Meet Sunil Deodhar, Man Behind BJP’s Sweep In Tripura
From barely having any presence in the state to now becoming a victorious force, the BJP in Tripura has gone from strength to strength under the active leadership of one man.
Meet Sunil Deodhar:
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s spectacular sweep in Tripura has been made possible by the collective efforts of many leaders and countless workers and supporters. But one man stands out from among them all: Sunil Deodhar. The architect of this massive victory is this man. His meticulous planning, untiring efforts, political savvy, and eye for detail have resulted in this victory.
Deodhar doesn’t pull any punches, and he pulled out all the stops in Tripura to bring the BJP to where it is today. He has been a man on a mission over the past three years since he was made the ‘prabhari’ of Tripura by BJP president Amit Shah in November 2014.
The brief given to Deodhar, who joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1985, was to make the BJP a powerful force in Tripura – a goal that seemed impossible in a state where Marxists have remained entrenched in power for the past 25 years.
The BJP barely had any presence in the state, and polled just 1.54 per cent of the votes in the last assembly elections in 2013. Barring one, 50 candidates fielded by the BJP in 2013 (Tripura Assembly has 60 seats) lost their deposit. The BJP had no organisation worth the name in Tripura and though the RSS had been active in the tribal areas through the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams, that was not enough to help the BJP establish a base. The RSS itself had been subdued in the state after the brutal murder of four of its pracharaks in 2001.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), being a cadre-based party, had a very strong organisation in Tripura. The Marxists were infamous for their intolerance of opposition and had created a climate of fear. The Opposition (the Congress) was weak and despairing. Few could muster the courage to oppose the Marxists, who were firmly against conceding even an inch of political space to the BJP.
It was under such circumstances that Deodhar arrived in Tripura. “There was nothing to start with. Everything had to be built from the grassroots. I had just a handful of karyakartas, and just one leader – Subal Bhowmik (now the vice-president of the BJP’s state unit) – with me then,” Deodhar told Swarajya.
He started spending at least 15 days a month in the state from November 2014 and toured all corners of the state. A polyglot with a flair for learning languages, he picked up Kokborok (the native language of the tribals of Tripura) that helped him establish a direct connect with the tribals, who form about 31 per cent of the state’s population. Deodhar was already fluent in Bengali.
“The growth of the BJP in Tripura has been fast, but very organic also. Supporters and workers of the Congress started shifting slowly to the BJP. The victory of the BJP in other states, especially in neighbouring Assam, also had its effect. I started attending functions where workers from other parties joined the BJP in order to enthuse more people to join the BJP. Once we gained a modest organisational strength, we went into agitation mode. We started taking up very basic and local issues like lack of water and electric supply, poor road conditions, lack of doctors in health centres and teachers in schools, etc, and launching localised agitations. This got us visibility and local support. People at the grassroots felt that, at long last, here was a party that is not only taking up issues affecting them in their daily lives, but is also brave enough to take on the CPI(M). I had a lot of experience in how to build an organisation from a small shakha,” said Deodhar, whose first ‘posting’ in the North East was as an RSS pracharak in 1991. He was appointed national convener of a BJP cell dedicated to the North East set up by Nitin Gadkari when he was the party president in 2011.
Deodhar was not new to the art of managing election campaigns and realpolitik. He was in charge of Narendra Modi’s election campaign in Varanasi in 2014. Modi had, in 2013, asked Deodhar to manage the party campaign in Dahod district, which had five Congress members of legislative assembly (MLA) and just one BJP MLA. Winning from that district was crucial for Modi since a good performance by the party under his leadership in Gujarat would have boosted his chances of becoming the prime ministerial candidate the next year.
Deodhar delivered three seats from Dahod to Modi in 2013. “In the run-up to the 2014 assembly polls in Maharashtra, I was to be put in charge of the campaign for 32 seats there. Amit Shah had become the party president and when he got to know of this after landing in Mumbai, he said I should be sent to Palghar that was being represented by the CPI(M). I went there and directed the party’s campaign there. We won that seat and the CPI(M) was obliterated from Maharashtra. Perhaps that is why I was sent to Tripura – to fight the CPI(M). I was also in charge of the BJP campaign in South Delhi in 2013 and the BJP won seven of the 10 seats from there,” said Deodhar.
Deodhar set up a permanent base in Agartala (Tripura’s capital) in the later part of 2015. He got an apartment and started staying there. He also brought in his own men and gave them responsibilities. Deodhar, say BJP leaders in Tripura, has a flair for detecting and nurturing talent; he not only built the party organisation from the scratch, but also identified local-level workers who could be groomed and given responsibilities. Many who came in from the Congress were given crucial roles. He also gave a number of important positions to the tribals who had been neglected by the CPI(M) and the majority Bengali community in Tripura.
“We set up various morchas – of youth, tribals, women, farmers, OBCs, etc. The OBCs and the tribals are the most neglected in Tripura and I gave them due importance and respectable and powerful positions within the party. We then launched agitations on tribal issues. When the CPI(M) realised we were gaining strength in the tribal areas, they killed one of our key functionaries – Chandra Mohan Tripura – who was a tribal. We launched a massive agitation all over the state and in all 60 constituencies, we organised protest processions with people carrying urns containing his ashes. More than 42,000 courted arrest on one day across the state in protest against the murder. This had never happened in Tripura. The agitation mobilised people and channelised the latent anger against CPI(M)’s misrule to support for the BJP,” said Deodhar.
The BJP’s spectacular win in Uttar Pradesh also helped, and the party witnessed an immediate surge in membership after that. Deodhar designed and launched some innovative campaigns, one of the most successful being the Modi Doot Yojana. BJP workers wearing t-shirts bearing Modi’s portrait would board a morning train from Agartala to Dharmanagar and distribute booklets detailing welfare schemes launched by Modi in Bengali and Kokborok languages. The workers collected the mobile numbers of train passengers, which then went into a database. Deodhar’s war room men then started sending out messages – cartoons, video clips, small capsules, and text messages – detailing CPI(M) misrule and BJP’s vision for Tripura to these numbers. A call centre was set up to take calls from people across the state.
“People started calling up to complain about local problems and issues. While we were not able to solve the problems immediately, a mandal adhyaksh would visit the complainant’s house and assure that the problem would be solved once we come to power. That gained us a lot of support. The online membership drive launched by our party president helped tremendously and from 10,000 members in 2009, we reached a membership strength of 175,000 in 2015,” explained Deodhar.
With many more disgruntled Congress and CPI(M) workers and supporters joining the BJP since then, the party’s membership strength swelled to about four lakh – quite an achievement in a state with 24 lakh voters.
Deodhar also set up a social media cell with a dedicated team sending messages on Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media platforms. That garnered a lot of support from the youth. In contrast, the CPI(M), made up of old and ageing leaders not conversant with the latest technologies, had virtually no presence on social media.
In addition, the youth, denied job and business opportunities due to flawed policies pursued by the Marxists, were already very angry with the CPI(M). Deodhar also coined catchy slogans like “chalo paltai (come, let’s change (our rulers)” and “Tripura teh gorib more, mukhya mantri chopper a chorey (while the poor die in Tripura, the chief minister rides a chopper)” that became hits.
Deodhar’s efforts started paying off from 2015 when the BJP displaced the Congress from second place in bypolls to the Pratapgarh and Surma Assembly seats. The next year, the BJP performed well in the gram panchayat elections when it won 121 seats and bagged three gram panchayats. Some other factors – like Modi making it mandatory for one Union minister to visit Tripura every fortnight – helped. But here too, Deodhar turned the ministerial visits into opportunities to gain mileage for the party. He took the ministers to interior areas, many of which had never, ever seen a visit by a Union minister. He organised press meets by the visiting ministers where the latter highlighted central government schemes and also criticised the CPI(M) misrule in Tripura. Even two years before the polls, Deodhar created a buzz and put his party on war mode.
Deodhar’s work in Tripura over the last three years provides a lesson in planning and management to students of political science as well as business management.
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