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NECK AND NECK IN THE NORTHEAST

It is neck and neck in the other two northeastern states going to the polls (and neck and neck in Himachal too), but in Tripura it seems to be more a case of neck and tail, with the Left Front trailing as the contestants round the final bend. I am not speaking of the unprecedented crowds that waited for Sonia Gandhi last Sunday at both Kailashahar and Agartala. I have been following Congress leaders to mass meetings for far too long to not know that you only see those who come to these meetings; you do not see those who stay away. And it is those who do not come who determine the outcome.

No, the forthcoming victory in Tripura was not fashioned last Sunday but a whole year ago when Sonia Gandhi accepted the Indigenous Nationalist Part of Twipra as an alliance partner. The INPT was such a new outfit that, at the time, it had not held even its inaugural convention, let alone adopted a constitution or the other appurtenances of a political party. There was not even a common minimum programme. But such was the Congress party’s faith in the need for tribal-nontribal unity and the unbeatability of a tribal-nontribal alliance in Tripura that the alliance with the INPT came through even before the INPT, in a full sense, came through.

The advantages of a non-opportunistic alliance, forged well in time and not at the last minute, are becoming apparent. The INPT, aware that it needed the Congress as much as the Congress needed it, took the utmost care to exclude anything controversial from its constitution. Not even the age-old demand for a “state within a state” was voiced. Instead, the INPT opted for a full-fledged commitment to the non-violent, democratic and constitutional process to secure the interests of the tribal people. And the INPT-Congress CMP went through so smoothly, phrased in such anodyne phrases, that there was no trouble whatsoever in securing the high command’s OK to it.

The apple-cart was almost upset when the INPT president, Bijoy Hrangkhawl, journeyed to Geneva for an NGOs get-together and there declared himself in favour of “self-determination”. This gave the Communist Party of India (Marxist) the ammunition it was looking for and before Hrang- khawl even returned to Agartala, the left were firing from all barrels. The INPT, however, repudiated Hrangkhawl’s statement in Geneva, thus leaving the left pushing at an open door. And the veteran communist leader, Nripen Chakraborty, put paid to the propaganda by announcing that had he been born a tribal, he would have taken a stand no different to Hrangkhawl’s.

The final blow was delivered by Hrangkhawl himself who, at an open public meeting in Agartala on September 8, 2002, declared his renunciation of violence and his faith in non-violent, democratic ways of securing his people’s rights. Unambiguously pledging his loyalty to the Constitution, he declared, “I am an Indian.” He explained that it was not the Constitution but the Left Front that was standing in the way of justice for the tribal people, which is why his party had decided to ally with the Congress. In a national party like the Congress, which had been instrumental in granting sixth schedule status to Tripura and establishing autonomous district councils in tribal areas, Hrangkhawl said he expected to find peace, justice and development, denied his people by the Left Front. He did not say so in so many words, but it was evident that when he talked of “self-determination” in Geneva in his uncertain English, what he really meant was “self-governance”, which is specifically provided for in Article 243G of the Constitution.

Instead of rejoicing at this unconditional declaration of fealty to the integrity of India, the left went into overdrive doing all they could to paint Hrang- khawl as a dangerous terrorist and secessionist (in which case, why did the Left Front government let him escape from custody').

Why is the left so panic-stricken' Because for the first time ever, the non-Marxist tribal forces are united on a single platform. There is no more a Tripura Upa Jati Samiti to play off aga-inst the Tripura National Volunteers.

Moreover, the merger of the TUJS and TNV into the INPT has also brought about the adhesion of numerous other tribal groups, in particular the Tribal Student Federation. The INPT marks the marginalization of the insurgent forces in tribal Tripura. Since there is no demarcation of a tribal belt and a non-tribal area in the state, and there are non-tribal votes in reserved scheduled tribe seats even as there are tribal votes aplenty in non-ST reserved seats, the Congress-INPT alliance secures the edge over the CPI(M) in virtually every seat. It is this that makes the reds see red.

Tripura is the most disturbed state in the Union (with more violence even than in Jammu and Kashmir). The root cause for this is that the left have flourished by stoking the tribal-nontribal divide. They have ministers like Anil Sarkar who, in language deriving straight from Praveen Togadia, openly urges the Bengalis to arm themselves.

Till the INPT-Congress alliance, the state was plagued with repeated tribal-nontribal clashes, leaving dozens dead, hundreds maimed, and thousands homeless. That has quietened down over the last year. Therefore, it is widely realized and acknowledged that converting the Congress-INPT alliance into a government is the best guarantee for maintaining harmony between the different ethnic and linguistic groups of the state. In this sense (rather than the usual Hindu-Muslim sense), the elections in Tripura are over the principles of secularism.

It was Leon Trotsky who said, “Revolution is impossible till revolution becomes inevitable.” Revolution is inevitable in Tripura. The ruling establishment will unleash, as usual, its orgy of violence on election day. But James Michael Lyngdoh has done a good job of ensuring security. And electronic voting machines are not as easy to rig as the old ballots. In any case, the left have had less time to practise and preach rigging in the new dispensation. So, adding all the factors together, I predict a comfortable win for the Congress-INPT. It could reach a two-thirds majority. But justice would be done only if the Congress and the left were to reverse the present position in the state assembly, leaving the Congress-INPT alliance with 48 seats and the left with 12!

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