers to function independently.

As for Sudip Roy Burman, though he has been criticising chief minister Deb, the latter has to reach out to him and placate him. The BJP can ill-afford to lose Roy Burman; he can be a powerful adversary.

Sudip Roy Burman needs to be assured that as a cabinet minister, he will be allowed to function without any interference from the chief minister and will be given due respect. This assurance should also go out to all other ministers.

Deb is also looked upon as authoritarian and vindictive by his party colleagues and that has to change. The BJP state leadership has to also take care of the issues and grievances raised by the IPFT.

Only then can the BJP hope to comfortably win the Assembly elections due about 18 months from now and effectively stave off the challenge from the Trinamool. The Trinamool will be able to gain an entry into Tripura only if the BJP allows it to through its own follies.

The BJP central leadership has to ensure that Tripura does not become another Jharkhand where the party lost due to the style of functioning of its authoritarian chief minister.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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