In the past couple of weeks, visitors to Agartala, the capital of Tripura, woke up to catchy campaign tunes that went “Amra vote debo na, vote debo na [we will not vote]...” Cut to Thursday, February 14, and the turnout for the state’s ninth assembly election was a record 93.57 per cent, the highest in the country. While this display of political consciousness bodes well for the last bastion of the Left in India, the electorate is apprehensive that Tripura could go the Bengal way if the ruling CPI(M) becomes complacent.
Indeed, jobs have not been forthcoming and industry is still in gestation. But the roads in Tripura, even those in the interior districts, are commendable, with both the state government and the Border Roads Organization playing a laudable role. The rubber and bamboo plantations are thriving, although urban dwellers claim this has had an adverse impact on the weather. The chief minister, Manik Sarkar, who is seeking his fourth straight term from Dhanpur in Sipahijala district, faces a tough contest from the social activist, Mohammed Shah Alam, of the Congress. This year, the 64-year-old chief minister has campaigned all over the state, visiting his own constituency regularly, unlike during the last three terms.
Dhanpur shares an unfenced border with Bangladesh (Comilla town is just 10 km away), and has a sizeable minority population. In 2008, Sarkar’s margin of victory was only a little over 2,000 and, this time, his solace could be that Dhanpur recorded a remarkable turnout at 95 per cent. Besides, the residents of Dhanpur village, where almost everyone goes by the name of Debnath, are loyal to Sarkar. They point to their good roads, high school and hospital to echo Sarkar's “peace and development” plank. Given Tripura’s history of insurgency, with horrific incidents like the Mandai massacre in 1980, the people appear content with basic needs as long as peace prevails.
The state is also rich in natural gas and generates surplus power, but as the chief minister keeps reiterating, an apathetic Central government is not allowing him to translate his economic agenda into reality by selling power to the national grid, or opening up the borders with Bangladesh through a sea-port at Chittagong and a river-port at Ashuganj. Tripura is landlocked by Bangladesh on three sides, with 833 km of its 856 km border with the neighbouring country fenced, and any development plans are inevitably linked to trade with the latter.
When elections were announced, the Congress was quick to hijack Trinamul’s paribartan mantra, especially when the latter, after an “oust CPI(M)” call, decided to opt out of the fray. The Congress also promised laptops to meritorious students and unemployment doles to woo first-time voters. But in the run-up to polling day, the anti-incumbency factor was almost non-existent because of a lack of a feasible alternative. The state Congress is rift-ridden and its desultory campaign till early last week hardly evoked any election fervour.
Tripura’s king, Pradyot Bikram Manikya Deb Burman, an AICC member, was denied a ticket. The 34-year-old AICC member, however, campaigned actively, especially in the tribal areas. Ever since Tripura became a state in 1972, the Congress failed to nurture the remote hilly districts the way the Left leaders have done. Deb Burman’s fluency in the local Kokborok made him an instant crowd-puller, but the party failed to take advantage of this.
Whether the Left Front’s emphasis on peace and development will prevail over the Congress’s cry for change will be evident on February 28, when the fate of the 249 candidates, now back in their constituencies for the final reckoning, is decided.