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Why BJP's Tripura CM faces rebellion

By Radhika Ramaseshan
January 16, 2021 12:12 IST
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Biplab Kumar Deb is accused of 'punching above his weight' and being 'ignorant' of Tripura's ground realities.
Radhika Ramaseshan reports.

When the Bharatiya Janata Party swept the Tripura assembly poll on March 2, 2018, celebrations at the BJP headquarters surpassed the jubilation that marked the grand victory in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election.

Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi delivered the victory speech that emphasised three points: The victory of 'nationalism' over 'Communism', the demolition of the myth of the 'tyranny of distance' between Delhi and Agartala, and the success of the BJP's 'Act East' policy.

Nearly three years after that red letter day, the BJP government is rocked by tremors set off by intra-party dissensions targeting 49-year-old Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb.

The discontent, simmering since 2019, surfaced when seven legislators -- all former Congressmen -- reached Delhi in October 2020 and met J P Nadda, BJP president.

Sudip Roy Barman, former health minister who Deb dropped in 2019 for allegedly 'hatching conspiracies' against him, led the malcontent MLAs who, so far, have refused to call themselves rebels or dissidents.

Sushant Chowdhury, one of the legislators, said: "It is not a convention in the BJP for unsatisfied leaders to air their grievances in Delhi. Obviously, the situation is grave and calls for introspection by the high command."

Although Barman's dismissal was cited as a 'provocation', the causes of the dissidence ran deeper.

A source close to the chief minister alleged the problem dated back to before the election when a central BJP functionary, assigned the charge of Tripura, put 'obstacles' in the way of Deb (then state party president and putative CM) and 'tried hard to project Barman as the face'.

Barman won his assembly election five times as a Congress candidate and was the Opposition leader before quitting and joining the Trinamool Congress in 2016 and thereafter the BJP.

When the central office-bearer's alleged effort to prop up Barman failed, the source said he muddled the scenario by proposing a tribal representative as CM.

But Deb made the cut because, the source claimed, he had Modi's and then BJP president Amit Anlchandra Shah's backing.

As a 'compromise', Jishnu Dev Varma -- a tribal leader elected from the BJP -- was appointed deputy CM.

Deb suspected Barman tried to sabotage the election of the BJP nominees from the two Lok Sabha seats which they won.

After the election, Deb told the Agartala media: 'Several conspiracies were hatched by the enemies inside the BJP. The party will take strict action against such persons.'

Barman lost his job shortly thereafter.

The source close to Deb said with eight members of the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura, led by N C Debbarma, the BJP had 44 legislators and was 'comfortably placed'.

"Even if seven leave, we have a majority," claimed the source.

When Barman and the disgruntled MLAs were in Delhi, B L Santhosh, the BJP's general secretary (organisation) and go-to person, ruled out replacing Deb.

Such decisions were Modi's prerogative, he reportedly said.

The MLAs later met Nadda.

But Modi and Shah, from whom they sought appointments, have not given time.

The ginger group's grouses were Deb 'punched above his weight', relied on a BJP coterie and handpicked bureaucrats, was 'ignorant' of Tripura's ground realities as an 'outsider', and distrusted former Congress members in his ministry and legislature party.

Barman said: "He's a novice in politics; he hasn't even been a panchayat member. He depends on the IAS babus and treats ministers like lamp posts."

Asish Saha, an ex-Congressman, said: "Deb spent the better part of his political career in Delhi. His Delhi connections came in useful to get the CM's job."

Deb was a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh swayamsevak who later became an assistant to the BJP's Satna MP Ganesh Singh before moving to Tripura in 2016.

According to Chowdhury, "If you're a CM, you must have an open heart. We have not won his confidence and trust because we are labelled Congress loyalists."

"Nearly 20 MLAs are from the Congress and our sacrifices and struggles against the Communists cannot be ignored," Chowdhury added. "We don't even get the minimum respect a legislator deserves."

That the anti-Deb cabal spoke on record was a reflection of the social base they built over the years and the confidence they can get re-elected on their own.

"The BJP's original vote share never exceeded 1.5 per cent. Its Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh CMs are former Congressmen; Himanta Biswa Sarma, the party's North East strategist, is from the Congress. Why do we lack trust?" asked Barman.

In the 2013 assembly election, the BJP fought 50 of the 60 seats, won nothing and polled 1.54 per cent votes.

The Congress contested 48 seats, won 10 and secured a 36.53 per cent vote share.

Jump to 2018 and the figures speak of the exponential difference in the BJP's performance after the large-scale acquisition from the Congress.

It contested 51 seats, won 36 and secured 43.59 per cent vote share; the Congress went out for a duck and had a vote share of just 1.79 per cent.

A senior Tripura BJP office-bearer sounded optimistic of an early resolution, saying: "Time will heal everything."

However, Vinod Sonkar, Kaushambi MP and central Tripura minder, warned: "None of these rebel MLAs should think he is greater than the BJP."

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Radhika Ramaseshan
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