Can A Left-Congress Alliance Defeat BJP In Tripura?
Arch-rivals for five decades in Tripura, the Communist Party of India-Marxist and the Congress have joined hands together to take on the common enemy, the BJP.
Elections to the state legislative assembly are due in a month and the two parties hope to stop the BJP juggernaut in the north eastern part of India. They hope to exploit the anti-incumbency against the BJP government, which had to replace its Biplav Dev with Manik Sabha as chief minister in May last year, in an exercise similar to Uttarakhand, Karnataka and Gujarat.
BJP Scripted History In 2018
In 2018, BJP ended 25 years of Communist rule in the state bagging 44 out of 60 seats, recording 51% vote share in alliance with regional party IPFT. A remarkable victory considering the BJP didn’t win a single seat in the 2013 elections.
Amid a Modi fever in the country, post the 2014 general elections, the BJP trumped long-serving governments in Maharashtra (15 years), Haryana (10 years), and Assam (15 years), continuing its streak in Tripura.
From 2014 to 2018, the BJP, taking advantage of a weakened Congress nationally, took over its space in Tripura as the main opposition party. It formed an alliance with regional party IPFT, which has strong presence in the 20-odd tribal dominated seats of the state, strategically focused on the 17% youth population and highlighted the lack of development in the state. The promise of implementation of 7th Pay Commission recommendations, instead of the 4th Pay, wooed the 4 lakh-odd government employees.
Resultantly, the entire opposition vote shifted from Congress (-35%) and regional party INPT (-7%) to the BJP and its ally (+49%). It even made a dent of around 5% in CPM vote bank, riding on natural anti-incumbency of 25 years. The BJP along with IPFT swept the ST reserved seats, winning 18 of the 20 seats.
BJP's Ride Has Been Far From Smooth
Many Congress leaders joined the BJP just before the state elections in 2018, giving a boost to its prospects. Prominent among them was Sudip Roy Barman, son of a former chief minister. A health minister, who was later dropped, Roy was upset at being ignored for the chief minister's post by the BJP and led a rebellion of sorts, finally leaving the party. He won in a byelection on a Congress ticket in 2022.
As of date, five BJP MLAs have left the party. Three joined the Congress, one Trinamool Congress and TIPRA each, showing their displeasure with the functioning of the BJP and alleging throttling of democracy.
The BJP had to drop Biplav Dev as chief minister due to factionalism within the party, adverse feedback on his government, and burgeoning anti-incumbency. He was replaced by Manik Saha in May 2022 to negate negative perception about Dev's administration. The BJP hopes its action in time will help it save governments like in Uttarakhand and Gujarat.
The BJP’s ally IPFT is also facing trouble with three of its MLAs deserting the party and joining the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance or TIPRA headed by Tripura's royal scion Pradyot Bikram Manikya Deb Barman, former state chief of the Congress.
TIPRA has been increasing its footprints in the tribal areas of the state and won the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council elections last year. This council’s ambit of control covers over two-thirds of Tripura’s 10,491 sq km area with a population of about 1.2 million people, of which 90% are tribals. It has been advocating for a separate state—‘Greater Tipraland’—for indigenous tribes.
But All Is Not Lost Yet…
The BJP won three of the four seats on which bypolls were held in 2022. Two were necessitated by the death of sitting MLAs, while two were due to exodus from the BJP to the Congress. While the grand old party did manage to win a seat, the BJP benefited from a split in opposition votes, despite losing vote share. In fact, Congress emerged as the main opposition to the BJP in the bypolls ahead of CPM, bagging a higher vote share.
In north eastern states, individuals matter a lot more than party, and exit of MLAs damaged the BJP to some extent. CPM’s drop in vote share (-20%) seems to have prompted it to forgo its “akela chalo re” ideology. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress also bagged 3% vote share, which could be decisive in a close contest. More than 60% of the population speaks Bengali in the state.
Mahajot In Bengal Failed
The CPM and the Congress joined hands in the 2016 elections to defeat Mamata Banerjee. However, results show they lost 33 seats and 16% vote share. In any alliance, chemistry is very important, and only arithmetic doesn’t matter. Disaster awaited the alliance in 2021 elections, when it failed to win even a single seat. The BJP emerged as the main opposition to TMC.
The Left Front lost 70 seats, most of which were bagged by the BJP (+71). It lost around 25% vote share, which was lapped up by the BJP. The voter saw this as an opportunistic alliance for the sake of their survival. The cadre of both Congress and CPM fought on the ground against each other for decades, and are still the main rivals in Kerala. How could they work together in Bengal?
Still Many Moving Parts
TIPRA may not join the CPM-Congress alliance without Tipraland guarantee. Pradyot also has an uneasy relationship with the Congress as he left the party alleging its leaders were not interested in fighting the BJP. The Congress may also not be comfortable with TIPRA in the alliance. However, TIPRA may not contest seats where the Congress or the CPM can beat the BJP, and there could be an informal understanding.
The BJP’s alliance with IPFT also hangs in balance; no decision has been taken yet by either partner. Meanwhile, TIPRA has extended hand to IPFT for an alliance. If this happens, then the two parties could do well in the 20 out of 60 ST reserved seats. Mamata Banerjee’s TMC is also expected to contest on all seats, splitting the opposition vote.
A small state with around 50,000 voters on an average in each seat, Tripura faces close elections, with 10 seats in 2018 won by a margin of less than 1,000 votes.
The demand for a separate Tripraland covering the tribal belt of the state is one of the main issues in this election. If IPFT allies with TIPRA, it will be a big blow to the BJP. Even otherwise, IPFT has weakened compared to 2018. However, a split of opposition votes favours the incumbent generally. BJP hopes its double engine ki sarkar campaign will make voters reject an opportunistic alliance. A general weakening of the Left forces in the country shows the Communism ideology is not finding favour with the youth.
The test of any alliance is seamless transfer of vote between partners. History (Bengal) shows that it is unlikely as some leakages are bound to happen. On the other hand, BJP can’t just bank on the Modi factor alone, as incumbent governments can’t escape evaluation on performance and governance track record. Tripura has bounced back strongly (8.69% GDP growth in FY22) after recording a decline in GDP by 2.15% in a Covid year. Despite good progress, its per capita income continues to lag the all-India number.
To sum up, events in the next month, alliance finalisation, campaign and candidate selection could finally decide who wins Tripura.
Amitabh Tiwari is a political commentator, strategist, and consultant advising political parties and leaders. He was previously a corporate and investment banker.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.