New Delhi: The BJP leadership in a swift move removed Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb from his post on Saturday, just eight months before the Assembly elections that are scheduled to be held in February next year. While the decision to sack Deb might appear sudden, party sources told The Sunday Guardian that it was an exercise that had become inevitable as Deb had become unpopular among the electorate and his own party leaders were sending regular updates to Delhi alleging how Deb was functioning like a “dictator” and how the party was facing severe “anti-incumbency” in the state.

The 50-year-old Deb, who courted headlines since taking oath in March 2018 for his controversial and unscientific statements, was replaced with the state party unit president, 69-year-old Manik Saha, against whom at least 15 senior BJP state leaders had written a letter in February 2022 alleging how he was promoting his own team at the expense of other party workers and leaders. Saha was elected to the Rajya Sabha in March this year.

According to sources in Agartala, the BJP state unit in-charge and Lok Sabha MP, Vijay Sonkar, had reached Agartala on Friday itself—even as Deb was still in Delhi tweeting about his meetings with Shah—presumably after he was apprised by the central leadership of their decision to remove Deb.

BJP national spokesperson, Guru Prakash Paswan, while responding to the decision to change Deb, called it a “routine affair”. “Movement of leadership from government to party organisation and vice versa is a routine affair. We have seen a smooth transition of leadership in the past as well,” Paswan told The Sunday Guardian.

This new emerging political pattern of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and party president Jagat Prakash Nadda in which they are not averse to changing CMs just months before the election to tackle anti-incumbency has come as a warning sign to sitting Chief Ministers, especially of states that are going to the polls in the coming months.

According to Tripura based leaders, if Deb would not have been removed, there was a very strong possibility of a large number of party MLAs resigning and joining the Trinamool Congress, which has emerged as a force in the last few months in the state.

Deb, who had been facing massive resentment from a significant section of party leaders, was summoned to Delhi on Friday where he was asked to submit his resignation by Home Minister Amit Shah. Upon his arrival at Agartala on Saturday, Deb, in a one-line resignation letter, submitted to Governor Satyadeo Narain Arya, said, “I hereby tender my resignation from the post of Chief Minister of Tripura with effect from 14-05-2022.” This was the second meeting that Deb had with Shah inside two months.

In a 60-member Assembly, BJP presently has 33 members including the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker, while its alliance partner, Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura has 7 MLAs. The opposition CPM has 15 MLAs, while 5 seats are vacant.

The discontent against Deb—which necessitated his removal, on the lines of what the BJP did in Uttarakhand last year when it changed its sitting CM Tirath Singh Rawat just seven months before the elections—was brewing for a long time.

In February this year, two BJP MLAs, Sudip Roy Barman and Ashish Saha resigned from their posts. In October 2021, another MLA, Asish Das had resigned from the party. All had quoted the working style of Deb as the trigger for their resignation.

A four-member central team of party leaders had gone to Agartala in August 2021 to take stock of the ground situation. This had come after Tripura based party leaders and MLAs had a one-to-one meeting in June with B.L. Santosh in which the party secretary was told about the anti-incumbency against Deb.

In October 2020, nine party MLAs had arrived in Delhi to apprise the central leadership of the ground situation in Tripura and the anti-incumbency that had built up against Deb. These MLAs, in their meeting with the top leadership including party secretary B.L. Santosh, had complained about the CM’s “dictatorial” attitude.

The MLAs had told the leadership that the situation on the ground in Tripura was totally different from what Deb had been portraying through “media management” in Delhi and Agartala. The party was also apprised of how bureaucrats were seeking Central deputation to ensure that they did not have to work under Deb. Soon after this visit by the “disgruntled” MLAs, Deb announced that he would do a public show on 13 December to prove his popularity. However, the central leadership on 10 December asked Deb not to hold any such meeting.

The beginning of the internal politics within the BJP’s Tripura unit had begun right from 2019, when Sudip Roy Barman, considered as one of the heavyweights in Tripura politics, was removed by Biplab Deb as the state’s health minister. Sudip Roy Barman, earlier a Congressman, had joined the BJP in 2017 and had contested the Assembly elections in 2018 on a BJP ticket. Many in Tripura say that Barman, who is close to Mukul Roy, was instrumental in manufacturing defection from the Congress and ensuring a large number of Congress leaders join the BJP ahead of the 2018 Assembly polls.

However, sources say that Barman wanted to get the second position in the BJP led government in Tripura, but Biplab Deb kept him on the side-lines, sensing a threat from Barman. This did not go down well with Barman and he started seeking Deb’s removal as Chief Minister.

A delegation of BJP MLAs also met BJP national president J.P. Nadda and Amit Shah on multiple occasions in New Delhi, citing “bad governance” in Tripura. According to BJP sources, at least 12 of the 36 BJP MLAs were not happy with Biplab Deb and his style of functioning.

Some of the dissenting MLAs who had come to Delhi to meet Nadda and Amit Shah included Sudip Roy Barman, Asish Kumar Saha, Sushanta Chowdhury, Parimal Debbarma, Ram Prasad Paul and Diba Chandra Hrankhawl amongst others. The delegation was led by Sudip Roy Barman. Barman had also held a meeting at his residence in September-October of 2020 with all the dissident MLAs to put pressure on the central BJP leadership for the removal of Biplab Deb. However, Barman and Asish Kumar Saha joined the Congress in February this year.

Rebellion was brewing against Biplab Deb even in the state unit of the BJP. The state unit was also unhappy with the way Biplab Deb was running the government in Tripura. Some BJP sources that this newspaper spoke to said that Deb was acting on his own whims and fancies and also that the people of Tripura were not being given any benefits and welfare schemes by the government, which led to the popularity of the party shrinking in the state.
Even state president and the new Chief Minister, Manik Saha had differences with Biplab Deb. According to sources, Deb would not even listen to his party colleagues and would run the government only on the advice of his coterie and a handful of “close associates”.

A delegation of the BJP leaders from Tripura under the leadership of former Tripura BJP president Ranajoy Deb had also met Nadda in Delhi to apprise him of the condition of the party in the state. Some BJP leaders from Tripura also say that the Trinamool Congress (TMC), which has started to find a foothold in Tripura, could do it because Biplab Deb’s governance was not resonating with the aspirations of the people of Tripura and that they were looking for change.

Asish Kumar Saha, one of the dissenting BJP MLAs, who had met Nadda and later joined the Congress, told this newspaper that they were feeling vindicated as what they were telling the BJP central leadership for months now have proven to be right.

“What we had been telling the BJP leadership at the Centre has proven to be right today and they had to remove Biplab Deb. For months now many of us had been complaining to the central BJP leadership but all our words were akin to falling on deaf ears. Now they have realised that without removing Biplab Deb, it is impossible for them to win elections. This has come very late for the BJP now, the people of Tripura cannot be fooled anymore. The Biplab Deb government has done no work for the people of the state, but only for himself and his close associates,” he said.
Asish Saha also alleged that the Biplab Deb led BJP government was running an undemocratic government which was muzzling the voices of his opponents and even the media who tried to criticise him or his policies.

Speaking about the issues on why MLAs were against Biplab Deb, Asish Saha said, “The unemployment rate in Tripura is the highest, there is no DA for government employees, the law and order situation is deteriorating every day. He was like a dictator running the government as a one man show. He finished the party in Tripura. Even though they have changed him at the last moment, BJP will have to really struggle hard to come back to power. The damage has already been done.”