Agartala/New Delhi: The political environment in Tripura these days is placid despite the Assembly election knocking at the door, as described earlier on सिर्फ़ News. Amid the hardly abuzz environs, this correspondent meets Sunil V Deodhar, the leader whom the Bharatiya Janata Party has put in charge of its Tripura affairs. It’s the flat of AK Bhowmick, MLA and advocate, which suffices as a point of mobilisation of the party cadre. By now, I have had a fair tour of the State, and am ready with some questions for the leader that could make him awkward. However, like a seasoned politician, he responds to every question promptly, with confidence.
The situation in Dhanpur, the constituency of Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, is described to him. I add that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is nowhere close in competition and also that the voters who do not wish that the rule of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPM] continues are scared of the implications like regular harassment in the neighbourhood and denial of the government’s contractual jobs. “We are very much in competition in the State. I agree that the CPM has a well-oiled election machinery in place owing to 20 years of rule or misrule. However, as far as intimidation is concerned, this is the communist culture. Tripura is fed up of them; the people want to emerge from this situation,” Deodhar says, adding, “Bardasht karne ki had paar ho chuki hai (the communists have crossed the limit).”
On being asked how the BJP plans to fight the clean image of Sarkar, Deodhar counter-questions whether the people need a nice person or an efficient chief minister. And then he questions how much truth there is to the popular impression about the State’s chief executive. He alleges that Sarkar used to be a protégé of Nripen Chakraborty whom the State government has forgotten. “Sarkar is ungrateful. He hasn’t even named a street after Nripen da,” Deodhar says, thundering, “Sarkar does not believe in Marx-vaad; he follows Mafia-vaad,” while referring to the intimidated people of the Dhanpur constituency.
Losing his composure that otherwise stayed calm throughout the interview, Deodhar calls Sarkar “corrupt”, “insensitive”, “mannerless” and “a liar”, slamming him for speaking ill of Prime Minister Narendra Modi before foreigners. Elaborating on Sarkar’s “corruption”, he says he refuses to bow down to the Election Commission’s order restraining him from mentioning the Rose Valley scam. It was a Ponzi scheme for which several ministers of Tripura were found campaigning at one point in time. The ECI had ruled, because the matter was sub judice, the BJP couldn’t raise the issue at the hustings.
While the people of Tripura are not quite seen setting Facebook and Twitter on fire, Deodhar says that this is the age of social media where awareness spreads fast. He is alluding to the fear psychosis noticed by me in the CPM bastions.
There is another contradiction between our observation and the BJP leader’s assertions. He says, “People have begun feeling that Modi ji stands for good governance,” indicating that the party will contest the Tripura elections in the prime minister’s name, too, while this was among the few States during the 2014 general elections that were untouched by the ‘Modi wave’. He dismisses the no-show of 2014 by saying that Modi was yet to be the country’s prime minister at that time and that now people have seen that he delivers. Therefore, he says, they trust him.
Modi is yet to begin addressing rallies in Tripura.
When told that the voters are finding it difficult to trust a party, most candidates of which were, till the other day, seen doing activism for the Indian National Congress (INC) and then the Trinamool Congress (TMC), Deodhar talks of three aspects of the electoral contest. First, he says, the leaders and cadre of not only the INC and TMC but also of the CPM have moved to the BJP while not one person has deserted his party to switch to a rival. “This means they are confident we will win and that they have lost faith in their respective older parties,” the man in charge of BJP’s Tripura campaign says. He believes about 25% of leaders and followers of the CPM will cross-vote in favour of the BJP at the election slated to be held on 18 February.
Deodhar adds that it is not entirely true that all of BJP’s present leaders in Tripura are turncoats. He says 20% of the core in the local leadership is dyed-in-the-wool BJP karyakarta (political worker).
Hailing from Maharashtra, Deodhar is told that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is not strong in the State. I point out the paradox that Hinduism is vibrant in Tripura but Hindutva is not. To the question that the party does not enjoy the advantage it did in Kerala at the time of its debut in that State owing to the swayamsevaks, he says the BJP has gained strength on its own in Tripura.
Second, he adds, “The CPM, which is a cadre-based party, is confronted with another cadre-based party for the first time in the electoral history of the State,” and says that the communists’ rivalry with the INC was never serious.
Third, speaking the language of party president Amit Shah, Deodhar talks of the BJP’s 42,000 panna pramukhs in the State, wherein a panna refers to a page from the electoral role that mentions the names of voters on a given street of a neighbourhood. He lays emphasis on the fact that 10 women workers from the party would be monitoring every polling booth.
We move to the issue of the condition of the people. I tell him that arm-twisting by the ruling party is possible because the only jobs available in Tripura are government jobs. To that, Deodhar says that the BJP has a plan to industrialise the State. However, perhaps wary of the mindset of a people brought up on socialism, the BJP is not found stressing this point in its public meetings. This is reminiscent of the Bihar campaign where Modi had said the RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal led by Lalu Prasad Yadav) stood for Rozana Jungle-raj ka Darr (fear of jungle raj on a daily basis) but stopped short of explaining that the fear of lawlessness kept private investments away from the State.
Deodhar does not leave the public sector, though. He alleges 65,000 vacancies in the government have not been filled by Sarkar. He claims that the employees in the State continue to be paid salaries in accordance with the Fourth Pay Commission, which the BJP promises to upgrade to the Seventh.
The BJP leader also promises a rejuvenation of Tripura’s tourism department, which he alleges has been lying dormant for ages. He says this would be an additional source of income for the local Bengalis and tribal people alike.
On sharing the pathetic condition of the Adivasis of Tripura, the BJP leader says his party has a special programme wherein the lost pride of the indigenous tribes would be revived. He promises land demarcation for them under the schemes of an autonomous council along the lines of Gorkhaland in West Bengal and the Bodo Autonomous Council in Assam.
Being told that the BJP is perceived as a Delhi-centric party despite its rule in 19 States and that the Bengalis, by and large, believe the party fails to understand their community, Deodhar reminds me that he had begun the conversation with me in Bengali, which he says he is picking up fast. He adds that he has also started consuming fish.
This interview was conducted on Monday, 29 January, in Agartala