Soaring saffron, sickly hammer

How Modi's trusted lieutenants brought about the paradigm shift in Tripura

32-biplab-deb New mascot: Biplab Deb greets supporters during a victory rally in Agartala on March 4 | Salil Bera

Three years ago, Sunil Deodhar met Narendra Modi in Delhi. The portly BJP leader from Pune knew the prime minister well—he had run Modi’s campaign in the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat a year earlier.

Deodhar had returned after spending six months in Tripura, where he had taken charge of party affairs. He came to Modi bearing glad tidings. He said he would sweep the ruling CPI(M) off Tripura, and gift it to Modi. The prime minister reportedly burst out laughing. “First, you lose at least 20kg,” Modi said. “Only then can you even think of sweeping Tripura.”

Three years since, Deodhar has lost weight—but only around 5 kilos. In terms of his influence, though, he is now a heavyweight. By uprooting the CPI(M), which had been ruling Tripura since 1993, he has pulled off a victory that was thought to be impossible.

The BJP also sprang a surprise in Christian-dominated Nagaland, winning 12 of 20 seats it contested. And, despite winning just two seats in Meghalaya, it took the lead in forming government. The BJP’s stunning show in the northeast has rattled its rivals in West Bengal and Kerala—two states the party has long been eyeing.

Moment of grief: Manik Sarkar pays his last respects to Khagendra Jamatia at the CPI(M)’s state headquarters in Agartala | Salil Bera Moment of grief: Manik Sarkar pays his last respects to Khagendra Jamatia at the CPI(M)’s state headquarters in Agartala | Salil Bera

For the CPI(M), the defeat in Tripura is especially crushing, since this was the party’s first head-to-head battle with the BJP in an assembly election. Unlike in West Bengal, where a series of administrative missteps ended the left government’s 34-year rule in 2011, the Manik Sarkar government in Tripura was perceived to have performed well. “I would never do mistakes like [the party did] in Bengal,” Sarkar told THE WEEK in 2016. “Yes, I will try to change the lives of the people, and for that, some drastic measures are needed. But, I will not do anything to antagonise the people.”

On March 4, a day after the results were out, I met Sarkar at the CPI(M)’s state headquarters in Agartala. He looked worried, and was at a loss for words. The same day, the body of former minister and six-time legislator Khagendra Jamatia, who had succumbed to blood cancer at a hospital in Delhi on March 2, was brought to the party office. Scores of party leaders, including state secretary Bijan Dhar and central committee member Gautam Das, came to pay their last respects. Everyone raised their fists in salute, while Sarkar chose to fold his arms. He appeared so lost in thought that he seemed to have forgotten the traditional Marxist salute. When I brought this to the attention of a senior party leader, he said, “I am also seeing [him like this] for the first time.”

After a while, came state BJP president Biplab Deb. He paid homage to Jamatia, turned to face Sarkar, and then touched his feet. Sarkar smiled uncomfortably at the man who would succeed him as chief minister.

As Jamatia began his final journey, I approached Sarkar and asked him whether he had anticipated the results. He did not reply. I followed him to the first floor of the party office, where he went straight to his room, picked up his letter of resignation and quickly made his way out of the party office. As he started for the Raj Bhavan, I tried again to make him talk, and failed. Dhar and Das asked me not to disturb him.

“What are we supposed to say?” Dhar later asked me. “We are not in a position to comment on why this happened. We are in the process of getting reports from the party’s grassroots committees. Once it is done, we will analyse why we were defeated.”

Leading the change: Conrad Sangma at his swearing-in as Meghalaya chief minister on March 6 | AFP Leading the change: Conrad Sangma at his swearing-in as Meghalaya chief minister on March 6 | AFP

He said the CPI(M)’s immediate objective was to shield its offices from being attacked. “Do you know how many of our party offices were attacked [by BJP workers]? We will ask the new government to take steps to protect our party offices,” said Dhar.

The CPI(M) seems to have had no clue about how big a challenge it was facing in the run-up to the polls. The tribal protests that broke out early last year were taken lightly by the government and the party. The BJP capitalised on it, even though it did not publicly support the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), which led the protests and had the backing of banned militant outfits like the National Liberation Front of Tripura.

Sarkar did not realise the gravity of the situation until it snowballed into a crisis. Even then, he dithered about taking action, fearing that tough measures would make his government look anti-tribal. Tribals make up around 42 per cent of the population in the state, and the CPI(M) had won all seats in the tribal belt in 2013. Sarkar could not afford to alienate that support base.

The BJP, meanwhile, played smart by putting immense pressure on the government. When the IPFT laid siege to railway lines and highways, the BJP organised a huge rally that brought together the Bengali community in Tripura. The party pitted the Bengalis against the CPI(M), saying the government had failed to contain the violence unleashed by tribals. The situation came to such a pass that the BJP threatened to picket the residence of the chief minister unless the government swiftly resolved the issue.

The BJP made good on its threat in July last year. Led by Deodhar, dozens of BJP workers entered the fortified zone surrounding Sarkar’s residence on Marx-Engels Road. As they blocked the zone from four directions, Sarkar was forced to spend 13 hours inside his bungalow.

When he came out, he promised to take decisive steps to resolve the issue, and later gave in to demands for granting more autonomy for tribals. The outcome was perceived as the BJP’s victory, as it had championed the tribal cause without antagonising the Bengali community.

In the past three years, the RSS has established itself in the tribal belt, running schools and hostels without IPFT’s help. It helped the BJP send a message that it took tribal issues seriously, even as it chose not to align with IPFT in opposing the government. “Neither the CPI(M) nor the chief minister had any idea of what was happening—how the BJP-RSS combine was gaining ground across the state,” said political commentator Sekhar Dutta.

The BJP also capitalised on the discontent among Bengali youth. Around 10 lakh people in the state are below age 35, and about 2.5 lakh of them are new voters. Because of sluggish development and high unemployment rate, the BJP was able to whip up an anti-incumbency wave.

The highhanded approach of its cadres made matters worse for the CPI(M). Young people who were not part of the CPI(M)-affiliated Students’ Federation of India or the Democratic Youth Federation of India were allegedly harassed. Most of these young people were Congress supporters, who did not receive any help from the party leadership.

“We tried hard to persuade the Congress to support us,” said Sudip Roy Barman, who quit the Congress last year and joined the BJP. “Had the Congress high command stopped hobnobbing with the left, and focused on defeating the left front in Tripura, the story would have been altogether different.”

Deodhar promised to protect Congress workers if they switched their allegiance to the BJP. “I remember Deodharji asking the youth to not forget that the BJP is in power at the Centre, and that each and every attack will be reciprocated,” said Siraj Ali, the young chief of the BJP’s minority wing in Tripura. “I went to the field, feeling as hot-headed as the Marxists, and told them that if they tried to kill my party colleagues, I would kill theirs as well.”

Firebrands like Siraj transformed the BJP—which got just over 1 per cent votes in 2013—into a force to reckon with. And, Deodhar mobilised RSS cadres so well that he did not need to bring in Modi or BJP president Amit Shah to attract voters. He spread awareness about Modi’s eagerness to reshape the northeast, and said the Union government’s drastic measures like demonetisation were aimed at boosting the economy, generating jobs and improving the lives of the poor.

After he built the BJP’s grassroots presence, Deodhar informed Shah that Congress leaders were primed to join the BJP. Shah then sent his point man in the northeast, Assam Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. A former Congress leader himself, Sarma became the Pied Piper who began bringing in the Congressmen to the BJP. Six months before the polls, as the BJP’s national leadership began touring Tripura, they found an organisational structure so strong that the party could man all 4,000 polling booths.

The BJP also banked on money power. Young workers who were implicated in criminal cases were provided legal and financial aid. Their travel, food and medical expenses were taken care of. But, more than the money, it was Deodhar who made the difference. “Deodhar is the main architect of the BJP win,” said Barman. “He is fearless, and he led the battle from the front against the goons of the CPI(M).”

Unlike Biplab Deb, who demanded and received Y-category security before the elections, Deodhar refused to have any security cover. “The people would have rejected me had I gone to them with a security cover,” he told THE WEEK. “My partymen and I had to stay in villages, and ride trains and buses to bring people to the BJP. It was tough, but we all knew it was for the good.”

The BJP fought the polls after joining hands with the IPFT, which ended up winning eight seats. But, the saffron party’s emphatic victory—it has 35 members in the 60-member assembly—has left little bargaining room for its ally. IPFT president N.C. Debbarma said his focus would be on securing “appropriate representation” for tribals in the cabinet, and not on pushing for the formation of a separate state. “The state government has got nothing to do with our demand for a separate state,” he told THE WEEK. “The Union government would have to approve it. And, it has constituted a body to look into the matter. We will have to wait for the decision.”

And, what if the demand is not met? “The demand will remain forever,” he said. “But, we would not trouble the state government…. We will help this government deliver, and will continuously deal with the Union government [on the statehood issue].”

Around 10 lakh people in Tripura are below 35. Because of sluggish development and high unemployment rate, the BJP was able to whip up an anti-incumbency wave.

If the victory in Tripura is the BJP’s crowning achievement, the party’s good show in Nagaland and Meghalaya has helped discredit the growing criticism that Modi cannot take his allies along. On March 8, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu hinted that his Telugu Desam Party would soon part ways with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, saying Modi had failed to keep his promise of granting special category status to his state.

Modi, however, will not be too worried about Naidu’s departure. His newfound allies in the northeast will help offset the southern loss. In Meghalaya, despite having won just two seats, the BJP took the lead in stitching up a ruling coalition that included Conrad Sangma’s National People’s Party (19 seats), the United Democratic Party (6), the People’s Democratic Front (4), the Hill State People’s Democratic Party (2), and one independent. Sangma was sworn in as chief minister on March 6, ending the 15-year Congress rule in the state.

The BJP’s ally in Nagaland, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, won 18 of 40 seats it contested. Having won just six seats fewer than the NDPP, the BJP will have considerable say in the government. The fact that it overcame opposition from civil society groups and various Christian denominations will boost the BJP’s hopes in Kerala, which also has a significant Christian population.

“Modi made frequent visits to Nagaland. It helped dispel allegations that the BJP was not interested in solving the Naga problem,” said V. Longhou, state BJP president.

The ouster of the Naga People’s Front, which had been the BJP’s partner for 15 years, has come as great relief to Modi. The NPF had been pressuring the Union government to hasten the signing of the long-pending peace agreement with the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland. Now, with Neiphiu Rio of the NDPP as chief minister, the Centre has got breathing room. It is likely to leverage the BJP’s influence in the state government to buy more time, at least until the 2019 Lok Sabha elections are over, to take bold steps regarding the granting of autonomy to Nagas, as promised to the NSCN(IM).

Shurhozelie Liezietsu, NPF president and former chief minister, described the poll results as confusing. “We were forced to fight the elections,” he said. “Despite that, we won the most number of seats. But, in the end, we lost to money power.”

Even critics, however, concede that the BJP has brought about a paradigm shift in the northeast. The party has found support cutting across states, religions and communities. “That’s the reason the results from the northeast have been greeted with great enthusiasm all over India,” said Barman. “The Congress refused to do its duty in Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya. So, the northeast rewarded our prime minister.”