The incident was another proof of a subtle shift in state politics since Manik Saha took over as Chief Minister, as the surprise pick for the post tries to project the image of a pro-peace, pro-development leader, ahead of fast-approaching elections.
It is specifically a contrast from Saha’s predecessor Biplab Deb’s tenure, which was marked by frequent complaints of violence by Opposition parties.
In a few recent cases, the Tripura Police has even intervened to ensure a “safe passage” for Opposition leaders before situations went out of hand.
Political violence is not new to Tripura, with many big leaders such as Bimal Sinha, Madhusudhan Saha, Arun Deb and Shyamhari Sharma killed in broad daylight, apart from the death of hundreds of workers claimed by different parties.
In fact, one of the major pledges of the BJP, before it came to power in 2018 for the first time, was to change “the political culture” of the state.
Soon after the BJP formed the government, CM Biplab Deb introduced a Tripura Victim Compensation Scheme, with provisions of cash relief for people whose properties were damaged in violence. Then, in 2020, the state launched a scheme to grant government jobs to next of kin of those killed in political violence from the time of Tripura’s formation in 1972, till 2018. — which had been another of its poll promises.
However, under Deb, both the CPM and Congress accused BJP workers of attacks on their offices and workers, with police looking away. Many of these offices, including a handful of the BJP’s, were demolished as part of an exercise to clear illegally occupied land.
One such attack took place in September 2021, when Opposition parties’ offices were gutted and vandalized, and offices of a few local newspapers including of CPM mouthpiece Daily Desher Katha, were attacked. The same year, the CPM claimed attacks on at least 219 of its workers, along with properties owned by them. It alleged that nobody was arrested in any of the cases.
On assuming office in May, after Deb was abruptly removed by the BJP high command, Saha said development and peace would be the mainstay of his government. In incidents of political violence that followed, the CM repeatedly called for peace.
In one recent political standoff, Congress leaders were escorted out by police amidst violent clashes, with the vehicle of one of them also coming under attack. Senior officials told The Indian Express that police resorted to lathicharge on BJP workers to keep them at bay. Aggrieved BJP workers blocked a national highway, but the government did not budge, forcing them to call off the protest.
BJP Tripura general secretary Papia Dutta said the police action showed the “neutrality” of the government. “We all wanted this sort of government, where police wouldn’t see political colours, unlike the erstwhile Left Front era,” he said.
Saha has taken other steps showing his resolve to shake things around, including changing the Chief Secretary and Director General of Police, and warning against delays in government projects.
He has also given a clear indication that he doesn’t see himself as a stop-gap till the next polls. “I’m not CM for three or seven months. I’ll be in the leading position in the elections next year,” Saha has said.
At the same time, Saha is careful to share the “credit” with the entire BJP team and not just him. “For me, the priority is development, and peace is a prerequisite for development. But peace is a continuous process, Manik Saha has not invented it… My predecessor did the same thing, I’m just carrying forward the work. Individually, Manik Saha or a CM can’t do anything. This is a continuous process and development is our main motto.”
While BJP leaders in public say the party is supreme and its members are dedicated karyakartas, observers say Saha’s change of pace is welcome and might help the BJP cement a shot at a second term in Tripura.
Even Opposition parties including the CPM and Congress acknowledge the change, though many of them also underline that Saha cannot distance himself from the political violence that occurred while Deb was CM, as he himself led the state BJP at the time.
The Congress has also accused Saha of himself winning the recent Assembly by-election to stay on as CM by “looting votes with the help of false voting”.