Sajjan Kumar& Pankaj Chakraborty

The spectacular political rise since 2015 and victory in 2018 assembly election of BJP in Tripura defies the dominant commonsensical assumptions about the rise and electoral decline of political parties. And the man who commandeered this stunning saffron rise in Tripura is BJP’s State in-charge Sunil Deodhar.The 52 years old leader-activistleading BJP’s mission in Tripura has had an old and thick association with North-East India since 1991 when as a RSS Pracharakhe spent 10 years at Meghalaya followed by his stint as convenorship at BJP’s North East Sampark Cellsince 2010 whereafter he was entrusted with the responsibility of campaign manager of Varanasi constituency of Narendra Modi in 2014.

In the aftermath of the stunning victory in 2014 Lok Sabha election when BJP publicly declared Congress-Mukt Bharat as its political motto and entrusted the chosen lieutenants with the said responsibility, Sunil Deodhar was called in by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah and was asked to take the mantle of another mission, politically and ideologically more profound for the party, of realizing the aim of ‘communist-mukt Bharat’ and consequently was made BJP’s State in-charge of Tripura in November 2014. He was warned that the existing BJP in the state is just for a namesake with a mere 1.54% vote share in the previous assembly election of 2013 that witnessed a meagre increase up to 5.7% in 2014 Lok Sabha election. To his advantage, he was told, would be the 25 years of anti-incumbency against Left-front government in the state in 2018 when next assembly election would take place. Thus, he had only 3 years to transform the party as well as the political dynamics of the state.

Fast forward 2018 and the fact that BJP havingregistered a historic victory against CPI(M) in Tripura, is testimony to the fact that Sunil Deodhar has succeeded in both, the stunning transformation of BJP in the state and making Tripura a successful electoral arena of direct fight between left and right, first of its kind in the electoral history of independent India.

After becoming state in-charge, he visited Tripura in January 2015 and toured the state 3 times to take stock of the ground realities.His strategy was clear since day one, that is, to know the core of CPI(M)’s preponderance in the state vis a vis its political rival and it took no time to realise, he states, that Left’s polemical strength liedin encashing the perception of being invincible in all the 20 ST seats. However, his own reading of the ground was more complex and he claimed to witness a deep alienation of Tribal people not only from CPI(M) but also other parties on account of their hostility and apathy to de-historization of tribal identity and loss of cultural symbols in the wake of concerted attempt by the left governments to dishonour and destroy their shared bonding with the royal symbols. In nutshell, he opines, the tribals’ sense of pride was crushed and the first and foremost challenge I faced was to attempt to take some measures in that regard. This objective had its own electoral calculation as in his own words, ‘upon my first tour of the state in 2015 I was told that in assembly elections CPI(M) starts its seat counting from 20, that is, all the ST seats are considered confirmed seats for the Left.’This got him his first strategic drive and the old Pracharak in him with the thick experienceof working among the tribals in Meghalaya guided him. I decided to take the bull by the horn, he continues, and therefore decided to deprive CPI(M) of its tribal base by following a two-pronged strategy. One, in the long-term, the tribals need to be made to feel as the core of the power discourse of the state. However, that could be done only if BJP first transforms itself as the true representatives of the tribal identity and their pride. Hence, adequate tribal representation at all levels became his prime motto. Subsequently, he got the tribal-morcha of BJP reactivated by giving the tribals adequate representation at all levels by having two vice-presidents, one secretary besides theybeing represented in all party Morchas except SC and OBC Morchas.Besides, 4 out of 8 members of the core group-highest body of the party in the state hail from tribal community. ‘My motto was simple, he states, that BJP in Tripura must not be merely a Bengali dominated party but rather should be true to its name that is Bharatiya Janata Party both in its intent and its composition.’

It was this investment in the Tribal question that got him successfully cement the electoral alliance with IPFT without accepting latter’s core demand of having a separate state for the Tribals. This also reveals the systematic strategic part of his political moves that he clearly laid out since his arrival in the state.

Having invested in the tribal issues, he then shifted to more generic political aspects and got Biplab Deb as the local face of the party in the state and in tandem they succeeded in making BJP as the fulcrum of anti-CPM space in a matter of just 2 years.

Thirdly, he claims to have a layered web of party cadres by measures like, ‘one booth 10 youths’ in all the 3214 polling booths in the state, besides having one panna-pramukhfor every 60 voters from the voter list, thereby having a team of almost 48,000 cadres. Similarly, he got a team of professional and dedicated youths heading various cells like IT-Cell, Media-Cell etc. who process the information dissemination and reception on an hourly basis. These cells have a presence of enthusiastic youths. For instance, Prangshu Deb (25) and Mukesh Raj (22) are part of BJP’s IT cell and statethat all the member of the cell fall within the age-bracket of 25-35 years who coordinate a total of 150 WhatsApp groups for 60 constituencies besides having similar set of other groups on social media constantly interacting with people from all walks of life.

It is this mammoth maze of organizational investment guided by Sunil Deodhar that culminated in saffron vanquishing the red in the first ever direct electoral contest between the Left and the Right. 3rd March 2018 would go as a historic day in the annals of electoral history in India.

(Sajjan Kumar has a Ph.D. from Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He is associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabad based Research Organization specializing in fieldwork based political and electoral Research; Pankaj Chakraborty is faculty of Political Science at Holy Cross College, Tripura University.)