Pratima Bhoumik is no ordinary woman. The diminutive, down-to-earth 53 year old has been defying and defeating all odds throughout her life. And that makes her spirited battle to wrest the Dhanpur Assembly seat from the stranglehold of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a keenly-watched one.
Bhoumik, the Union Minister of State for social justice and empowerment, was born in Bornarayan village at Dhanpur of West Tripura district of Tripura. Her father was a farmer and she grew up in poverty.
However, she pursued her studies diligently and did well in school and college. Dhanpur was a CPI(M) citadel and the Dhanpur Assembly seat has, since the time Tripura got statehood in 1972, been represented by the CPI(M). Former chief minister Manik Sarkar won this seat for five consecutive terms in 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013 and 2018.
The CPI(M) was not only very powerful but true to its character, snuffing out opposition brutally. A young Pratima Bhoumik, then 20, cocked a snook at the Marxists and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at a time when the party barely had any existence in the state.
Threats and intimidation she received from CPI(M) cadres and leaders did not deter her and she started working for the saffron party. She also graduated with decent marks while fighting political battles and became the first graduate from her village.
She then plunged whole time into politics and in 1991, became the president of the BJP’s Dhanpur mandal. She was soon nominated to the party’s state committee and became its youngest member.
She contested her first elections as the party’s candidate from Dhanpur against Manik Sarkar in 1998. The seat was, till then, held by top CPI(M) leader Samar Choudhury, who was also a senior minister in the northeastern state.
Though Sarkar won the election, Bhoumik put up a spirited fight and managed to get a respectable 12 per cent of the votes. The defeat at the hustings did nothing to dent her fighting spirit and Bhoumik devoted herself with renewed vigour to expand the BJP’s footprints in the state.
“Those times were very difficult and dangerous. The CPI(M) was very strong and the only opposition party was the Congress. The BJP was very weak and the CPI(M) was a brutal party which never tolerated any opposition. We received threats on a daily basis,” a longtime associate of Bhoumik told Swarajya.
Bhoumik rose through the ranks in her party: she became the president of the BJP’s Sepahijala district in 2003, and was soon made the vice-president of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha in the state.
She was the vice-president of the BJP Mahila Morcha for two terms and in 2007, became the state president of the Morcha. From 2011 to 2014, she served as the vice-president of the BJP’s Tripura unit and in 2016 she was made the general secretary of the state unit.
After her debut poll battle in 1998, she jumped the electoral fray for the second time after twenty years in 2018. This time, too, she faced off with Manik Sarkar at Dhanpur Assembly constituency. And once again, Sarkar defeated her. But the margin of defeat was 5,441 votes. Bhoumik also bagged a creditable 41.21 per cent vote share.
However, she tasted success just a year later by wresting the Tripura West Lok Sabha seat from the CPI(M) by a huge margin of over three lakh votes. This seat was held by the CPI(M) for most of the time since Lok Sabha elections were first held in 1952.
Bhoumik not only defeated the CPI(M), she also relegated the Marxist candidate — Sankar Prasad Dutta — to the third place.
Bhoumik bagged 51.77 per cent of the votes cast; that was an increase of a whopping 46.67 per cent over the party’s vote share in 2014. The Dhanpur Assembly seat is one of the 36 Assembly segments in the Tripura West Lok Sabha seat.
She was inducted into the Union Council of Ministers in 2021. She is reputed to be a very hard-working minister who leads by consensus, but is also a tough taskmaster.
Bhoumik was asked by her party to contest the Assembly elections from her native Dhanpur this time. The announcement of her name as the BJP candidate from Dhanpur was met by a lot of celebration and cheer by party workers.
Challenges Faced By Bhoumik
The battle is not an easy one for the formidable lady. Though Manik Sarkar is not in the fray and the CPI(M) has nominated a fresh face — Koushik Chanda for the seat — Sarkar’s shadow looms large over this constituency.
“It is a prestige battle for the CPI(M). A defeat at Dhanpur will be a deeply embarrassing one for Manik Sarkar personally and the CPI(M) in general. The Marxists consider Dhanpur their bastion and a defeat here will have very adverse long-term consequences for the party,” said Kanika Bhoumik, a lawyer.
That’s why the CPI(M) has deployed all its resources to retain the Dhanpur seat and ensure Chanda’s win. Manik Sarkar has campaigned extensively for the party candidate and the CPI(M) cadres have allegedly been going around covertly threatening and intimidating voters.
The CPI(M) took a risk by fielding an unknown and untested Koushik Chanda instead of Manik Sarkar from Dhanpur. Chanda is one of the 24 fresh faces fielded by the CPI(M) in the 43 seats it is contesting this time.
The party thought that the electorate is fed up with the tired old faces in the CPI(M) and nominating new and young candidates will enthuse the electorate and win back popular support for the party.
The CPI(M) is bent on making this strategy work especially in Dhanpur. It has invested a lot of money and manpower for that — the constituency is plastered with red posters, banners, hoardings and festoons and hordes of CPI(M) cadres have campaigned extensively for the party’s candidate.
Bhoumik also faces a challenge from Tipra Motha candidate Amiya Dayal Naotia. The Tipra Motha, whose primary goal is creation of a separate state for tribals, is popular among the tribals who form nearly 23 per cent of the total electorate (48,000) of Dhanpur.
The Trinamool has fielded a Muslim — Habil Miah — with an eye on the 14,000-odd Muslim voters of the seat.
CPI(M)’s Chanda claims that people are fed up with BJP’s “misrule and corruption” and will return to his party.
“People of the state gave the BJP a chance, and they are regretting it now. I will win Dhanpur and my comrades will win most of the other seats. We will return to power,” he told Swarajya.
Naotia claims to have the full support of the tribals. “But it is not just the tribals, even non-tribals are supporting me. That’s because my party stands for everyone and wants to work for comprehensive development of the state,” he said.
The Trinamool is hoping for complete support of Muslims and a large section of tribals as well as non-tribals.
“People of Tripura have given the CPI(M) and BJP a chance, and have regretted it. They are ready to vote for the Trinamool to usher in the Bengal model of development here,” Miah told Swarajya.
Bhoumik says that the memories of CPI(M) misrule and the backwardness and poverty they suffered are still fresh in people’s minds.
“People here have suffered poverty and backwardness for decades. The BJP ushered in development. Thousands of families have benefited from centrally sponsored welfare schemes like the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi, the PM Awas Yojana, Ujjwala scheme etc. They have tasted development for the first time in these five years and want the BJP to continue in power,” she said.
Bhoumik says that the tribals will not be swayed by the “far-fetched dream of Greater Tipraland” being offered by the Tipra Motha. “It is an impossible dream because it includes parts of Bangladesh, and that country will never part with an inch of its territory to oblige the Motha. I have been telling this to the tribals,” she added.
The BJP has also been painting the Motha as a CPI(M)-backed force that has been propped up only to mar the BJP’s poll prospects.
Bhoumik has taken care to reach out to the Muslims in Dhanpur and has explained to them repeatedly that the BJP is not anti-Muslim.
“I have told my Muslim brothers and sisters that when the BJP rolls out welfare schemes like the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi or the PM Awas Yojana, it (the BJP) does not discriminate against anyone. Muslims have benefited from welfare measures initiated by the Union Government as well as the state government as much as Hindus or any other community. BJP stands for the development of the nation as a whole and that includes all communities and all sections of society,” Bhoumik asserted.
The BJP is confident that while it will get the votes of many tribals, the remaining tribal votes will get divided between the CPI(M) and the Tipra Motha.
The Muslim vote will also get divided between the CPI(M) and the Trinamool. And that will facilitate the BJP’s victory, say the party’s poll managers.
While 2 March will ultimately reveal which electoral calculations come true, what is beyond doubt is that Pratima Bhoumik is popular among the electorate of Dhanpur.
She is down-to-earth, accessible, a woman native of Dhanpur. She is also a local MP and a union minister who holds a clean image. All this gives her a distinct advantage in the poll battle.
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