Last man standing

30MamataBanerjee New frontiers: Mamata Banerjee at a Trinamool Congress rally in Agartala.

Mamata Banerjee takes her battle to Tripura, but Manik Sarkar is no pushover

  • The first casualty of Mamata’s foray into Tripura was the Congress. Seven of its ten legislators in the state recently quit the party. Six of them joined the Trinamool Congress.

Tripura usually follows what Bengal does in politics. The communists came to power in West Bengal for the first time in 1977. The wind of change reached Tripura a year later, and an alliance led by the CPI(M) wrested power from the Congress. But unlike in Bengal, where the Left Front ruled for 33 years without break, the reign in Tripura came to abrupt end in 1988. In 1993, Tripura turned red again and has remained so ever since.  

But there has been a change of plot. Mamata Banerjee, who dislodged the Left Front government in Bengal in 2011, has her eyes set on Tripura. She held a massive rally in Agartala on August 9, where she said she would uproot the communist government in Tripura as well.

It will, however, take a lot more than verbal threats to challenge the hugely popular Chief Minister Manik Sarkar. “Let her come,” said an unfazed Sarkar. “She has been coming here for the past 20 years.”

The first casualty of Mamata’s foray into Tripura was the Congress.  Seven of its ten legislators in the state recently quit the party. Six of them joined her Trinamool Congress and one went to the CPI(M). Trinamool is now the main opposition party in the Tripura assembly and its leader Sudip Roy Barman, who was former Congress president in the state, has requested the speaker to recognise him as the leader of the opposition. The ruling front has 49 legislators in the 60-member assembly.

Barman blamed the split on the Congress leadership’s decision to ally the party with the Left Front. He said he had warned party vice president Rahul Gandhi against any such alliance. “Before the Bengal alliance between the Congress and the CPI(M) was fixed, Rahul Gandhi himself went to Kerala to understand the implication of such an alliance. But not even a chaprasi (peon) from Delhi was sent to understand the implication of such an alliance in Tripura,” he said. 

Barman said he had once been a favourite of Rahul, but they fell apart in 2013 when he realised Rahul was more inclined to the communists than the regional Congress leaders. “During the 2013 assembly election, we declared that Soniaji [Congress president Sonia Gandhi] and Rahul would come to Agartala and hold rallies. But [CPI(M) leader] Sitaram Yechury declared at a public rally that neither of them would come. I did not believe it and told people it was communists’ propaganda. But Yechury was proved right. Though I was Congress state president I had no information that they were not coming, but Yechury had,” he said.

Gopal Chandra Roy, leader of the Congress legislative party, rubbished the allegations, and said Barman and others tried to join the BJP shortly after Narendra Modi became prime minister. They held a series of meetings with the BJP but could not strike a deal. “So they are now making Rahul Gandhi an excuse,” said Roy.

Barman admitted he had been in touch with BJP president Amit Shah. “We could not forget our secular credentials. So we did not go for the BJP,” he said.

Mamata had a plan larger than the state. To be recognised as a national party, the Trinamool Congress needed at least 2 per cent vote share in four states. Now it is recognised as a state party in Bengal, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura, and has been given the national party status by the Election Commission.

Barman said Mamata had told him not to expect any miracle. “She said she would not spoon-feed us. We will have to launch our own protests and movements to gain people’s trust. But we would use her image and charisma,” he said. The Trinamool is planning protests over lack of teachers and doctors in the state and the communists’ control on the education system. “At least, there would not be any obstruction from the high command,” said Barman, taking dig at the Congress leadership.

Though Sarkar refused to say anything about his party’s arrangement with the Congress in Bengal, CPI(M) central committee member Gautam Das said the alliance was an error. “Our party leaders in Tripura were extremely dissatisfied seeing the alliance in Bengal,” he said. “Under no circumstance will we make electoral adjustments with the Congress.”

Das downplayed the Mamata effect, but said the government would have to create more trade and industry, and increase tax revenue. “We have already changed the state a lot,” he said. “But we will have to go for more spending on creating public infrastructure. For that we cannot rely on the state’s tax revenue. We will have to attract investment after which tax mop up could go up.” 

The Congress also is in no mood for a tie-up. “Our general secretary in charge, C.P. Joshi, has told us that there would be no question of going with the CPI(M),” said Roy. He admitted that the Congress was going through a rough patch, but said things would change soon. “When things start improving, all the leaders will be back,” he said. “Probably all of them would be taken back, except Barman. We don’t trust the traitor.”

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