Agartala: Tripura has never seen a campaign like this, at least he cannot recall, says Mithun Ghosh, a government employee in his 40s, of the BJP’s relentless, star-studded electioneering to breach this Left bastion of over 25 years.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in the north-eastern state last week and will hold two rallies on Thursday. BJP president Amit Shah has held multiple public meetings and road shows while top leaders like Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari besides its Hindutva face — Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath — have been reaching out to the 25 lakh voters in its 60 assembly seats.
The national spotlight the tiny State is getting is something new for its curious and politically aware voters who are divided on whether the saffron surge will be enough to surmount the red fortress.
For a party which got less than 2% votes in the last assembly polls, the task at hand could not be more arduous.
The Left had received over 50% of votes and its mascot and Chief Minister Manik Sarkar has a standing that often rises above the common refrain about lack of employment opportunities, development, and basic issues of drinking water and electricity.
If the Left is promising continuity with its focus on rural development and the poor, the BJP has let it be known that with the party in the power at the centre, it can shower the State with goodies and funds which the CPI(M) cannot.
“When India’s finance minister releases our vision document and promises that government employees will get salaries as per seventh pay commission and not fourth, which is the case now, then it is clear that we mean business,” State BJP president Biplab Deb says.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had released the document on Sunday.
The CPI(M) on its part has termed the BJP’s promises, including smartphones for youths, a ‘jumla’ (rhetoric).
However, BJP campaigners have persistently pointed out in their rallies the State’s high poverty rate of over 67% and unemployment rate besides erratic power supply in large parts to corner the Left government.
The state has been under the Left rule since 1978 barring a five-year period between 1988-93 and Sarkar has been at the helm since 1998. The BJP feels it can cash-in on an anti-incumbency.
Left workers like Ashok Bhattacharya say capital Agartala used to have strong Congress pockets which have now shifted to the BJP but assert that the villages in the largely rural state remain under the sway of the “Left movement”.
People go to see the BJP’s road shows and its leaders rally out of curiosity, he says, and adds that “every family in the State will tell you that the Left has made their lives better”.
A BJP leader, who is from West Bengal and has been campaigning in Tripura, calls the fight with the Left “neck and neck”, saying his party will do well in Agartala but the Left has deep roots in villages.
The BJP, its leaders say, has brought in hundreds of workers from neighbouring states like Assam to campaign for it across the State.
The party has, they said, workers in every booth and have been working assiduously to build the base in villages since Amit Shah took over as the party chief in 2014 and set his sight on this Left’s citadel.
The decades-long work put in by the RSS and its affiliates mean that the party also has a seasoned pool of activists on the ground to capitalise on the buzz created by rallies of its big leaders.
The BJP is confident that it will be able to attract the young population, which rues lack of opportunities in the state.
Uppal Bishwas (28), who calls himself a farmer, raises the BJP’s slogan of ‘chalo paltai’ (Let’s change the government) when asked of his opinion.
Asked what he expects a BJP government to do, he says Tripura depends heavily on the Centre for its resources and it will help if it comes to power.
In a first direct electoral contest between the left and the right, Tripura goes to the polls on 18 February and results will be out on 3 March.