Red fort under siege
The Bharatiya Janata Party's high-voltage rhetoric and posturing over the forthcoming assembly polls in Tripura remind me of 1988 when the CPI(M)-led Left Front was unseated from power for the first time in the last 40 years. If one were to go by the claims of Assam's Congress-turned-BJP minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, it would seem that this time too Tripura's communist government is headed for the Bay of Bengal.
Sarma has even threatened to send Manik Sarkar, Tripura's chief minister for the last two decades, to Bangladesh if the BJP wins the polls. Even the redoubtable Santosh Mohan Dev, Rajiv Gandhi's Man Friday in the Northeast, did not dare make such a threat even though he had succeeded in dethroning the Left Front from power in 1988, the only time the Reds lost the state since they first assumed office in 1978. Dev, like Sarma, was from Assam, albeit from the Bengali-speaking Barak valley and not from the Assamese-speaking Brahmaputra valley where Sarma hails from.
Therein hangs a tale. Dev was familiar with the dynamics of Tripura and the chemistry of its East Bengali dominant politics, so different from West Bengal and Assam. He generated panic not only among his Left opponents but his own Bengali-speaking partymen in Calcutta. Rhetoric apart, Dev did tie up with the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti and its underground ally, the Tribal National Volunteers. The TNV unleashed an orgy of violence against Bengali settlers, and Dev hit the streets demanding president's rule as well as the induction of the army. Tripura's then chief minister, Nripen Chakraborty, was opposed to these demands on the grounds that they would alienate the tribal people. Dev lost no time projecting the Left as anti-Bengali to effect a swing of the majority vote towards the Congress. The Left lost out by two seats: it got 28 in a 60-member House with the Congress-TUJS winning 32.
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. He merely said that the BJP would address socio-economic, cultural and linguistic issues of the tribal people in Tripura.
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.