In a four-cornered fight, the real battle is between Union minister Pratima Bhoumik and CPM’s Kaushik Chanda.
‘Tripurar bhalo din pherot aita se, Kalo raat sesh hoita se’ (Tripura's good days are back, the dark night is over), the song in local dialect set to a popular folk tune, blared from a microphone atop the truck crammed with Communist Party of India-Marxist volunteers wearing red T-shirts with the hammer and sickle sign, rushing along the highway to Dhanpur.
The battle for Dhanpur, about eight kilometres from the big town Sonamura, is on.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has pitted its central minister Pratima Bhoumik in a prestige fight to wrest the Left bastion, where she had lost five years back to former chief minister and Communist veteran Manik Sarkar.
”Takkar er lorai hobe, kintu amra jitbo (it will be a tough battle but we shall win),” beamed a confident Bhoumik, the first Tripura woman to be a central minister, in an interview to PTI.
”I have been working hard for the entire West Tripura parliamentary constituency (which includes Dhanpur) -- I especially concentrated on our tribal villages,” she said.
The Communist party's old warhorse Sarkar, who represented the constituency four times in a row, is not contesting the election but is concentrating on touring the state to try and win it back in alliance with Congress, after being in power for seven terms in the last 50 years.
The CPI-M has fielded Kaushik Chanda in the Dhanpur battle which locals expect to be a straight fight between the lotus and hammer-sickle-and-star symbols, despite the Trinamool Congress fielding Habil Miah and Tipra Motha nominating Amiya Dayal Naotia.
The constituency, largely agricultural, has just 48,000 voters, of whom last time around 40,000 voted. Some 11,000 tribals and 14,000 Muslims in the area make it an interesting demographic mix for campaign managers. Sarkar had won the seat in 2018 by a little over 5,000 votes.
”The CPI-M has been winning this seat since 1970s. We are more than confident that we will retain it this time too. The tribals had voted for Tipra Motha in the tribal autonomous district council in 2021, but this is for the state elections and we believe that they will continue to be with the party as they have in the past,” said Ratan Saha, CPI-M Sonamura sub-division committee secretary.
A revived CPI-M, which had been losing ground ever since it lost the 2018 assembly election is visibly displaying its strength in the area. The number of red flags far outnumber the lotus or the Tipra Motha's red-yellow banners. Convoys of trucks and motorcycles ferrying SFI (the communist students' wing) and CPI-M activists are common here.
”If they have been able to revive, then it is because we have delivered democratic governance. In their time (Left government's rule) they did not allow any other party to campaign properly. They will fight their own battles, we will fight in our own way,” Bhoumick said.
”You will see, (despite everything) we will come back to power,” the minister of state for social welfare in the central government added.
Central police forces have been deployed in strength given the possibility of clashes between rival political groups while road checks by Election Commission officials of vehicles to search for stashes of cash and local liquor which may be carried to sway voters are common.
”We have been working hard to develop the state. We are the only party which has worked for all communities -- our motto is development for all,” said Bhoumik.
She added that she was confident that tribals would not be swayed by the ”mystifying concept of greater Tipraland which seems to extend beyond India's boundary” and would stay with the BJP based on the development work including hospitals, roads and social welfare measures such as free ration, which the ”double engine government” (BJP governments in both the Centre and state) had delivered.
The ’Greater Tipraland' idea is not restricted only to Tripura but seeks to also include Tripuris living in Assam, Mizoram, and Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.
Tripura itself has become the stage for a test battle for the BJP and the opposition parties in an election where the lotus symbol is under enormous pressure to retain its stranglehold over this tiny Northeastern state.
Both the BJP and CPI-M have flown in heavyweights to lend heft to their campaigning. For the BJP, it ranges from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah to Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. For the CPI-M, party general secretary Sitaram Yechuri, firebrand politburo member Brinda Karat and Bengal unit's secretary are holding public meetings.
When questioned about the possibility of Bhoumik being made chief minister of the state if it won at the hustings, the central minister said with a smile: ”It does not arise. I am just a soldier of the party.”