At the age of 49, Assam’s minister of health, education and finance, Himanta Biswa Sarma, has already established his political footprint in the neighbouring poll-bound state of Tripura. Biswa Sarma, who quit the Congress and joined the BJP in August 2015, is currently donning the hat of Tripura’s election in-charge for his party. Despite being labelled an “outsider” in Tripura, Biswa Sarma (along with his colleagues Ram Madhav, Sunil Deodhar and Biplab Deb) is credited with turning the political fortunes of the BJP from a state of virtual non-existence five years ago to being the foremost challenger to the Manik Sarkar-led Left Front government. Excerpts of his exclusive interview with News18’s Sougata Mukhopadhyay
Barely hours remain before Tripura goes to the polls. How do you see the BJP placed at this point?
The BJP is already in a comfortable position. In my opinion majority seats that’s required to form the government is already ensured. It’s now a matter of improving tallies. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing two more rallies and a last minute boost by our karyakartas and candidates, I think we will make our tally more impressive and be in a more comfortable position.
Do you have a number for us?
I think as of now we are comfortably getting 35 (out of 60) seats. But there are still 10 seats which are marginal, which can go either way. Presuming we get 5 out of those 10 seats, even then we should end up with around 40 seats.
But that’s a comfortable majority!
As of now, it is. But I say this with a caveat. There is a strong anti-incumbency wave against the CPM. There’s speculation that even Manik Sarkar may lose his Dhanpur seat. If that happens then you may see a surprising result, something which I am not ruling out. But as a political animal, I am predicting that we will be in the range of 35-40 seats.
Considering your performance in the last state elections where you had zero seats and just 1.5 percent vote share to where you are today, aiming to topple the Left Front, how was that made possible?
Look, we formed governments in Assam and Manipur coming from nowhere. Question is, who is occupying the opposition space? In Tripura, the Congress occupied that space but they had an on and off relationship with the CPM. So now all anti-Left votes have consolidated under the BJP because people realise that the BJP will never compromise with the CPI-M, ideologically or otherwise. Same happened in Manipur. In a bipolar electoral situation, the previous election figures don’t matter. In Tripura, 44 % voters always opposed the CPM and that entire 44 % is now rallying behind the BJP. Plus there is Modiji’s performance and our aggressive campaigns which have made our position so solid that I don’t think that 1.5% has any relevance in today’s scenario.
The BJP seems to be working on a formula in the North East. The first part of that formula is to co-opt the Congress which occupied the opposition space. The second part involves tying up with regional parties which has aspirations for separate statehood. The formula has worked for you in Assam and Manipur, and to some extent in Arunachal. How do you ensure it would work for you in Tripura?
Today, we have completely decimated the Congress in Tripura and every single one of their leaders, barring two, have joined the BJP. The TMC’s legislative wing has entirely merged with the BJP. So now there is no leader in the opposition space except us. So far as IPFT and other regional parties are concerned, BJP’s consistent approach has been to not go into any conflict with the tribals, take them into the mainstream, enter into alliance, make them comfortable and let them share equal power with a national political party. We did that in Manipur, Assam and started the process in Arunachal. In all these states there are no internal conflicts on the ground anymore. Because of the political alliance even at the social level tension has gone down significantly. Today in Assam, although they have their demand for a separate state, they are not openly agitating for it… Same happened in Manipur.
But aren’t you then temporarily brushing the issue under the carpet which could soon come out again?
I think that this temporary brushing aside of the agenda under the carpet can also be the foundation stone for lasting unity and peace because with the tribal leaders sharing the dais with us for the first time, they now realise there are good people on the other side as well.
But the IPFT says it hasn’t given up on the demand for a separate Twipralanad and the BJP says it wants a united Tripura. How do you reconcile the difference, given that they are your political allies now?
I don’t think that the IPFT has uttered a single word about separate statehood in any of their rallies. I know because I was there. Our joint statement says Tripura will remain one and won’t be divided although, at the same time, the diversity of this land would be celebrated.
But IPFT chief NC Debbarma has issued statements saying they are not giving up on Twipraland! Also their leaders were conspicuous by absence when you announced that joint declaration!
No, the interpretation that the IPFT leaders were absent during the joint statement is wrong. It so happened that the statement was supposed to be announced the previous evening, but I was unable to reach. So they had signed and left. We never asked them to withdraw their demand. But in the common minimum agenda that demand is not there. Subsequently, you will not find a single election space where the IPFT is talking about Twipraland. I think we have managed to come to a common platform and when the new government starts working together with the tribal people, the demand for Twipraland will go away. But for that you need to ensure a heavy dose of development in the tribal pockets.
You are not only fighting the Left in Tripura, you are also fighting the legacy of its CM Manik Sarkar. Why hasn’t the BJP projected a chief ministerial face in these elections?
You see, we have competent people around us for that job. It is just our strategy to not name one in order to avoid all our opponents from reaching his constituency to ensure his defeat. It is a culture of the north east that once you project a CM face, he loses because everybody targets him. So we have improvised our strategy. In Tripura, everybody knows who our CM will be, only that we have not issued a statement. You have seen the photographs, who we are projecting and how we are projecting. I think people can read between the lines, it’s not a big issue.
Your critics are pointing out in public campaigns that the BJP is spending unprecedented amount of money in the Tripura elections. How would you respond?
In 2013 when I was a Congress observer, the CPM raised the same issue of huge amounts of money getting poured in. But the fact is the BJP has released funds to its candidates through cheques/RTGS. We have completely done away with cash. The only extra thing we have done is the deployment of two helicopters which perhaps the CPM has not done. But you have to understand that CPM leaders are not in government and they have time. But our people have work in Delhi and they are pressed for time.
In Tripura, the Left has more publicity material than the BJP, more poll offices than the BJP. The CPM has taken Rs 10,000 from every government employee for which we have filed an FIR. Three months ago, I gave accounts to show that the CPM has collected Rs 150 crore from the market and even have given written complaints to the CEO and the DGP. The CPM has not even refuted that allegation. Today the CPM is spending more money in these elections than the BJP and the problem is that money has not been raised from donations but by extorting people.
The way the BJP has approached these elections... all your top leaders, from PM Modi to your party president Amit Shah and almost all top leaders from the Centre, have come to Tripura. Why is Tripura so important to the BJP?
Tripura is important for us, but so are the smallest states. The same thing is happening in Meghalaya, all our top leaders going there and spending time with our karyakartas. Electorally, the BJP is giving equal importance to all states, big or small. What is the crime of BJP workers in Tripura, why can’t they see the Prime Minister? If people of UP can see the PM, why can’t the people of Tripura see him? The BJP appreciates that feeling. Elections are also festivals of democracy when top leaders come and work with the grassroots workers. That’s how bonding develops.
But there is a lot of star power as far your campaign is concerned
I think except the Prime Minister and Amit Shah, who articulate policies in a different manner, I don’t believe in so-called star powers. For others it is just commonality, it is called solidarity with workers. They are not stars. They are also political workers.
There are political observers who say that some of the big state elections are lined up this year where the BJP has high stakes —Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh. And given that the Gujarat results haven’t exactly been the way you wanted them to be, is the BJP a little wary about what impact that might have on these states? Is that why Tripura and the other northeastern states have suddenly become so important to you?
That is purely a matter of interpretation. Normally one would stay away from Tripura because it is a tough battlefield. If you have to score some brownie points, you should go to a state where you are sure to succeed. Not Tripura where nobody believed that the BJP could make a turnaround. Only when they reach here now they realise that yes, Tripura is ready for a change. So I don’t think that logic stands. The only logic is that the BJP gives equal importance to all states and doesn’t discriminate between states and I am happy that the BJP has given so much importance to small states like Tripura and Meghalaya.
You are taking on a cadre-based party which has a strong grassroots presence. Has your back up support from the RSS helped in these elections?
I haven’t seen the RSS in the election campaigns. We don’t want them in the elections directly neither are they interested. Parties like the IPFT have base among Christian population. So there is no question of fighting the election from an ideological point of view. We are fighting the polls from the standpoint of development. Also, I feel that the CPM’s greatest problem is its cadres. They joined 25 years ago and were okay for the first five years. But gradually they became dictators. The anti-Left feeling that you see in Tripura today is largely a movement against those cadres. The cadres are no longer a blessing for the CPM, they are a curse.
Now that you have made a mark in Tripura, no matter what the results are, what’s next? Bengal?
I think eastern and northeastern India will continue to be our growth area. So Odisha and Bengal will be our high priority states along with other northeastern states. And in Parliament, we want to create a solid northeast bloc. So that’s the idea we are working on.
And will we see Himanta Biswa Sarma working in these states as well?
No, I have to return to Assam. But let’s see how my party wants to utilise me. My Assembly is on and I have to quickly finish this and go back to my state (smiles). People like me and my Chief Minister, we have promised so many things to the people of northeast. We should hold our ground and deliver what we have promised them. Only when that is done, we can think of moving beyond.