Tripura Elections 2023: Who holds the edge?

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On February 16, 2023, the tiny northeastern state of Tripura went to the polls. As per records, the voter turnout was 87.6 percent.  In 2018, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) comprising the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT) dislodged the Left Front government and came into power. The BJP and IPFT had won 36 and 8 seats respectively in the 60-seat Assembly. Biplab Deb became the chief minister of Tripura after leading the NDA to power. After he resigned in 2022, Manik Saha took over the chief ministership.

How did each of the contesting parties position themselves? This article discusses the same.

The National Democratic Alliance

The BJP and IPFT went to the elections contesting on 55 and 6 seats respectively. Relying on the charismatic leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah and the continuation of the “double engine” government, BJP hopes to return to power. BJP boasts of a very strong organisation in the state. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has made considerable inroads in the voters’ minds in the state. The incumbent government has been highlighting the fact that the state has received large sums of central government funds for infrastructural development. Social security pensions have increased to Rs 2000 from Rs 1000 and 3.81 lakh people have been beneficiaries. Construction labourers have seen a hike in minimum wages and entrepreneurs have had access to subsidised loans. Central government schemes like PM Kishan and Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana have resulted in the creation of a new ‘labhabharati’ voter block. 

The state government has shed light upon the implementation of schemes like Nutan Disha, the inauguration of the National Law University and National Forensic Science University and three new government degree colleges. BJP has promised that it would provide two free LPG cylinders to beneficiaries of PM Ujjawala Yojana, land pattas to all eligible landless citizens and financial assistance of Rs 3000 per year to landless farmers under the “Unnato Tripura, Srestho Tripura” manifesto if it returns to power. Additionally, it has promised more autonomy for the tribal areas. The Bru community, which faced violence from the Mizos and settled in Tripura for safety, have grown closer to BJP after the Mizoram, Tripura and Central governments signed a settlement agreement with the Bru settlers for the settlement of 6959 Bru families in Tripura with a financial package of Rs 661 crore. 

Prominent opposition faces like sitting MLA Moboshar Ali and former MLA Subal Bhowmik have joined the saffron party. The IPFT, which has demanded a separate state for the tribals in the past, continues to enjoy some support in the tribal areas.

The BJP, which stormed into power in 2018 on the back of many promises, faces severe anti-incumbency as it has not been able to fulfil many of its promises. Poverty, inflation and unemployment are problems that plague the electorate. The rural and tribal voters are especially angry at the lack of development. Drug usage is rampant. Farmers and teachers’ issues have not been addressed by the incumbent government. The emergence of ‘Bike Bahini’, a group of rowdies who cause mayhem and violently attack political adversaries across the state, has alarmed many. The rowdies allegedly enjoy the support of the BJP. Allegations of voter intimidation, rigging and political violence by BJP cadres have been levelled by all opposition parties. The state unit of BJP is deeply faction-ridden as the Congress imports and RSS workers have not enjoyed an equal share in power over the last five years. BJP got the anti-Left (which was the Congress vote bank earlier) voters to flock en masse to the saffron party in 2018. 

Some former Congressmen like Diba Hrankhawl, who had joined BJP, have now shifted back to Congress. Voters are yet to receive a satisfactory answer to why Biplab Deb was changed to Chief Minister by the BJP bosses in Delhi. IPFT’s credibility among tribals has reduced a lot which is evident from the results of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) elections of 2021 where it was wiped out. The tribals believe that IPFT has compromised with the demands of its voters in exchange for power. After the death of NC Debbarma, the IPFT chief, the party looks dispirited. The departure of Dhananjoy Tripura and Brishaketu Debbarma has caused further damage to IPFT.

The Secular Democratic Forces

The Communist Party of India(Marxist) (CPI-M)-led Left Front has stitched up an alliance with its erstwhile bitter rival Indian National Congress (INC). The CPI-M is contesting 43 seats and the Congress is contesting 13 seats while the rest are being fought by smaller allies. The SDF is fighting the elections on grounds of restoring democratic and secular values, which it alleges have been the primary victims of the NDA regime. Even though it lost the 2018 elections, the Left Front, which had been in power for more than two decades, managed to get a vote share of 42.22 percent to the BJP’s 43.59 percent. The communists have been highlighting the land reforms and the setting up of the TTAADC undertaken during their regime. Progress in Human Development Indices, ensuring the end of militant activities in the state, implementation of MNREGA and establishment of road networks in remote areas are some achievements of the Left. Administrating 27 pension schemes for marginalised groups like domestic workers, widows and fishermen has been widely appreciated. Development schemes targeting Dalits, Muslims and tribals have resulted in these groups largely sticking with the Left. The party has fielded many young candidates hoping to cash in the youth votes. Jitendra Chaudhury’s projection as the prospective Chief Minister by the CPI-M is an attempt to break the narrative of the party being a ‘Bengali’ party and regain the trust of tribal voters, who have deserted the party in huge numbers recently. 

The Congress, which has been facing an existential crisis since 2018 in the state, has received a shot in the arm with Sudip Roy Burman and Ashish Saha returning to its fold from BJP in 2022. The party came a distant second in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in the two Lok Sabha seats in Tripura. The Left leaders have promised government, semi-government and private jobs for 2.5 lakh people, free electricity for up to 50 units per family, granting of land pattas to landless individuals and banning the practice of privatisation for government-run educational centres if it is voted to power. The Congress has promised the promotion of medical tourism, providing free treatment to the poor in public hospitals and Rs 50,000 special marriage assistance for daughters of BPL families. Additionally, facilitation of pilgrimage for devotees to holy sites, raising of Minimum Support Price for paddy from Rs 2040 to Rs 2500 per quintal and consolidated package for the welfare of minorities have been pledged by Congress. Promises of a special package for tribal development and reintroduction of the Old Pension Scheme have caught the attention of voters.

However, not all is well among the alliance partners. Traditional voters of Congress and CPI-M, who have been at each other’s throats for several decades, are deeply suspicious of the alliance. The Left-Congress alliance in West Bengal failed to make any impact as the supporters of the traditional rivals did not vote for each other. The two parties have fought over seat-sharing issues with Congress bargaining for more seats than the CPI-M was willing to offer. The SDF has failed to provide any sort of opposition to the ruling regime with the parties performing very poorly in the local elections. Manik Sarkar, the former Chief Minister, has refused to contest. This has triggered speculations of discontent among CPI-M members. 

The Left Front contenders lack electoral experience, strong organisational backing and financial resources. People have not forgotten the political violence ushered by the CPI-M cadres during the Left rule. There were widespread allegations of corruption, mismanagement of state resources, political bias and violence by the local CPI-M workers although Manik Sarkar was considered a clean politician. The Left Front failed to address issues of unemployment and underemployment and match the aspirations of the youth during its regime. The Congress has a feeble organisation in the state and most of its national leaders have been absent in the campaign. Presence of other opposition parties can result in the division of anti-BJP votes which would damage the SDF.

The TIPRA Motha 

The Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance or TIPRA Motha Party (TMP) led by royal scion Pradyot Vikram Manikya Debbarma has emerged as the dark horse this year. The party led by the former state Congress president has performed remarkably well in the TTAADC elections as the alliance led by it won 18 out of 28 seats. Several local tribal parties have merged with TMP and it has emerged as the premier tribal party replacing IPFT. The party seeks to establish a ‘Greater Tiprland’ via constitutional means and attempts to consolidate tribal voters in its favour. It is expected to sweep the majority of the 20 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes(ST). It has promised to pass a resolution against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), doorstep service delivery, providing land for the landless, setting up of sports university and promotion of local languages. Burba Mohan Tripura of BJP and Mevar Kumar Jamatia of IPFT have joined TMP. 

Debbarma’s insistence that he would not ally with any big party unless he receives a written agreement on the solution of tribal issues has resulted in Motha going to the polls alone. Both the NDA and SDF have attacked Motha for having clandestine arrangements with the other. TMP’s inability to get funds allocated to the tribal council has been raised by opposition parties.

Although TMP has put up non-tribal candidates and professes that it will ensure the protection of non-tribals in tribal-dominated areas, few believe it as the tribals and non-tribals share a history of violence in the state. TMP is completely dependent on the charisma of its chief as many of the candidates do not wield much individual influence. There are some subgroups within the tribal community which are not happy with Debbarma usurping all the limelight. TMP’s presence can result in the polarization of Bengali votes to either NDA or SDF. 

The Trinamool Congress 

After the emphatic win over BJP in the West Bengal Assembly elections in 2021, the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (AITC) is trying to gain ground in Tripura. The party got a 16.39 percent vote share in the state urban local body elections and came a distant second in Agartala Municipal Corporation polls in 2021. Trinamool has targeted all the opposition parties and claims that it is best suited to oust BJP. Its ranks have been bolstered with some former  Congress leaders like Sushmita Dev and Pijush Biswas joining the party in recent times. It has promised to give Rs 1000 per month to one lakh unemployed youths, set up of startup incubators, fill up government posts and an additional secretariat in North Tripura to manage TTAADC affairs.

However, Trinamool is not in a position to make much progress as it is fighting for very few seats. Its performance in the recent by-polls has been insignificant. Prominent leaders have left the party to join BJP or Congress. Trinamool does not have any recognisable local face or credible organisation in the state although it hopes to gain some Bengali votes. Corruption and political violence in West Bengal have cast doubts in the minds of Tripura voters on the viability of voting for Trinamool. 

Election Results Date: 2 March 2023.

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