Poll pundits in Tripura are uncharacteristically circumspect, and unwilling to hazard a prediction on the outcome of the state assembly elections.
There is considerable anti-incumbency against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is being blamed for not delivering on its promises of development and good governance.
But the opposition is weak and listless, and has failed to inspire any confidence among the electorate. And this is why the BJP, despite the anti-incumbency it faces, is likely to return to power in the state.
The BJP rode to power in Tripura in 2018 on the promise of fast-paced socio-economic development.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front, which had ruled the state uninterruptedly for 25 years from 1993 to 2018, was voted out of power for failing to improve the lives of the poverty-stricken citizens of the backward state (read ).
But despite some showpiece projects, the lives of the people have not improved as much over the last five years. Most people, especially the tribals who form 30 per cent of the state’s population, remain poor with poor access to healthcare and education.
Tripura's economy has also not improved much, and unemployment remains high. There has been some improvement in infrastructure, but the rural areas have been largely left untouched by such improvement.
There has not been much improvement in farm incomes, and agriculture continues to provide subsistence incomes and wages.
Good governance, as promised by the BJP, has eluded Tripura. So much so that the party’s central leadership was forced to step in and show the door to then chief minister Biplab Kumar Deb in May last year.
Deb, who had earned a lot of ridicule for his series of gaffes, had developed the image of an inefficient and vain administrator.
The BJP central leadership realised that Deb was responsible for the growing anti-incumbency against the BJP-led coalition government. Deb, due to his arbitrary style of functioning, had alienated many within the party and, as a result, factionalism was on the rise in the state unit of the party.
Deb was replaced by Manik Saha, a low-key, non-controversial, and well-respected person who has since proven himself to be a good administrator. But Saha did not get much time to change the popular perception about the BJP and the government it has been running.
BJP leaders acknowledge that the people of the state are disappointed with the performance of the coalition government. But, they say, that’s because people’s expectations were very high and it was not always possible to meet those expectations.
“After 25 years of darkness (Left rule), people of Tripura were expecting to experience dazzling brightness. But the Left had left the state in such a mess that it was not possible to change things as dramatically as people wanted them to,” said a senior minister who did not want to be named since he is not the official spokesperson.
“Five years is not enough to bring about any marked improvement in a state that has been ruined by decades of misrule by the Left and Congress. We need another five years at least. In the last five years, our government has prepared the ground for all-round development of the state and the work we have done will start bearing fruit over the next five years. Everyone will see the change we are bringing out,” claimed the minister.
But many remain sceptical and assert that while the Left had devastated Tripura, the BJP has not been able to bring about the change it had promised.
“Yes, there is disappointment among the people. We expected a lot from the BJP. Perhaps, it was wrong to have such high expectations,” said Haridev Bhattacharyya, a retired professor of economics in state capital Agartala and a BJP supporter.
Media professional Ananta Deb says people feel let down by the BJP. “The BJP made a lot of promises, but the poor have not experienced any significant changes in their lives. Poverty still exists, unemployment is still high, and many areas of the state have witnessed little development in terms of infrastructure, healthcare, education, sanitation, etc,” he told Swarajya.
This is especially true of the tribal areas of the state that have suffered decades of neglect. The tribals voted overwhelmingly for the BJP and its tribal ally, the (IPFT), but feel let down now.
“Look around you. Can you see any development? The roads are as bad as what they were five years ago, the people are still poor, and we still don’t have proper healthcare or educational institutions. There are virtually no employment opportunities. People are frustrated,” said Bijoy Deb Burman, a tribal rights activist at Takarjala, about 28 kilometres southeast of Agartala.
The Takarjala assembly constituency is reserved for the scheduled tribes. In 2018, the people there elected IPFT founder Narendra Chandra Debbarma, who passed away in January this year. Until 2018, this was a CPI(M) bastion.
“Tribals were fed up with CPI(M) misrule. The CPI(M) did nothing for us. So we voted for the BJP’s ally, IPFT, hoping that things will change. But change has been marginal. We understand that it takes time for the government to bring about development, but at least the signs of development should have been visible in five years,” Burman added.
Weak and Uninspiring Opposition
The opposition is weak and has not been able to mount a credible challenge to the BJP.
The deal between the leaders of the CPI(M)-led Left Front and the Congress on seat-sharing is coming unstuck at the grassroots level. The Trinamool is putting up a lacklustre show and its leaders have not even campaigned with much enthusiasm.
Opposition parties have not been able to match the high-decibel campaign mounted by the BJP, which has been flying in a host of its top leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to campaign for the party.
The Chief Minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is the BJP pointsman in the North East, has been virtually camping in the state and has addressed many rallies.
The CPI(M) does not have any senior leaders to match the charisma of the BJP central leaders, and the Congress could only get some inconsequential second-rung leaders to address poorly attended rallies.
Trinamool Congress chairperson Mamata Banerjee visited Tripura earlier this week, but left after conducting a short and insipid roadshow. Her nephew and heir apparent, Abhishek, did address a couple of rallies, but it was evident that the Trinamool’s skin is not in the game.
The CPI(M), which is contesting from 43 seats, has fielded as many as 24 fresh faces. But that gambit does not seem to be working and has only served to confuse the electorate.
What’s more, workers of both the CPI(M) and Congress have not taken kindly to the seat-sharing deal between their parties and are even working at cross-purposes. And voters have been put off by the ‘opportunistic’ deal between the two parties.
The only challenge to the BJP comes from the tribal party led by royal scion Pradyot Manikya Bikram Deb Barma. He is popular among tribals and can affect the electoral prospects of the BJP-IPFT combine in the 20 assembly seats reserved for the scheduled tribes (ST).
The Motha has fielded candidates in 42 of the state’s 60 seats, but it is only in the 20 ST seats that it wields influence. In the remaining seats, it will only end up dividing the opposition vote.
Similarly, the Left-Congress alliance will also end up dividing the anti-BJP vote in the ST seats, thus handing an advantage to the BJP-IPFT alliance.
Moreover, tribals are confused over reports about Tipra Motha reaching a clandestine deal with the CPI(M). BJP leaders have campaigned hard against the Motha, accusing it of being a surrogate of the communists. This has baffled a large number of tribals who have no love lost for the CPI(M).
“The Tipra Motha is a front for the CPI(M) and voting for the Motha would mean voting for the CPI(M). Our tribal brothers and sisters ought to be wary of the Motha and its credentials,” Himanta Biswa Sarma said.
Tipra Motha founder Pradyot Deb Barma’s refusal to contest elections has also raised doubts about his true intentions. BJP leaders have repeatedly questioned the royal scion’s commitment and that has befuddled and perturbed many tribals.
The Motha also lacks adequate resources and has not been able to field strong candidates in many seats. Its only selling point is the personal charisma of its founder, the royal scion who is fondly referred to as bubagra (king) by the indigenous Tripuri tribals.
The BJP has also been appealing to the tribals not to be misled by the Motha’s advocacy of Greater Tipraland, which the BJP claims is fantastical and unrealistic because it includes tribal-inhabited areas of Assam and also Bangladesh.
“Greater Tipraland can never become a reality and Pradyot Deb Barma is simply misleading the tribals,” said Chief Minister Saha.
The intensive campaign by the BJP to drive home this point among tribals is also bearing fruit.
Still Advantage BJP
This is why it is advantage BJP in Tripura. BJP leaders realise it, but are also leaving nothing to chance.
Apart from running a spirited and 360-degree campaign, BJP leaders have been stressing that the party will ensure that the fruits of development reach the lowest strata of society in the next five years.
The underlying message to the electorate from the BJP is to give the party another chance. BJP leaders have been telling the people of Tripura that five years is too short a period to take the state out of the ruins that the Left had left it in. And that the party needs another five years in power to ensure that the changes it is bringing about improve the lives of all.
Inherent in this promise is the oblique admission that there have been shortcomings in the past, but that from now on, the party will ensure good governance and put the state on the fast track to all-round development.
The people of Tripura seem to be accepting this message. It appears that they are willing to give the BJP another stint in power.
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