In May last year, when the Bharatiya Janata Party replaced Biplab Kumar Deb as the chief minister of Tripura, it was seen as a necessary measure to quell a serious bout of internal dissent.

“The replacement was timely. He didn’t listen to the state leadership or party workers at all,” a senior BJP leader told Scroll.

The party workers were upset that the former chief minister had allegedly taken all the credit for the BJP’s remarkable victory in the northeastern state in 2018. The BJP had won 36 seats in the 60-member assembly. Its ally, the Indigenous Peoples’ Front of Tripura, won eight more.

“Deb had started to believe he was all in all. The way he talked in public didn’t impress the central leadership. So, he had to go,” the senior leader said.

With Manik Saha as the new chief minister and infighting under control, the party looked in better shape as it sought to retain Tripura, where it had swept to power by dislodging the 25-year rule of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

But ten months is a long time in politics.

The remarkable rise of the Tipra Motha, the newest political player in the state, and the coming together of traditional rivals CPI(M) and Congress have upset its calculations.

While the BJP continues to have an edge over the Opposition when it comes to organisational firepower, it does appear to have a contest on its hands. It may also have a trump card – the delivery of welfare programmes.

Prasenjit Sil (left) said earlier only CPI(M) cadres benefited from government schemes. Credit: Rokibuz Zaman.

‘Welfare without bias’

The party believes that the reach of its welfare programmes, and the lingering resentment against the CPI(M), will see it through. “We are getting a comfortable majority based on our work and performance in the last five years,” BJP spokesperson Subrata Chakraborty said.

The state goes to the polls on Thursday.

“We have not discriminated against anyone while giving out these schemes and benefits,” said Pratima Bhowmik, the Union minister of state for social justice and empowerment, who is contesting the election from Dhanpur constituency.

Prasenjit Sil, a 47-year-old who runs a barber’s shop in RK Nagar in West Tripura district, agreed. He said he got a house under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana last year, and since December, he had been getting free ration.

“Earlier, only CPI(M) cadres benefited from government schemes,” Sil said. “You had to make donations to the party to get anything.”

It was a view that found echo in remote Dhanpur Mojidabari, a small village of Muslim families bordering Bangladesh in Dhanpur assembly constituency.

“We are very poor people here and it is difficult to make ends meet,” said Jamal Hussain, a 40-year-old farmer. “But we got free rice, toilets and houses.”

Said Babul Sil, 57, a farmer of Jatrapur village in Dhanpur constituency: “More people got houses in the last five years. The BJP has cared for us.”

Biki Dutta's family have been loyal CPI(M) voters, but he decided to vote for change in 2018. Credit: Rokibuz Zaman.

The question of jobs

As far as he can remember, Biki Dutta’s family have been loyal voters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). But in 2018, the Agartala resident decided to vote for change – as did a majority of voters in Tripura, bringing an end to the CPI(M)’s long rule in the Northeastern state.

Five years later, Dutta, now 28, is a disillusioned man.

“The BJP is saying the government has provided over 1 lakh jobs. But where are the jobs?”

The state government has claimed that it has given jobs to over 24,000 people and job opportunities to more than 3.8 lakh people in 20,000 medium and small businesses.

Dutta has a diploma in mechanical engineering but drives a taxi for a living in Agartala.

“The BJP’s failure to keep its promises and the statements of former chief minister Biplab Deb have collectively dented the party image,” said political scientist Gautam Chakma, who teaches at Tripura University.

But even Dutta is sceptical that the BJP can be stopped on its way to a second term.

“The BJP didn’t deliver on its promises but the CPI(M)’s condition is not good either,” he said.

While unemployment and inflation appeared to be on voters’ minds in urban areas, they may not dent the ruling party’s prospects.

Bijit Saha, an auto driver in Agartala, admitted that voters are upset with the rise in prices, but argued that they were better off compared to other countries.

“We saw on TV news that a kilo of atta costs Rs 140 in Pakistan. So inflation won’t harm the BJP,” said Saha.

Sil said: “The BJP did a better job compared to the 25-year rule of CPI(M). They could not work for two years because of Covid. They should get another chance.”

Moran Paul runs a small restaurant in Golaghati. Credit: Rokibuz Zaman.

Bengali consolidation?

What is making the BJP electoral juggernaut work harder is the popularity of Tipra Motha in areas where the tribal vote is crucial.

Led by Pradyot Debbarma, who belongs to the erstwhile royal family of Tripura, the party has stirred up the state’s politics with a demand for a separate state.

A third of the 60 Assembly seats are reserved for the indigenous tribal population in the state. The BJP is hamstrung on these seats with the fading clout of its ally IPFT.

While talks with Tipra Motha on a possible pre-poll alliance did not take off, the BJP has now taken a harder stance on the demand for greater Tipraland. It has said it will not allow the bifurcation of Tripura, a signal to Bengali voters who might be unnerved by a demand for a new state for the indigenous population.

“Bengali people also have some fears that if Tipra Motha comes, what will be their fate?” said BJP spokesperson Chakraborty.

Like Motha, the BJP is also attempting to consolidate the votes on ethnic lines in tribal-majority seats, where the Bengali population is a significant minority.

“If the Bengali votes consolidate towards BJP and IPFT, then the equation will change in the tribal belt. It will be neck and neck,” Chakraborty said.

It’s not an outcome everyone is betting on.

Moran Paul, who runs a small restaurant in the Golaghati reserved constituency, where there is a sizable number of Bengali votes, said there is unlikely that there will be consolidation of the Bengali votes. “The tribals are united but not the Bengalis. The Bengali vote will be split between CPI(M) and the BJP,” Paul said.

A BJP leader, who did not want to be identified, admitted there was stress in the “tribal seats”. “Tipra Motha has taken the space of IPFT,” the leader said.

For the BJP, the Tipra Motha’s message of tribal welfare and sub-nationalism poses a challenge to its larger narrative in the Northeast and beyond.

“The Sangh Parivar’s political and social project has been to appropriate, and where appropriation is not possible, to co-opt the tribal indigenous communities and their heritage by sharing some semblance of power and dignity,” said Mridugunjan Deka, a senior research fellow of political science at Gauhati University. The Sangh Parivar refers to the many organisations with ties to the BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The party’s nomination of Droupadi Murmu to the post of President of India is one of several measures the BJP has taken to signal that it is a pro-tribal party. It ties in with the ideological project that seeks to absorb tribal communities into the larger Hindutva identity.

“Nationally, the message should not go out that the BJP has abandoned tribals,” the BJP leader said.