Tripura chief minister Biplab Deb resigned from his post on Saturday, just eight months before the state assembly elections scheduled for February 2023, and is set to be replaced by Rajya Sabha member and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Manik Saha.
According to BJP leaders, Deb received a call from a senior party functionary in the morning to submit his resignation to governor Satyadeo Narain Arya. Soon after Deb announced that he was stepping down, Saha, a dental surgeon and a non-tribal like Deb, who was elected to the Rajya Sabha in March this year, tendered his resignation as the state BJP chief, two years after he was named to the post.
Veteran political analyst Swapan Bhattacharya said the BJP’s move to replace Deb is likely to check anti-incumbency ahead of the assembly polls. He said, “Coming from apolitical background, the new chief minister has drawn no controversy or complaint against him so far. It seems that the BJP replaced the chief minister to stop the anti-incumbency. Moreover, it will not affect anything in the state which has a 33% tribal population.”
At a hurriedly called press conference after he submitted his resignation, Deb thanked the BJP central leadership for making him chief minister. He said, “Being a chief minister, I tried to work for overall development of Tripura and to do justice to people here. Now, the party wants to strengthen the party organization for the 2023 assembly polls. If there is a strong organisation, then our government will come (back to power). To keep BJP in power for long time, if a party activist, like me, works to strengthen the organisation, it will be helpful.”
The BJP legislative party met at the chief minister’s official residence and elected Saha as its new leader under supervision of central observer Bhupendra Yadav, who reached Agartala in the afternoon. Saha’s name was proposed by Deb, people aware of the matter said.
After the meeting, Saha said, “I was given responsibility of BJP state president. I worked… and now my name was proposed for leader of the legislative party and everyone supported. But I will continue to work as a karyakarta of the party.”
Meanwhile, as Deb proposed Saha’s name in the meeting, minister Ram Prasad Paul protested, leading to a scuffle among MLAs. Paul also broke a few chairs before the situation was calmed, people familiar with the development said. Paul wanted deputy chief minister Jishnu Dev Varma, a member of the erstwhile Tripura royal family, as the next chief minister, they added.
A senior BJP leader aware of the developments, quoting a party survey conducted last month, said that Deb was found to be very unpopular, and that apart from growing dissent against him within the government and the party, there were also allegations of corruption against certain people in his office.
“On more than one occasion, legislators and other party members had complained to the central leadership about his (Deb’s) behaviour and they have been pushing for a change. The party did not want to go to polls with a divided house and spoil its chances of returning to power,” a party functionary said.
However, Deb will be given responsibility by the party as it prepares for upcoming state elections, with a second party functionary stating, “The party will make use of his experience and prepare for the elections with fresh energy and zeal.”
Reacting to the change in chief minister, state Trinamool Congress president Subal Bhowmik said, “This is a victory for the people of Tripura. The people have suffered a lot in the four years of the BJP regime. Though BJP has replaced the chief minister, people will never welcome BJP anymore.”
Veteran Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Pabitra Kar said, “This is an attempt to hide the failures of the Biplab Deb-led BJP government in these four years. Now people want the government to be uprooted in the coming polls.”
A senior BJP leader said appointing Saha would provide a fresh start to the party and would curb dissidence within the party. The leader also believed that a division of opposition votes, with the TMC, CPI(M) and the Congress all in the fray, would help the BJP to win the elections.
In 2018, Deb became Tripura’s first BJP chief minister after the party formed the government in alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), ending 20 years of CPI(M) rule in the state.
However, he had a penchant for making controversial statements, from claiming that the internet existed during the times of the Mahabharata, to saying that civil engineers and not mechanical engineers should opt for the civil services.
Reports of intra-party differences and factionalism have been reported to the BJP central high command since 2020. In August last year, after differences within the party unit widened, a team of senior BJP leaders, including state in-charge Vinod Sonkar, national general secretary Dilip Saikia, zonal secretary for the north-eastern region Ajay Jamwal and general secretary in-charge of Assam and Tripura Phanindra Sarma, was sent to prevent the situation from escalating.
There were also disagreements between the BJP and the alliance partner IPFT over organisational matters in the state and a section of legislators, led by Sudip Roy Barman who was dropped from the cabinet, had accused the CM of deficiencies in governance. Barman and another MLA, Asish Kumar Saha, would go on to quit the BJP in February and join the Congress, alleging irregularities in the appointments done by the Joint Recruitment Board, Tripura.