The BJP’s perceived rise as the principal opposition party is the result of two simultaneous pushes – from the ground up, and from the top leadership.
Khowai/Teliamura/Agartala: In the 2013 assembly elections, the BJP contested 50 of Tripura’s 60 seats. It won none, managed a meagre vote share of 1.54 per cent, and an embarrassing 49 of its 50 candidates forfeited their deposits.
Five years hence, much seems to have changed. The BJP is now a formidable challenger to the CPI(M), making the multiple-term incumbent restless. It has decisively replaced the Congress as the principal opposition party, and seems to have reached a position where its leaders claim it can win 40 seats.
This shift, even if just in perception, is gigantic; the result of a carefully crafted ground-up strategy, combined with a push from the top.
The BJP’s slogan of ‘chalo paltai’ (let’s change) has caught on, and voters are displaying a mood for change.
To begin with, the party was quick to realise the latent desire for a change in regime and disillusionment among voters, who were constrained by what they saw as the absence of a credible, real alternative.
The BJP, backed by the RSS, was quick to jump in. The party needed a cadre, and it found an easy way to create that by bringing existing Congress workers on its side. Each Congress leader who joined brought with her/him a cadre of around 3,000-4,000 people.
“We realised a lot of people were unhappy with the Congress as an opposition, and were looking for an alternative. All we had to do was to approach Congress workers and they joined us,” said Shivam Shankar Singh, campaign consultant in the office of BJP general secretary in-charge of the Northeast, Ram Madhav.
“Let’s say around 2,000 Congress people in each constituency shifted to us. With this, we had our base ready. The Sangh had already been working on the ground since the 1990s and had gained traction.”
The party did detailed internal surveys and figured there were about 15 per cent ‘neutral’ voters in the state, which it aimed to bring into its fold. It began working towards this about two and a half years ago. A structure was built with panna pramukhs (page in-charge), booth level committees, Shakti Kendras, different morchas and district committees. Vistaraks or full time workers were appointed, and to train them, workers were brought in from Assam.
“Today, out of 3,214 booths in the state, we have booth committees ready in 3,209 booths. In every booth, there are 15-17 pages of voters, with 60 voters in each page. We have appointed panna pramukhs for each page, whose duty is to knock on each door in a fortnight,” said Sunil Deodhar, BJP’s leader in-charge of Tripura.
Next, the party’s message to the people was decided. It highlighted key issues like lack of development, high rate of unemployment, CPI(M)’s anti-industry stand, poverty, high crime rates, and the government’s inability to implement the recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission for government employees.
Deodhar, who was Narendra Modi’s campaign manager in Varanasi in 2014, told ThePrint: “There is tremendous anti-incumbency in this state. People of Tripura saw BJP as a party that didn’t compromise on corruption and was active towards the Northeast. As BJP started winning states, Congress cadres and leaders started coming to us. In the last one year, even the CPI(M) started breaking.”
Winds of change in a red bastion
How this entire strategy translated on the ground can be seen through the lens of Khowai, a traditional Left stronghold which actually marked the beginning of the communist regime in the state.
Subrata Mondal, the mandal president of the BJP in Khowai, shifted from the Congress only late last year. “We realised that the Congress was hand-in-glove with the CPI(M) and hence was no real alternative. This is a message we constantly give to people, and which has helped us shift almost the entire Congress vote-bank towards us,” he said.
“In the Khowai assembly seat, there are 52 booth committees, with a booth level officer in charge of each. Between three to six booths fall under one Shakti Kendra, which oversees the work of the booths under it. There are 12 such kendras in Khowai constituency.
“There are 632 panna pramukhs. The panna pramukhs give feedback to booth committees, who pass it on to Shakti Kendras, which in turn, pass on combined information to mandals. At the mandals, we consolidate all information and feedback and pass it on to the state committee,” Mondal elaborated.
Pintu Dutta, a vistarak, said there had barely been a day when they hadn’t worked from 6am to 11pm.
“Our job is to strengthen the booths and ensure we reach out to voters through a door-to-door approach with the party’s clear message. We point out the deficiencies in the CPI(M)’s rule, explain how the Congress is useless and is friends with the CPI(M). We tell voters about Modiji’s schemes like Ujjwala, PMAY and Jan Dhan Yojana. We also ensure adequate display of all publicity material,” Dutta said.
The careful approach is clearly bearing fruit.
“We need a change. The BJP has promised us a better life. Their workers have been coming to us for the last three months or so with their message. They have made us understand how the Congress is no alternative, and is tacitly with the CPI(M). So now, nobody wants the Congress,” said Utpal Dey, who runs a store in Khowai town.
In Durganagar village, Gopal Pal pointed to a small BJP booth level office barely a few metres from his house and said this is where he would vote. “Poribartan (change) is in the air. We need to get rid of the CPI(M). Earlier, I voted for the Congress, but the BJP told us how the Congress is actually with the Left parties. The workers have been coming to our homes to talk to us,” he said, as his wife Shanti Debi nodded in agreement.
Not everybody, however, is fully convinced. “The BJP is new. We have no idea what they are about. We know Manik Sarkar. Why should we risk it? BJP workers come to us, but we will stick to the Left,” said Abhir Das of Khowai.
Candidates’ job made easy
In Teliamura assembly constituency, mandal vice-president Gopal Sharma said he had “never seen such an influx into a party from other parties”. Sharma too shifted from the Congress in 2013.
“Our work is clearly cut out. But in order to target specific groups of voters, we have various committees, as well as specific morchas – for women, minorities, SC/STs, youth etc,” he said.
All this has made the candidates’ task easier.
“The booth level officers have done such a thorough job that I need to do little. I only have to go and meet groups of people. All the homework has been carefully done. We know exactly which household is with us, which is a floating vote, and which ones are entirely with the CPI(M),” said Kalyani Roy, the BJP candidate from Teliamura, while campaigning in a small village amid chants of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. Roy was earlier with the women’s wing of the Congress.
Besides the ground work, Prime Minister Modi’s image and branding has helped attract voters. Union ministers have visited the state often to create the perception of the party genuinely being invested. Party president Amit Shah has been visiting Tripura for months to monitor poll preparedness. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was brought in to woo the sizeable number of Bengalis who belong to the Nath community (he is the mahant of the Gorakhnath Math).
The BJP’s local face and state president Biplab Deb may not be a political stalwart, but has a clean image and is well-liked.
The BJP’s internal survey shows massive youth consolidation behind it. For this, social media has been used extensively and students from Tripura studying in other parts of the country have been reached out to either digitally, or through ‘My Home India’ programmes.
The party, however, is not leaving anything to chance. It has now formed an internal committee to “scientifically study past practices of rigging by the Left”. The committee, comprising around 80 workers, is to monitor voting at booths and report any untoward instances to be taken up by the Election Commission.
“We have performed a miracle in three years. It may not be a cakewalk for us, but it isn’t a cakewalk for them either. We think we can win 40 seats,” Deodhar said.