Down and without friends, yet Congress hopes for a revival in Tripura

Twenty-nine years after it was voted out of power in Tripura, the Congress is trying to revive its prospects ahead of the 2023 Assembly polls, with some of its hopes tied to Sudip Roy Barman, the former health minister in the Biplab Deb-led BJP government who recently returned to the Congress.

While the Congress hopes the buzz surrounding Roy Barman’s return and his popularity among the youth will help the party in its bid to make a comeback in the state where it was last in power over three decades ago, whether that alone will be enough to take on the BJP in 2023 is still unclear.

This uncertainty has to do with a couple of factors: the Congress’s drastic dip in fortunes that has coincided with the BJP’s dramatic dominance over the last few elections.

The Congress, which got over 45 per cent votes until 2013, even when it was in the Opposition, suffered a dramatic setback in the 2018 Assembly polls and retained only 1.86 per cent votes. There was a brief upswing when, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the party’s vote share rose to 27 per cent during royal scion Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma’s stint as the state Congress chief. However, with Debbarma quitting the party nine months later and the party grappling with internal differences, the Congress’s vote share again dropped to less than one per cent in the urban body polls of 2021.

Tripura’s political landscape is today vastly different from the days when the Congress was a potent force in the state.

The BJP’s vote share shot up from 1.87 per cent in 2013 to 43 per cent in the 2018 Assembly polls, when the party bagged 44 seats in alliance with the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT). The BJP secured nearly 60 per cent vote share in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and 59.01 per cent in the civic body polls held last year, marking a steady winning streak for the party.

If that wasn’t enough, the tribal vote bank, which the Congress has been steadily losing to regional parties such as the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti (TUJS) and the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT) since 1972, has undergone a fundamental change.

Demands of separate statehood for tribals – first raised in 2009 by the IPFT, now an ally of the BJP in the NDA government – resonates more than ever in the tribal districts, more so since Debbarma left the Congress in 2019 to float the Tripura Indigenous Peoples Regional Alliance (TIPRA) Motha and swept the Tripura Tribal Autonomous District Council (TTADC) elections, winning 18 out of the 28 seats that went to polls.

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Given its internal contradictions, it won’t be an easy task for the Congress to negotiate this changed situation in the state and win back tribal support.

The Congress first formed a government in Tripura in 1963 under Sachindra Lal Singh, the state’s first CM. It was followed by a series of Congress-led governments – under Sukhomoy Sengupta in 1972, and Prafulla Kumar Das and Radhika Ranjan Gupta in 1977. Their brief tenures were followed by 61 days of President’s rule. The subsequent elections in January 1978 paved way for the first Left Front government. The last Congress government was formed in 1988 in alliance with the TUJS and continued till 1993, when factional feuds led to Sudhir Ranjan Barman losing his CM chair to his home minister in 1992.

With Samir Ranjan’s son Sudip Roy Barman now back in the party fold, the Congress would hope to come full circle. Critics of Roy Barman, however, point to his combative past, including the ruckus in Congress Bhawan prior to his departure and his open attacks against senior party leaders. In 2016, Roy Barman and five other MLAs quit the Congress and joined the Trinamool Congress, before joining the BJP in 2017.

The CPI(M) — often accused of hobnobbing with the Congress — isn’t in good shape either. The Left party’s vote share came down from 53.80 per cent in 2013 to 45.46 per cent in 2018, until, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, it was left with barely 3.72 lakh votes.

Besides, all Left parties, including the CPI(M), were routed in last year’s ADC polls despite the fact that it was during the Left rule that the Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council was formed in 1982.

The newest party on the block, the Trinamool Congress, had a vote share of 16.39 per cent in the urban body polls last year but the party is yet to form full-fledged organisational committees in the state.

The Congress, down and without allies, will therefore have a tough fight on its hands.

Congress leaders, including state unit president Birajit Sinha, have repeatedly called for unity against the BJP.

Meanwhile, the BJP, emboldened by its recent victories in four states, has been claiming that it will “single-handedly” win 50-plus seats in the 60-seat Assembly next year.

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