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Tripura wanted change and BJP smartly cashed in on disenchantment with the Left

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Tripura result is as much about BJP’s stunning surge as it is about the Left losing one of its last citadels, and with that, its electoral relevance.

New Delhi: From zero seats to 32 leads so far. From a 1.5 per cent vote share to 42.3 per cent. From 49 of its 50 candidates forfeiting their deposits to now all poised to form the government.

And on the other hand, from being in power in the state for 25 long years to now reduced to less than one-third seats in the state.

The 2018 election in Tripura has been as much about the BJP’s stunning surge, as it is about the Left losing one of its last citadels, and along with that its limited electoral relevance.

Until last count, the BJP, along with its ally Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, is leading in 40 of the 59 seats that went to the polls in the 60-member assembly. The incumbent CPI(M), which had won 49 seats with a 48 per cent vote share in 2013, has been reduced to 19 seats with 43.6 per cent vote share.

The Congress, meanwhile, is another story in itself. The party, which was the primary opposition in the state with a healthy vote share of 36.53 per cent and had won 10 seats has now been reduced to nothing, with a mere 1.8 per cent vote share.

Wave election

This was a distinctly ‘wave election’, which explains the tectonic shift in the BJP’s fortunes. As ThePrint reported from the ground from across districts in Tripura, a huge sentiment for “poribortan” (change) was palpable. Voters saw the BJP as a viable alternative to the multiple-term incumbent Left, led by Chief Minister Manik Sarkar.

The mood for change, in fact, cut across class, rural-urban, gender and demographic divides. It was evident that 25 years of CPI(M) rule had brought in its set of complaints against the incumbent, with voters viewing the BJP, and particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as the more able, attractive options.

The Left decline

While the CPI(M) has been in power in the state for 25 years, the Manik Sarkar-led government has been in power in the state since 1998. The long reign had caused massive voter disillusionment with the party, and its cracks were exposed in these elections.

To begin with, an unemployment rate of 19.7 per cent — the highest in the country, and no industries, leading to the absence of jobs in the state was dominating the campaign narrative. Slow pace of development, especially with voters being increasingly exposed to what they say as “development in other states”, added to the resentment against the Left. Even though Manik Sarkar remains personally popular with nobody questioning his own clean image, voters said the rest of the party and its cadres were steeped in what they saw as institutionalised “top to bottom corruption”.

What hurt the CPI(M) even more was what was seen as its anti-people move, ironically for a party that claims to espouse the cause of people – government employees being paid as per the 4th Pay Commission when the country has moved on to the 7th Pay Commission.

The CPI(M) particularly failed to connect with the youth, who saw it as a party steeped in “theory and ideology” rather than pragmatism.

Tripura was one of its very few remaining mass bases and a loss here, particularly to a new horse in the race, should greatly worry the Left.

BJP’s dramatic rise

A gamut of factors contributed to BJP’s incredible run in the state, but most important of them all was the ability of the party and its strategists – party president Amit Shah, former pracharak and state-incharge of the party Sunil Deodhar, national general secretary Ram Madhav and the party’s main strategist in the north east, Himanta Biswa Sarma – to spot the huge anti-CPI(M) space caused by massive disenchantment and a realisation that the Congress was far from filling it.

The BJP’s performance has been the result of a carefully crafted ground-up strategy, combined with a push from the top.

Its slogan of ‘chalo paltai’ (let’s change) was sharply worded, cashing in on and re-affirming the public mood. The party started work in the state by the end of 2014, three years before polls were due. It needed a cadre and with great calculation, did 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. Moreover, an army of volunteers were brought in from all over the country.

In its detailed internal surveys, the party figured there were about 15 per cent ‘neutral’ voters in the state. 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. Extensive door-to-door campaigns were conducted to counter CPI(M)’s cadre strength. It was also ensured the party’s top leadership seemed invested in the state with union ministers making frequent visits.

Prime Minister Modi’s own appeal was exploited to the hilt. BJP’s posters, banners and flags were plastered across the state, in nooks and corners, matching the might of the CPI(M)’s reach. Each booth had an office, and that sort of branding helped reinforce the idea of BJP as a major force in the state.

Among one of its sharpest electoral moves was the tie-up with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, even though it had to do some tightrope walking to distance itself from its ally’s contentious demand for a separate state.

Tripura has a tribal population of around 31 per cent, which has traditionally voted for the CPI(M). But early trends show that there has been a huge shift in tribal votes to the BJP-IPFT alliance this time.

Congress: The reluctant fighter

It would be safe to say the Congress gave up on this election even before it could begin fighting it. The party was best poised to fill in the anti-CPI(M) space but did precious little to work towards it. The perceptible lack of interest of the top leadership both in Delhi and in the state led a massive chunk of its workers and leaders to dessert it for what they saw as a more viable option in the BJP.

Poor strategising and complete disconnect from the ground of its strategists, including Congress general secretary in charge of the state C.P. Joshi only made matters worse.

The party had barely any presence on the ground – in terms of campaign visibility and voter support – both being embarrassingly minimal. Most of its voter base shifted to the BJP and with hardly any flags, posters etc., it seemed like an electoral novice that was participating in the election for the sake of it rather than what it was – the main opposition.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi mostly stayed away from the campaign in the state and addressed a rally only on the last day of campaigning. And the results are in the face of the party.

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