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Twenty reserved seats hold the key to power in Tripura
G Vinayak in Agartala | February 20, 2003 22:06 IST
In Tripura, which goes to polls on February 26 along with Nagaland, Meghalaya and Himachal Pradesh, 20 seats reserved for tribals are very important.
Whoever wins the maximum number of these seats, mostly located in the hills of Tripura, will be in a strong position to form the next government in Agartala, the state's capital.
The ruling Left Front, which had cornered 15 of these seats in 1998, ended up with a tally of 42 in the 60-member assembly. This time, however, the Communist Party of India-Marxist is faced with massive erosion in its support base amongst the tribals, who constitute 30 per cent of the state's population, on account of two factors.
One, the Congress, in a tactically sound move, allowed the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura to take on the Left Front in the tribal-dominated areas. And two, the Left Front is, for the first time, going into an election without two of its stalwarts who had built the CPI-M's base among the tribals since the late 1950s. Former chief minister and CPI-M veteran Dasarath Deb, a tribal himself, died four years ago while another doyen of Tripura's communist movement, Nripen Chakraborty, is too old to work for the party.
Since their departure from the scene, the CPI-M has been unable to find leaders of equal stature.
Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl, a militant-turned-politician who leads the INPT, is something of a hero among the tribals. He has been touring extensively in the interiors of Tripura and has managed to rattle the CPI-M because of his success in galvanising the tribals. The Congress is hoping to piggyback to electoral success on the INPT's strength.
The INPT's assistant general secretary, Sridam Deb Barma, says: "We are sure to get 16 to 18 seats in the forthcoming elections. We are receiving tremendous response from the people. That is why the Left Front is worried."
The Left Front, which has been in power for the past decade, is feeling the heat. Chief Minister Manik Sarkar says, "The Congress-INPT alliance is in league with the NLFT [National Liberation Front of Tripura] and their leaders are using gun power of the insurgents to threaten, kidnap and kill our workers."
The NLFT is a banned insurgent group that has bases in Bangladesh, close to the international border with Tripura. Sarkar has time and again talked about the NLFT bases in Bangladesh and the free run that the militants seem to have in the state's interiors. "They come in from their camps, hit the targets and go back, all without any hindrance because we do not have any protection or prevention on the border," he says.
Both the Congress and INPT deny being in league with the militants. "If they have any proof, they should lodge a complaint against us with the election commission," Sridam Deb Barma says.
Former chief minister and veteran Congressman Samir Ranjan Barman scoffs at Sarkar's charge. "Ours is the party that has suffered the most at the hands of extremists. Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Raiv Gandhi were all killed by extremists. And you want me to respond to the CPI-M allegation that we are getting militants support," he says.
Reports in local newspapers say that the CPI-M, worried over the threat to its leaders in the tribal areas from the militants, has ordered a substantial number of bulletproof vests. According to a report in Tripura Times, a local English daily, the CPI-M has ordered 1500 bullet-proof vests for distribution to polling agents in the interior areas. The CPI-M, however, denies taking such a step.
Whatever be the truth, the fact remains that the biggest battle for power in Tripura is being fought in the interiors of the state.
More reports from Tripura