Tripura Trauma & TMC’s Travails

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The decimation of the Left has shown BJP’s careful planning, and with a disgruntled urban youth force in her state, West Bengal’s ‘Didi’ must strengthen her rural support base

PRASANTA PAUL

PRASANTA PAUL

The author has worked with Deccan Herald for two decades, and also with various TV channels such as al-Jazeera and CNN. He currently heads the eastern bureau of Parliamentarian

The Marxist debacle in Tripura has literally upset all calculations and expectations; not only a diehard BJP leader, be it in Tripura or New Delhi, had the slightest inkling of this massive surge in the vote share – from a bare one and a half per cent a little over couple of years ago to close to fifty per cent but even the aam janta of this tiny landlocked state has been reduced to batting their eyelids to believe this spectacular upsurge in the saffron vote share. Not that Manik Sarkar of the CPI(M), perhaps the poorest chief minister of the country, had been riddled with charges of corruption and favouritism; not that this tiny state comprising about 26 lakh voters witnessed large scale communal violence and a deteriorating law and order; not that the 25 years of uninterrupted rule of the CPI(M)-led Left Front has generated more poverty than pelf. Then what?

What has baffled the psephologists flat is the mythical surge in the BJP votes hare and an abysmal dip in the Left vote bank; the surge, by all counts, is the highest to be achieved by any political party in India within such a short span – a little over three years. The Left, which bagged 64 per cent votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll, was left with a share of 42.7 per cent in the 2018 assembly elections. In sharp contrast, BJP, which was struggling to retain the deposit of its candidates in the LS polls, could turn the tide against the CPI (M), snatching close to 18 per cent of the committed Left vote into its kitty.

By registering almost 50 per cent vote, (BJP 43 per cent and IPFT 7.3 per cent) the saffron and its ally Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) drubbed the Left Front at the hustings with a tally of 35 and 8 respectively against the Front’s 16. The Congress was seen biting the dust with a meagre 1.8 per cent. Contrast this picture with that of the 2013 assembly polls and one would remain glued to it with sheer disbelief – CPI(M) led Front with a vote share of 48.1 per cent bagged 50 seats against opposition Congress with a tally of barely 10 seats cornering 36.5 per cent of votes. The verdict is certain to boost the saffron brigade’s political aspirations in other eastern states like West Bengal and Odisha; but more than that, it bears omnious portends for the CPI(M) and, of course, would not augur well for the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress. The setback for the CPI(M) comes in the wake of the party Politburo rejecting a political tie-up with the Congress as part of a bigger secular alliance to fight against the BJP. It was also preceded a hair-splitting debate between the CPI(M)’s Bengal line and the Kerala line, with latter gaining the better of the former.

In West Bengal, the CPI(M) has already started battling a massive erosion of base with the BJP having nudged it out from the second to the third position in all the elections the state has witnessed so far. There were accusations, for the right or wrong reasons, against the CPI(M) in Tripura that the party had declined to opt for a broader coalition against the BJP and apparently taken things lightly. The electorate in Tripura, majority of who are Bengalis from erstwhile Bangladesh, have traditionally been polarised between two parties – CPI(M) and the Congress. Since when the BJP has begun making inroads and so deftly as to rock the boat of a seasoned and clean politician like Manik Sarkar, is something the Marxist top honchos need to deeply introspect. The communal tag which is often thrown at the BJP, has failed to impact a large majority of the Bengalis and ethnic tribals of Tripura who had a traditional anathema towards the saffron party.

Secondly, it would be foolish to believe that the BJP did not do its homework. The party succeeded in alienating a section of the diehard Communist voters by harping on the issue of driving out of the state all illegal migrants from Bangladesh – a plank that gave the party victory in Assam a couple of years back. Ironically though, a large majority of the 70 per cent of the Bengali voters have migrated from Bangladesh over the past few decades, reducing the ethnic tribals to a minority. Another political brownie point that the BJP scored over the CPI(M) is the Centre’s declaration to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955 to make the illegal migrants eligible for citizenship on the basis of religion. IPFT, the tribal party which has been fighting for a separate state, aligned with the BJP despite being aware that like Darjeeling, BJP would shy away from granting its statehood demand. Only time will reveal how the BJP would tackle the aspirations of these tribals in the coming days and fissures have already begun surfacing in the BJP-IPFT coalition.

It would be interesting to note how the fall of the Manik Sarkar government in Tripura would impact the political game of the chess in West Bengal. Because, there was a time when the Trinamool Congress did make its presence felt in the political arena of Tripura, and Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s acceptance in the anti-Left vote bank started growing more than four years ago. However, with Mukul Roy, Mamata’s former key organiser, switching over loyalty to BJP, TMC suddenly found itself rudderless in Tripura. And the result was distinctly visible – the party was virtually reduced to a mere signboard, bagging barely 0.3 per cent of the votes polled. Although a visibly agitated, Mamata Banerjee declined to attach importance to the BJP victory in a `tiny’ state like Tripura, her open attack against the Congress president Rahul Gandhi for not `heeding her advice’ surprised the political pundits. “I’ve advised Rahulji to align with the hill outfits and form a broader coalition with us to avert splitting of votes; but he declined to heed my advice,” she told newsmen in Kolkata after TMC drew a scratch in Tripura.

Even though the anti-incumbency factor, BJP’s alleged use of money and muscle power are among other factors being cited by a tame TMC leadership for the Left’s debacle. Trinamool’s real worry stems from the fact that the saffron party has already succeeded in cobbling up its way to the second spot and successfully nudged out both the CPI(M) and Congress to a distant third and fourth positions respectively in all the assembly and Lok Sabha polls that were so far held in the state. And if one takes into account the entire tally of the opposition vote, the TMC candidate would not stand a chance.

Secondly, encouraged by the party’s unprecedented swing in the vote bank in West Bengal, the BJP national leadership is likely to press all its might to gain as much mileage out of Bengal as possible. “There is no reason to believe that the Tripura results will affect West Bengal. Those who are out on the street with drums and bands today, will have to sing their dirge in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls,” Mamata Banerjee claimed. But facts and picture at the grassroots do not corroborate her confidence. If the youth in Tripura was effectively tapped by one single issue – that of unemployment – by the BJP, the TMC government could hardly claim that it has succeeded in generating enough employment for the youth in the state in the last seven years that it has been in power. There has been widespread disenchantment among the youth in West Bengal, which the TMC leadership has chosen to wink at.

According to TMC insiders, the BJP’s tally of 35 seats in Tripura has not only shocked the TMC leaders here, but also sent strong signals about the immediate need to revamp the organisation in West Bengal. The TMC top leadership declined to attach importance to the fact of mass desertion of TMC workers to BJP in Tripura early last year. That the BJP has effectively cashed in on this has been proved beyond any doubt.

“We now know there was a traitor amongst us who had been working overnight (in Tripura) to sabotage the party,” the TMC spokesperson and state education minister Partha Chatterjee said in an oblique reference to Mukul Roy who had once been given the charge of revamping the party in Tripura by Mamata Banerjee. As Roy ensured his exit from the TMC, what he simultaneously did ensure was to turn Trinamool into a virtual signboard in the NE state.

Thus, the factor which is indeed one of the major causes of concern for the Trinamool leadership (though the party would hotly contest this) is the defection of Mukul Roy to the saffron camp. Roy, who knew a large number of Trinamool district functionaries and nursed them for decades in Bengal, has been reportedly in touch with them through his own `trusted messengers.’ An old veteran of the `battles’ TMC had fought in the Nandigram and Singur, Roy could spring surprises and fire salvos to embarrass his old party. And even many in the TMC attribute it to `Roy’s sleight of hand’ in a steady spurt in the internecine squabbles in Trinamool in various places across the districts.

Interestingly, chief minister Mamata Banerjee had told Communist Party of India-Marxist lawmakers this week in the Bengal assembly that she would have been happy “for a greater cause had they (CPI(M) won the Tripura Assembly polls.” What she meant by `greater cause’ is obviously to stitch an anti-BJP coalition in the east. Cashing on this remark of the chief minister, BJP leader Mukul Roy accused her of making a volta face. “This shows how effectively she can doublespeak; earlier, she used to urge people to defeat the CPI(M) and now, she wants them to win as she is mortally afraid of the BJP.” Roy has already launched his game plan to dent Mamata’s image. Because, the more he could trigger anti-Mamata feelings in the TMC vote bank, the higher the chances of cross-voting. It was this factor – cross-voting – which gave the BJP a critical edge in the just-concluded elections in Tripura.

By now, it has definitely dawned on Mamata Banerjee that a sizeable section of the opposition CPI(M) and Congress votes in West Bengal has steadily taken a flight towards the saffron. Although she has failed to cause any major cracks in various CPI(M) district headquarters like the party had succeeded in the Congress, she has now shifted her focus in arresting the `flight’ of the committed Left and Congress votes to the BJP. She must have noted with concern the unabated trend of this; hence, her detractors in BJP and elsewhere point out that of late, she has mounted a consolidated effort ‘to make the right noise’ to woo that section of the disgruntled voters of the Left. Her condemnation of the vandalisation of the statue of Lenin, sending bouquet to former chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya and wishing him on his birthday and her `fond wish of a CPI(M) victory in Tripura’ etc., all bear testimony to this. And even though she might have rubbished away the BJP surge (a senior journalist termed it as Saffron Tsunami) in Tripura, she knows it is time she will have to further consolidate her rural and semi-urban vote bank with more down-to-earth developmental programmes and projects before the saffron and RSS pracharaks could turn the current chinks in her vote bank into a chasm. Her popularity graph in the urban areas has now considerably dipped since her government has miserably failed to generate employment. Hence, her desperation to retain the rural stranglehold is obvious; barely a couple of months later, three tier panchayat polls are slated. It is sine qua non for the Trinamool to win the gram panchayats and zila parishads to thwart the efforts of the BJP to entrench its position in the heartland of Bengal. If she succeeds, the battle for the 2019 Lok Sabha is likely to be easier; if she falters, like the Left, the fort of Ma, Mati, Manush (Trinamool’s nick name) will crumble.

However, fortunately for Trinamool, Mukul Roy, Mamata’s arch bete noire in BJP, is not being allowed to function in the state unit in the manner he is keen to, thanks to `aspirations’ of the state BJP chief Dilip Ghosh who tried in vain to block his entry into the party. That Ghosh will not allow Roy to score any brownie point has been proved beyond doubt and the struggle for power, for display of one-upmanship has already surfaced in the Saffron territory of Bengal; it is certain to intensify further over selection of nominees for the ensuing elections to the three-tier panchayats due sometime in May/June. Ghosh who is obviously not keen to yield ground to Roy (a very late entrant in the saffron brigade) is expected to scuttle candidates of Roy who is bent on breaking the back of Trinamool.

The BJP in Tripura was not riven with a tug of war over leadership which the party has been facing in Bengal. Both the BJP and Sangh Parivar are aware of this internal fight in the party, which has only been growing. Hence, much though the party chief Amit Shah or prime minister Narendra Modi might vouchsafe to spread the `saffron hue’ across Bengal, BJP has itself made Mamata’s job quite easier as there’s at least no leadership tussle at the top level of the Trinamool.

It now remains to be seen how Mamata’s Trinamool uses this rift in saffron camp to its advantage. But it would be grossly foolish to underestimate and then write BJP’s latent weapons off as Shah and Modi might set up a riveting final to watch.

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