Tripura’s new chief minister Biplab Deb has three advantages.
One, the relative obscurity from which he has emerged into the spotlight gives him the advantage of starting without much expectations . Compare with Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, in spotlight since his days as AASU president and took over as Chief Minister with his ‘jatiyo nayak’ reputation after leading the legal battle to scuttle IMDT act.
Two, Deb is demonstratively humble and well behaved , his touching the feet of outgoing Communist chief minister Manik Sarkar and his call to Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina seeking her blessings and cooperation were absolute Public Relations (PR) hit and stood out in sharp contrast to Sarkar’s put-up arrogance .
Three, Deb has the unstinted backing of the BJP-RSS leadership for having teamed up with the likes of Sunil Deodhar to deliver the impossible — a decisive victory against a long serving Left regime .
But he has two disadvantages — he is seen as someone who will be run by remote control, so he has to demonstrate he can be his own man. And he has to keep away the Hindutva excess from Tripura because the state gave the BJP a chance not because it has much to do with tilakdhari politics but because they wanted a credible anti-Left alternative capable of delivering on the promise and potential of development.
Deb would need the continued guidance of Sunil Deodhar , who is not only a master strategist but a man of commitment and vision, and surely Governor Tathagata Ray . But the BJP will do well to keep out Himanta Biswa Sarma from Tripura. Sarma’s controversial background and associations could burden Deb with deals that may stain his clean shirt and reputation. And Tripura’s local traders of East Bengali origin will not like business deals in Tripura to head to the Fancy Bazar brigade. What works in Assam will boomerang on Tripura. So let Sarma strategise election planning as NEDA , using means fair and foul, but it would be suicidal for the BJP to allow him try remote control Biplab Deb.
Not even the most ardent of BJP supporters welcomed Sarma’s threat to send CM Manik Sarkar to Bangladesh – his repeating the threat, giving Sarkar the option to go to Kerala or Bengal or Bangladesh was in real bad taste. Why should Manik Sarkar leave Tripura ! Just because he has lost elections ! A cheap stunt to rock supporters and boost their morale can be recipe for political harakiri and Sarma may need to choose his words carefully in future if he has to be taken seriously.
By extending 7th Pay Commission recommendations to state employees, Deb has made a flying start. But he will have to avoid the Left tendency to depend on central funds to create government jobs. A stellar poll victory may encourage Delhi to loosen purse strings for a while but not for long.
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So Deb should get his Infotech Department to start roadshows in India’s IT hotspots to attract investments, leveraging Agartala’s emergence as India’s third gateway. If he is successful, he will not only end up creating thousands of public sector jobs but also shame Manik Sarkar who cannot use a smartphone and is inherently suspicious towards technology.
Deb would find instant support from the likes of Saumen Sarkar, Bank of America vice-president (IT), who organises the Tripura Conclave and did attract a lot of top IT mandarins to the state in 2015 but failed to get any support from Manik Sarkar government. That the Tripura Conclave has been largely organised with support from Governor Tathagata Ray, a top engineer and lawyer and not a mediocre graduate like Manik Sarkar, should help Chief Minister Deb. He could easily get the government to partner the Conclave, a thoughts and ideas brainstorming exercise conceived by Saumen Sarkar. Creating jobs in IT and lightweight high value manufacturing that was strongly recommended by the 2015 Tripura Conclave — follow the Taiwan model — should be Biplab Deb’s priority. So his first step should be energise the IT and hand the portfolio over to some tech savvy minister — may be Sudip Ray Barman, who is an engineer and comes from India’s best military school RIMC. A clear IT policy with provisions for SEZs (regardless of possible Communist Opposition) should be floated and roadshows should be organised in places like Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad and Chennai. Hit the iron when hot — now is the time because a small state like Tripura is in national limelight for its stunning poll results.
The BJP victory owes much to the tribals who had come to see the Manik Sarkar regime as anti-tribal. Deb should seriously consider decommission the useless 10 MW Gumti Dam to free thousands of hectares of fertile land that can be reclaimed from under it for redistribution among landless tribals (about 25000 to 30000 tribal families). I have strongly pitched for this since 2004 when I told Manik Sarkar that much as we would back his tough counter-insurgency policy to crush the NLFT or ATTF rebel groups, it was his responsibility to solve the problem of tribal landlessness and alienation as a government if it cared for all. I even made a presentation at the World Commission on Dams at Mawlein near Shillong when it came to Northeast. I believe this can open a new path for ethnic reconciliation in Tripura. Sarkar did not give much heed to this because his party was not interested in upsetting lower caste Bengali peasants, the mainstay of Left support. Before elections, I tried to raise this with BJP leader Sunil Deodhar in my first and only meeting with him during the last Tripura Conclave.
Though the BJP has not included this in its manifesto this time, former party MP late Tapan Sikdar had once promised to take this Gumti Dam decommissioning proposal seriously. The BJP will steal the thunder from the IPFT and create its own base in tribal areas if it seriously takes this up. The IPFT ‘s Twipraland demand is ridiculous but I strongly support tribal empowerment and autonomy. The IPFT is merely interested in power sharing and has no time to address basic land alienation issues which is at the root of tribal angst in Tripura. So someone like Deputy Chief Minister Jishnu Debbarma should be asked to carefully look into the decommissioning proposal. In any case, the dam is in TTADC area and no non-tribal can officially own land there. So the state should decommission the dam and reclaim thousands of acres (because the dam hardly produces any electricity and is a white elephant) for redistribution among tribals.
If Biplab Deb and Jishnu Debbarma can pull this off, the BJP would have created a new model of governance in which the interest of the marginalised finds priority without compromising the dynamics of modern development. 600 old small dams have been decommissioned across the world in the past two decades because siltation and other vagaries of nature render it less and less worthy with the passage of time.
The road for Tripura’s troubled immediate past of ethnic conflict is someone forgives someone for the past and someone forgives someone for the present.
Manik Sarkar has created a precedent by getting AFSPA revoked from the state. Biplab Deb should carry this forward by unfurling a a real new roadmap for ethnic reconciliation and back it up with employment generation through attracting private investments. Again he can build on Sarkar’s opening the passage to sea through Bangladesh by his strident quiet diplomacy and relation building with Sheikh Hasina. Now Tripura will be Northeast’s gateway to the sea and the rest of the country in the new era of connectivity opened by grant of access and transit through Bangladesh. Biplab Deb has made a brilliant start by calling ‘elder sister’ Hasina before taking oath. He can now use this as a selling point to get investments into Tripura both from mainland India and Bangladesh and other foreign investors. So Tripura needs to avoid Assam’s NRC-centric anti-foreigner bluff and bluster which is spearheaded by Himanta Biswa Sarma , who is desperate to prove his saffron credentials, giving PhD in election management to Amit Shah and downgrading Rahul Gandhi who he oiled up for years when in Congress.
Manik Sarkar, with all his shortcomings, did create an infrastructure base, which Biplab Deb can use for an industrial takeoff. By touching Sarkar’s feet, Deb has sent a clear message – he won’t do what Sarma does to mentors like Tarun Gogoi. Sarkar is not his mentor but an political elder, but Deb has really created vibes by his display of humility. The ‘Bhalo Chele” now needs to come off age by some bold action as suggested in this column. And Tripura does not need commissars from Kamrup.
Subir Bhaumik is a veteran journalist based in Kolkata and author of several books on Northeast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org