Unquiet Agartala

Tripura government is facing a much bigger crisis than its CM's controversial remarks

42-biplab-deb Delhi calling: Sources said Chief Minister Biplab Deb is likely to be given an ultimatum to fall in line | Salil Bera

In his two months as Tripura chief minister, Biplab Deb has made a slew of controversial, if not laughable, remarks. He first said that the internet dates back to the days of the Mahabharat. Then, he said that unlike Aishwarya Rai (Miss World 1994), Diana Hayden (Miss World 1997) did not represent true Indian beauty. He continued with his “viral” comments, saying only civil, and not mechanical engineers, should apply for civil services. Netizens were in splits. Said Tripura Congress president Birajit Sinha, “People of Tripura did not know much about him before he was made chief minister. Good that the prime minister has let us all know about this hidden talent.”

Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, however, did not see the humour in the situation. And, they have called Deb to Delhi on May 6. His office told THE WEEK: “He is busy preparing for the meeting. He would have to prepare a list of projects for Tripura to seek funds from the prime minister.”

Sources, however, said that Deb’s comments were only part of the reason he was summoned to the capital. Apparently, Tripura’s fledgling government in facing a deeper crisis. “Nothing is going as we had dreamed of in Tripura,” said a Muslim BJP leader. “The chief minister is turning out to be a dictator and does not want to get along with other leaders of the party. He wants to be surrounded by sycophants and is pushing the people, who made the real parivartan (change) in Tripura, to the brink of disaster. The chief minister is out of his senses. And, that is reflected in his series of comments.”

After dislodging the Manik Sarkar-led Communist Party of India (Marxist), which had ruled for 25 years, the state was set for a saffron reign. But, now, the situation is such that Modi and Shah have decided to personally sit with Deb and solve the problems. While Modi has faced many problems, he has never had to call a chief minister to Delhi on an emergency basis.

This shows the importance of Tripura to the BJP. Though a tiny state, winning it was symbolic. It was the BJP’s first victory against the communists.

According to party insiders, the major issue is the rift between the party’s state in-charge, Sunil Deodhar, and the chief minister. Apparently, Deodhar, known to be close to Shah and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, did not approve of Deb’s style of functioning. He wanted Deb to be popular among the masses and think of the aspirations of party workers. Interestingly, it was at Deodhar’s instance that Deb was made state party president in 2016. However, once he saw the BJP wave in Tripura, Deb apparently started portraying himself as a high-profile politician. He even asked for protection by Central security forces, months before he became chief minister.

Deodhar, on the other hand, never took along Central security forces while campaigning against Marxists in Tripura. “The people were emboldened seeing him,” said a BJP leader close to Deodhar. “The youth were made to believe that they could come out on the streets and oppose the Marxists.”

Deb and Deodhar also disagreed while choosing candidates for the assembly elections. While Deodhar and Himanta Biswa Sarma—Assam finance minister, and one of BJP’s faces in the northeast—wanted winnability to be the sole criterion, Deb wanted to give tickets to loyalists.

“In the run-up to the elections, Deb reportedly asked his party men to remove Deodhar’s pictures from posters and banners,” said a state BJP leader. “But, he could not [remove him] from the hearts of workers and leaders of the state, who came to the BJP just for him.”

Apparently, after the elections, Deb also stopped calling Deodhar and his loyalists to major party meetings. At one such meeting, there was a heated exchange between the two camps.

“How could they forget that he was state in-charge? Whether the chief minister likes him or not, the central BJP has made him state in-charge and has continued with him even after the elections,” said the state BJP leader.

Interestingly, after the elections, Deodhar wanted a new state party president. The BJP’s constitution did not allow for the chief minister to hold the position. However, the election has not taken place, reportedly because Deb wanted his own man in place.

A senior central BJP leader has described the situation as an ego clash that has escalated into a serious political crisis. “As the prime minister has taken it up, it would be sorted out,” he said. “In the BJP, everyone is bound to listen to our central leadership’s collective decision, however big he or she may be.”

Reportedly, Ram Madhav, the BJP’s northeast in-charge, had been alerted of the rift. But, he decided not to oppose Deb as the BJP’s central leadership had made him chief minister.

Said a leader: “He has his dates full with other assignments in Jammu and Kashmir, and Andhra Pradesh. So, he is staying away from the mess in Tripura.”

Recently, Deodhar met Shah in Delhi and offered to resign as state in-charge. Shah, busy with the upcoming Karnataka elections, refused to accept the resignation. Instead, he informed Modi. Coincidentally, Deb had also gone to Delhi to meet Modi at the same time, ostensibly to talk about Tripura’s development. Modi, however, could not give him time then. But, now, both Modi and Shah will meet him. And, after that, they will meet Deodhar, too. Deodhar, currently in Karnataka, told THE WEEK: “I can only say I am still BJP in-charge of Tripura and would remain so till the party wishes. I have not been given any new assignment by the party so far. I am currently only touring the country to [talk bout] the success story of Modi ji.”

Asked about his rift with Deb, Deodhar said the party would comment on it. “All I can say is that even if I am given responsibility of any other state, my heart will be with Tripura,” he said.

According to central BJP sources, Shah would sit with senior leaders after the Karnataka elections and shuffle the leaders in-charge of states. Deodhar, apparently, would be given a state that would be crucial for the BJP, ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Meanwhile, political experts said that Deb’s immaturity has hurt not only the party, but also his personal image. Under him, Agartala is all set to get its first IT park, with Tata Consultancy Services and other companies having shown interest. Also, about 04,000 crore has been allocated to create infrastructure like roads and to boost tourism in the state.

As a senior leader of the party said, “Not only he has refused to acknowledge the man behind the victory in Tripura, he has refused to portray even his positive side—a workaholic head of the government.”

Sources said Deb would get an ultimatum to fall in line. Otherwise, he might be brought to Delhi as an MP, and there would be a new chief minister in Agartala.