New Delhi: The BJP’s troubles in Tripura, where the party had stormed to power for the first time in 2018 by delivering a crushing defeat to the Left Front government, are refusing to abate, with the cabinet expansion this week failing to assuage concerns raised by members.
Amid resentment against Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb, which has been brewing for months, MLAs cite a host of worries — the growing political graph of the Trinamool Congress in the state, “lack of coordination between the party and the government”, “discontent” among party workers, and “overdominance of officials” — that they say can dampen the BJP’s prospects in 2023.
Meanwhile, former health minister Sudip Kumar Burman, a former Congress leader who is believed to have played a big role in the BJP’s rise in the state, has refused to work under Deb.
Burman had been dropped from the state cabinet in 2019 for alleged “anti-party activities”.
Ahead of the cabinet expansion Tuesday, Assam Chief Minister and BJP-led North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) convenor Himanta Biswa Sarma had personally invited Burman to Guwahati and asked him to join the cabinet again.
However, despite all the persuasion, Burman, a staunch opponent of Deb, did not consent.
In light of the situation, the BJP high command sent a four-member team to gauge the mood of people in the state on 30 August. This is the second central stock-taking trip in as many months. In June, BJP general secretary (organisation) B.L. Santhosh met with BJP MLAs, ministers as well as various other party office-bearers.
The trouble in Tripura comes close on the heels of back-to-back changes in leadership in two BJP-led states — Karnataka as well as Uttarakhand.
The BJP has 36 MLAs in the Tripura assembly of 60 members. Deb’s critics say the cabinet expansion, which led to the inclusion of two MLAs from the Burman camp, Sushanta Chaudhary and Ram Prasad Pal, has failed to honour the aspirations of tribals, despite 10 BJP MLAs being from the community.
Speaking to ThePrint, Burman said dissatisfied cadres of the BJP are shifting to the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
“The question right now is not about becoming a minister. Previously, we had raised some issues with the BJP high command regarding the status of the party and the state government. The real question is, why are our dissatisfied cadres migrating towards the Trinamool?” he added.
“Obviously, I am not going to join Trinamool, but the party should definitely find an answer as to why, despite BJP being the ruling party, people are getting more attracted towards the Trinamool. I was even offered the post of a minister but I declined.”
Ashish Kumar Saha, another MLA from the Burman camp, said “nothing is going to change with this cabinet expansion”.
“There is large-scale public dissatisfaction among the people against Biplab. BJP workers at the district and mandal levels are leaving us to join Trinamool. We are not able to give them proper respect due to our arrogance. At present, there are more than 20 BJP MLAs that are against Biplab’s style of functioning,” he added.
“If the BJP high command does not take action while there is still some time, the party is bound to suffer losses. Even during the cabinet induction, those who had no prior experience were inducted. Tribals were not included during this exercise.”
Said a tribal MLA, “Ten out of 20 tribal MLAs got elected on a BJP ticket but the party did not appoint any of them as ministers. This will send a wrong message to the already agitated tribal community.”
A member of the central BJP team said they are aware of workers’ grievances, and will convey the feedback to the party high-command. Meanwhile, those in the CM’s camp said the party is working to sort out things.
“Normally, in politics, everyone has aspirations. There was some issue, but now the BJP high command is trying to sort out things. We were told to work unitedly to ensure victory of the party in 2023,” said BJP MLA Surjit Dutta, a member of the CM’s camp.
Resentment in BJP
Of the two new ministers, Sushanta joined the BJP along with Burman after quitting the Trinamool Congress in 2017. Meanwhile, Pal was among the legislators who went to Delhi last year demanding Deb’s removal.
While the CM appears to have succeeded in bringing the MLAs to his fold, he faces much backlash in the state.
As many as nine BJP MLAs were absent from the swearing-in ceremony. While each of them cited different reasons for their absence, the BJP high command has become alert due to their absence. The eight MLAs of ally Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) didn’t attend either, allegedly because their demand for additional representation in the cabinet wasn’t fulfilled — they currently have two ministers in the state.
Burman walked out of the BJP Legislature Party meeting Monday. He cited a prescheduled meeting and his daughter’s tuition as the reasons, but, again, few believed the explanation.
Before the arrival of the central delegation, Burman, along with his five trusted MLAs, held a meeting with representatives of different districts Sunday and took stock of the situation there. The inputs gathered thus were later shared with the central team.
The central team, during its feedback meetings in Tripura, also tried to get the true measure of the impact being made by the Trinamool Congress and Pradyot Deb Barman’s alliance in tribal-dominated areas.
During its deliberations with district presidents and vistaraks, it also made an attempt to find out more about the BJP government’s performance, delivery of welfare schemes to the ground level, and anger among the masses after the spate of deaths during Covid-19.
A total of 803 people have died of Covid in the state so far, according to Union health ministry data.
MLA Surjit Dutta said the “central team received feedback on coordination between the government and the party, about benefits of government schemes reaching the ground level, election preparation, and the government’s efforts during the Covid pandemic”.
“It’s not that the government did nothing but there are certainly some problems in the implementation of government schemes. The bureaucracy dominates all this. The chief minister does not want to tolerate any sort of criticism,” a BJP MLA said.
“There has also been a lack in promotion — publicity measures. So the BJP central team is evaluating all those loopholes.”
Another BJP MLA said the central team “wanted to know from us as to how big a threat the Trinamool Congress can be to the BJP”. “This is because the culture, language etc of Bengal and Tripura are quite similar and people here are looking at it as a potential alternative,” the MLA added.
Following her party’s victory in Bengal earlier this year, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s third in a row, the Trinamool has marked Tripura as a new focus state for its expansion, alongside Assam.
Trinamool Congress general secretary and Mamata’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee toured Tripura in August to try and revive the TMC cadre base. Ministers in the Bengal government and officials from the party organisation will visit Tripura every week to take forward the task of expansion.
On Wednesday, Sushmita Dev, a former MP from Assam who switched to the TMC from the Congress last month, came to Tripura. She will camp here for 15 days in order to strengthen the state TMC’s organisation at the grassroots level.
“The BJP high command is also quite concerned about the growing support base of Pradyot Deb Barman in tribal-dominated areas. That is why the central team wanted to know from the MLAs about their growing support base. The BJP team also asked us what are the reasons that his support base is constantly increasing,” said a third BJP MLA.
Earlier this year, Deb Barman’s TIPRA Motha won the elections to the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous Development Council (TTAADC), which oversees areas home to tribals, about one-third of the state’s population, and seeks to accord them a level of autonomy. While the TIPRA Motha won 18 of its TTAADC’s 28 seats, the BJP won nine of 11 it contested, while the IPFT won none.
In order to overcome the challenge posed by the TIPRA Motha, the IPFT has demanded another state comprising Tripura’s tribal-dominated areas. In July, a four-member delegation from the party met Home Minister Amit Shah to raise the same demand.
“We have gathered information about the leadership and functioning of the government from different sections. Indeed, there are some shortcomings at various places about which we suggested some rectification. We will inform the BJP high command about the rest of the feedback,” said a senior leader of the BJP central team.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)