Ten days since his resignation as Tripura chief minister, Biplab Kumar Deb must still be scratching his head. As an erstwhile star who felled the mighty comrades in Tripura, he has every reason to listen to American singer John Anderson: “Would you catch a fallen star before he crashes to the ground/ Don’t you know how people are/ nobody loves you when you are down.”
Deb surely knows nobody catches a falling star, and there are many in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Except for Anandiben Patel, formerly a close associate of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who rehabilitated her in a Raj Bhavan, other sacked CMs—Vijay Rupani of Gujarat, Trivendra Singh Rawat and Tirath Singh Rawat of Uttarakhand, and B.S. Yediyurappa of Karnataka—are on political margins today. So are a host of ministers who were once the shining lights of the Modi Cabinet.
Deb’s dream run comes crashing down
It was a dream run for Biplab Deb. When he was appointed Tripura BJP chief in January 2016, he was barely 44. He ticked all the boxes. Son of a Jana Sangh leader, he had been groomed by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leaders such as K.N. Govindacharya and Krishna Gopal. It was Gopal who had asked Deb to leave Delhi to work for the party in Tripura in 2015, and the latter proved his mettle. When he took over as the BJP president a year later, the party was virtually non-existent in the state, having secured just about 1.5 per cent votes and zero seats in the 2013 assembly election. However, he led the BJP to dislodge the 25-year-old Left-led government in 2018. The Modi-Shah duo got the credit for grooming and promoting another next-generation leader.
Today, at 50, Biplab Deb must be wondering about the cardinal sin he might have committed that got him sacked nine months before the next assembly election. If it was his penchant for making controversial statements and gaffes, most BJP CMs and Union ministers would be out by now. The same holds true when it comes to high-handedness in dealing with political opponents and the media.
If it was about the BJP’s electoral calculations in Tripura, the Deb administration was certainly delivering. Or so it seemed from the results of Tripura civic polls last November. The BJP swept all 14 urban bodies, winning 217 of the 222 seats that went to the polls.
When Deb resigned on 14 May, the explanation coming from central BJP leaders—off the record, of course—was that he failed to contain factionalism in the party and the government. Two Congress-turned-BJP MLAs—Sudip Roy Burman and Ashish Kumar Saha—had quit the party in February.
Biplab Deb’s stepdown doesn’t seem to have united the Tripura BJP, by the way. On Friday, Tripura law minister Ratan Lal Nath elevated the former CM to a whole new level. “There is a reason why people are born where they are born…for example, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Vivekanand in our country or Einstein…not everyone is born everywhere. It’s good for Tripura that Biplab Kumar Deb was born here,” The Indian Express quoted Nath as saying at an event. The law minister called the former CM “the people’s leader” who gave the state a new direction, “a new dream”.
New Tripura CM Manik Saha, although a Deb nominee, must envy his predecessor’s influence over his cabinet colleagues. Ratan Lal Nath’s message may not be lost on Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah either. Saha would also be conscious of other cabinet colleagues looking over his shoulder. MLA Ram Prasad Paul, who had shouted and smashed a chair at the party meet where Saha was announced as Deb’s successor, has retained his place in the cabinet. Last February, he was part of the 15-member group of BJP leaders that had written to Saha, party president at that time, seeking his resignation for “ruining” the BJP in his 26-months-long tenure.
Saha, who had quit the Congress to join the BJP in 2016, has his task cut out, obviously. The BJP has replaced a 50-year-old CM with one who is 69 years old and has never contested any direct election at the panchayat, assembly or Lok Sabha level. The next assembly election is nine months away, but he must get elected as an MLA within the next six months. The BJP high command may not worry though. They were not sure about Tirath Singh Rawat getting elected as an MLA after becoming CM and so replaced him with Pushkar Dhami. It didn’t matter to Uttarakhand voters, did it?
Factionalism an issue for BJP—really?
Anyway, talking about the Tripura BJP, if factionalism was an issue, many CMs in BJP-ruled states today must also scratch their heads. Ask Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan what Kailash Vijayvargiya and home minister Narottam Mishra—both close to the party high command—are doing to him. Chouhan may want to keep his mouth shut though. Check with Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar what he thinks about state home minister Anil Vij publicly undermining him all the time, notwithstanding their public claims to the contrary.
Remember the number of MLAs and MPs who publicly expressed discontent with the way CM Yogi Adityanath was handling the pandemic in Uttar Pradesh?
If MLAs’ resignation and the unhappiness of an ally—the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT)—could necessitate a change of guard, Biplab Deb may also remember how the BJP high command saved the Biren Singh government in 2020. Ministers belonging to an ally—the National People’s Party (NPP)—revolted against CM Biren Singh and resigned. And wasn’t the high command aware of the anti-incumbency building up against the Raghubar Das-led government in Jharkhand? Das, installed as the CM by Modi-Shah after the 2014 assembly election, was defeated by his ex-cabinet colleague Saryu Roy in 2019.
No rhyme or reason
The moral of the story is—don’t look for rhyme and reason when it comes to the installation or removal of chief ministers by the BJP high command. Biplab Deb, for all his follies, can ask: “If I had to be sacked for this or that reason, what about my counterpart here and there?” But if he looks for the high command’s criteria for the removal of a CM, well, there are none.
PM Modi and Amit Shah are always hailed for taking bold decisions—removing Anandiben Patel and Yediyurappa due to their advanced age, the two Rawats due to their non-performance, and Rupani to give the Gujarat government a fresh look and shed anti-incumbency baggage. At least, that’s what the BJP high command would have the people believe. Nobody can question its political wisdom because these so-celebrated bold decisions worked for the party in assembly elections in Gujarat in 2017 and in Uttarakhand in 2022. Proof of the pudding is in the eating, right?
No wonder, Karnataka CM Basavaraj Bommai has paid eight visits to Delhi in the last 10 months since he replaced Yediyurappa. In the last two months since he took oath as Goa CM for the second time, Pramod Sawant has made three visits to Delhi. Check out the Delhi visits of other BJP CMs. As many as eight BJP CMs were in attendance at a media conclave organised by RSS-affiliated magazines Organiser and Panchjanya in Delhi on Sunday. One can’t blame them though. They can deliver to their people back home only if they learn the art of survival. And the Delhi durbar is the key to that.
As for Biplab Deb, here is what John Anderson has to offer: “Sing a golden country song if you’ll catch a fallen star.”
DK Singh is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.