Column | By replacing CM Biplab BJP braces for high-stake contest in Tripura


Prime Minister Narendra Modi has again perfected using the anti-incumbency card against Bharatiya Janata Party's unpopular state governments by the abrupt sacking of Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb, less than a year before the state assembly elections.

This strategy gave dividends in Uttarakhand, though the changes were messy as the first replacement as chief minister had to be removed within months, and the second replacement won the state but lost his own seat.

Earlier, Modi had sacked the entire cabinet including the Chief Minister in Gujarat, and later replaced an ageing CM in Karnataka thereby indicating that more than the voter, it is the high command which deals with unpopularity.

Close confidant in the saddle

However, in a couple of cases including Tripura, the new CM happens to be the protégé or camp follower of the ousted one. Manik Saha, who replaced Deb in Agartala, is a close friend of the outgoing CM and, in fact, the dissidents were accusing Deb of being a puppet of Saha, who is the state party president. Now with Saha taking direct control and also inducting most of the ministers who worked with Deb, there is a feeling in the party that nothing much has changed.

The same happened in Karnataka as B S Bommai's name was suggested by B S Yedyurappa, who reluctantly bowed to the demand from Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah that he should step down. Most of the ministers in the outgoing cabinet, including those who had defected from the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) in 2018 under 'Operation Lotus', were allowed to continue as ministers.  

Sonowal goes and Thakur spared

In Assam the change happened after the BJP retained power. CM Sarbananda Sonowal was moved to the Union Cabinet, so that his deputy Himanta Biswa Sarma could take the reigns. However, Himachal Pradesh's Jairam Thakur, who lost three assembly and one Lok Sabha by-election to the Congress, has however managed to survive any action, and is still there to lead the party in this winter's state assembly elections. However, the BJP has not touched its long-serving CMs like Shivraj Singh Chauhan in Madhya Pradesh or Manohar Lal Khattar in Haryana, as they have managed their governments better.

Can the Opposition gain in Tripura?

But the big question after the sudden change in Tripura, is whether the three main opponents of the BJP have got themselves organised to take benefit of factionalism in the dominant party, as well as the combination of Biplab Deb's unpopularity and Saha's inexperience.

The CPM, which has long ruled Tripura had been routed by the BJP four years ago, has been under attack both by police and the ruling party's supporters, with several offices being vandalised. The left party also lost local elections, and it was not even able to hold the state conference, which finally was summoned in February this year. It has a new leader in Jitendra Chaudhury and there were demands that the party should have an alliance with the Congress to take on the BJP. But the mood was distinctly against the tie-up when the national-level plenum, called Party Congress, was held in Kannur weeks later.

The Congress, which too has been pulverised by defeats and defections, including those moved over to the resurgent Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee, has not devoted much time on how to find its winning ways in Tripura at the Chinthan Shivir held in Udaipur. The low spirits in the Congress camp needs to be addressed by the high command, if the party has to pose any challenge to the BJP by aligning with the CPM.

On the other hand, the Trinamool Congress, which hoped it could take advantage of commonality of culture and language with West Bengal, so far has had lacklustre growth in Tripura mainly due to the absence of mass leaders. Mamata's nephew and likely successor Abhishek Banerjee has been made in-charge of the party in Tripura. He has visited the state several times, but the party, like the CPM and the Congress, fared poorly in the recent local body elections, which had given a boost to Biplab. But Modi and the BJP high command were not very impressed as Deb realised soon.

Small, significant state

Though Tripura is a small state which sends just two members to the Lok Sabha, it is a major ideological battleground, where the BJP is pushing hard its Hindutva politics, while CPM has been a practitioner of strong leftist politics, and the Trinamool Congress wants to concentrate on regional identity, with the Congress being more of a middle-of-the-road national party. If the CPM made its first move by changing its state secretary, BJP has responded swiftly by replacing its chief minister and called for endorsement of the double-engine government formula by projecting the Narendra Modi model of governance. The small state would definitely witness a high stake contest.

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