Agartala: Two days after the prime minister took on Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar in an election rally in his backyard, the four-time chief minister has hit back. Responding to the BJP's poll war cry of 'Chalo Paltai' or let's bring change, Mr Sarkar said the poor and backward in the country too are saying the same -- "time to change the pro-rich government at the centre".
"They promised to bring good days but have deceived the people. They faced the music in Gujarat and in the Rajasthan bypolls. Here, they are sarcastically saying 'Chalo Paltai', what change will they bring? Unity, integrity, peace, development - do they want to change all these things?" Mr Sarkar told NDTV in an exclusive interview.
Tripura votes on February 18 in an election that is being seen as the first direct contest between the Left and the Right. Eyeing the 32 per cent tribal voters in the state, the BJP has tied up with the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT), a tribal party that wants a separate Tripuraland state carved out of Tripura. As per the seat sharing agreement, BJP is contesting 51 of the 60 seats.
Calling the alliance "unholy", Mr Sarkar questioned the need for the BJP to join hands with what he called a "divisive force". "BJP claims to be a nationalist political party, the defender of India's unity and integrity. If they have the strength, why ally with a divisive force nurtured by an extremist outfit that still has its camps in Bangladesh?"
Rubbishing the allegations, the BJP said its alliance with IPFT doesn't mean that it favours a division of Tripura. "Tripura will remain undivided. We will ensure socio-economic and cultural justice to tribals. We will celebrate diversity," BJP's election in-charge for Tripura Himanta Biswa Sarma told NDTV.
Mr Sarma, who is credited with increasing the BJP's footprint in the Northeast, claimed that the party was well on course to form the next government in Tripura. "PM Modi has a tremendous goodwill in Tripura. Our first strategy is to translate that goodwill into votes," he said.
Many top leaders of the BJP have been campaigning hard in Tripura, a state that has been ruled by the Left for 25 years now. Mr Sarkar, who has held the top job for 20 years now, has 1,520 in his wallet and about Rs 2,410 in his bank account, according to his election affidavit. The BJP says the chief minister may be honest but he is protecting "dishonest" party leaders and cadre.
"Tripura doesn't need Manik (a gem) but HIRA (acronym for Highway, Iway, Roads and Airways)", PM Modi said in his rally on Thursday.
Asked if he saw the elections as a battle between the prime minister and him, Mr Sarkar said, "Election is a higher form of political struggle. It's never about two individuals".