A quiet optimism is gaining ground in Tripura’s Left Front of a return to power after polls went on until 11 pm on Sunday. Usually high turnouts favour opposition but this time it could well be a reaction to Himanta Biswa Sarma’s threat to send Manik Sarkar to Bangladesh.
That one comment might well cost the BJP a chance to effectively challenge the Left, let alone contemplate a victory.
In a state where 70 percent of the electorate are of East Bengali origin, such a ludicrous comment not only angered the Leftists but people of all hue.
“My parents have voted first time for the Left,” Delhi based journalist Anirban Bhaumik, who hails from Tripura, said.” They want to teach a BJP a lesson.”
Though the local media , elements of which were heavily ‘taken care of’ , have painted a rosy picture for the BJP, the Left is confident it will pull a record its sixth straight victory and its eighth since 1978 under the leadership of Manik Sarkar.
“Our only worry was EVMs, doctoring which brought BJP huge victories in Assam and UP,” youth marxist leader Mohammed Akbar said. “Our cadres maintained utmost vigil on that score.”
He said the feeling in the Left was that Himanta Biswa Sarma was the man behind the EVM doctoring and the cash splurge by the BJP, which Tripura has not ever known.
“In case the Left wins but with a slender margin, one could be looking at a Manipur type aya ram gaya ram exercise, in which Himanta is the BJP’s biggest player,” local commentator Sitangshu Ranjan Dey said.
So the vibe from the Left stable is to attack Himanta on all fronts now — political propoganda , media coverage, street protests and if necessary physical roughing up.
Himanta has been very careful in his movements towards the end of his campaign with just some booths visited around the Agartala airport on polling day.
Sarma has touched raw nerves with his threat to send Sarkar to Bangladesh.
Given the background of tens and thousands of Bengali speakers not finding their names in the National Register of Citizens in Assam, an exercise in which Sarma played a leading role, Sarma’s comment is being seen as a threat to the citizenship of Tripura’s majority population of East Bengali origin.
The BJP has teamed up with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, giving it nine seats against the BJP’s 51. But Sarma has been silent on the IPFT’s contentious demand of carving out ‘Tipraland’ out of Tripura’s tribal areas.
The comment on Sarkar and the deal with the IPFT have not only upset the East Bengali settlers who make up more than 70 per cent of Tripura’s population but also challenged the idea of Bengali-tribal unity ( jati-upajati aikyo) and the sense of shared destiny.
What works in Assam will boomerang on the BJP in Tripura. Sarma may just be the one who has thrown cold water on the BJP’s poll prospects. The efforts of the RSS’s karyakartas to develop an anti-Left sentiment by playing on the young generation’s fears of unemployment and the lack of development, the bane of the Left’s performance in the state, seem to have gone to waste.
Sarma’s comments and his demand for president’s rule on the grounds of failing law and order appear far-fetched in the light of a report by the Union home ministry that shows Tripura to be one of the most peaceful states in the country. Politics is not about playing to the opponent’s strength but its weakness. But this is a lesson that Sarma seems not to have learnt despite being in several different political parties.
Sarkar is India’s only chief minister who ordered and executed a series of covert strikes against rebel bases in Bangladesh to crush tribal insurgency in Tripura – something I have detailed in my book, The Agartala Doctrine – without the kind of chest-thumping triumphalism that the BJP exhibited after the surgical strikes in Myanmar or Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Sarma is expecting the IPFT to deliver through its underground ally, the National Liberation Front of Tripura, a separatist organization that staged a violent campaign similar to that of the TNV’s attacks in 1988. That may scare away voters and Left candidates alike and ensure an IPFT sweep in the 20 seats reserved for scheduled tribes, leaving the BJP to win a dozen seats to form the government. This means that the BJP is reconciled to a Kashmir-like situation in Tripura where it plays a junior partner to the Peoples Democratic Party. But the weakened NLFT is not in a position to do what the TNV did in 1988. The prospect of violence would polarize the electorate on ethnic lines, ensuring a Left sweep in the 40 Bengali-dominated seats.
Another tribal party has teamed up with the Congress. This means that the tribal vote is likely to be divided into three boxes. Simple poll arithmetic and ground realities point to a comfortable Left victory unless some kind of a Central intervention upsets equations at the last minute. India’s ballot-box democracy is a game of numbers. The saffron party has never had an emotional resonance with Bengalis in spite of the legacy of Syama Prasad Mookerjee. Pracharaks from the North and the West as well as Assamese politicians like Sarma may not be a match for the native intelligence of Sarkar, whose suave, easy exterior conceals a political brain and ruthless determination.
The Left sees Sarma as the conduit of cash to the tribal underground in Tripura which might be used to disturb if the Reds return to power.
It also sees Sarma as the man with the moneybags if a Manipur type situation arises.
“The Left in Tripura is much more aggressive than in West Bengal and it is less confused and more focussed ,” Bengal’s leading Left watcher Asis Biswas said.
That may be too much for Himanta Biswa Sarma to handle