As swift was his rise to become the Chief Minister of Tripura at the relatively young age of 48, so came the end of Biplab Kumar Deb’s tenure. On Saturday, taking everyone by surprise, Deb put in his papers, soon after his return from Delhi, reportedly on the instructions of the BJP high command.
Deb’s family goes back a long way in the Sangh Parivar, with his father Hirudhan Deb a Jan Sangh ‘organiser’. The family of modest means lived in Jamjuri, a small village 60 km to the south of Tripura, when Biplab Deb was born. He would leave for Delhi soon after graduation, and quickly find for himself mentors in the RSS like Govindacharya and Krishnagopal Sharma.
By the time he moved back to Tripura 16 years later, in 2015, Deb, a father of two and married to an SBI official, was a trained speaker in the Sangh tradition, deploying a mix of Hindi, Bengali and English. He was made in-charge of the BJP’s outreach programme called Maha Sampark Abhiyan, that did the groundwork for its campaign for the Assembly elections, then three years away. Among party circles he was known to be close to three of the senior-most leaders at the top, Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Rajnath Singh.
In a year or so, Deb had impressed the bosses with his energetic campaign against the indomitable and long-ruling Communist parties in the state, enough to be named the state BJP president in January 2016. He replaced the late Sudhindra Dasgupta, then in-charge of the BJP state committee and its longest-serving Tripura chief.
In his new assignment, Deb managed to knit together a team of former Congress leaders, aggrieved Communist leaders and potential newbies to mount a challenge to the Left. Central BJP leaders and the party’s Northeast face Himanta Biswa Sarma, now the CM of Assam, pitched in to get on board the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura.
Together, the combination proved too daunting for the Left Front, which was voted out in Tripura after 25 years.
In his new role as CM though, Deb ran into problems from the start. He wasn’t the only unknown entity for many people in the state and outside, with many of his ministers like him first-time MLAs with first time in government. Only three could claim some legislative experience, including Sudip Roy Barman, Ratan Lal Nath, Pranajit Singha Roy and Manoj Kanti Deb.
For some time after he took over, Biplab Deb made more news for his gaffes, and for gestures such as surprise visits to far-flung areas and suspension of officers on the spot over negligence charges. One of his more infamous statements was that Sanjay had narrated the Mahabharata war to blind king Dhritarashtra with the help of Internet technology.
In October 2020, Roy Barman, who had rebelled within a few months of joining the BJP government, led a group of MLAs to Delhi to seek the removal of Deb, calling him “dictatorial, inexperienced and unpopular”. However the BJP stood by Deb, and some of the rebels later crossed sides. Roy Barman and Ashish Kumar Saha, however, left the BJP.
In December 2020, in a rarity in the BJP’s disciplined ranks, Deb held a public meeting to seek people’s “mandate” on whether he should continue in office in the face of factionalism. BJP national president J P Nadda reportedly made an angry call to the CM to direct him to drop the plan immediately. The central leadership made it clear to Deb that it would handle the organisational matters and the CM should focus on governance issues.
What saw Deb through most crises though was the confidence he enjoyed of the top leadership, particularly the impression that he was Prime Minister Modi’s “handpicked CM”. Party leaders would often talk of Deb having “learned his lessons” and become “more controlled in his public remarks”.
Among his more popular initiatives was a promise for ‘nasha-mukt (drug-free) Tripura’. The recovery of huge caches of drugs and the arrests that followed led the CMO to claim that Deb had invited threats to his life from drug mafia based in Myanmar.
As CM, Deb also tried to streamline political activities, check illegal land grabbing and transport syndicate hooliganism, and introduced Internet-based services in different sectors of governance. Last year, he adopted an ambitious 25-year-old development roadmap called Lakshya 2047.
Trade and commerce avenues saw a jump, there was a bump in entrepreneurship, per capita incomes rose, severe crimes like murders, rapes and abductions came down by 30%, and the conviction rate grew over 10 times.
Even so, Deb could not rid himself of Opposition criticism of a breakdown in law and order in the state, particularly on the issue of attacks on opponents. Even as the BJP accused the Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal of targeting its workers, in adjacent Tripura, its own regime was charged with the same. The CPM claimed at least 24 of its activists had been killed in the four years since the BJP came to power; the Congress put the number of its workers killed in political and other crimes at over hundred.
The Tripura Assembly of Journalists claimed attacks on nearly 40 journalists under the Deb government, and said no one had been arrested in any case registered with police.
In a recent visit to the national capital, Deb said he was focusing on policies and welfare measures for women and would highlight these in next year’s Assembly elections.
Shortly after handing over his resignation, Deb said he had tried to do justice to everyone and do his job honestly, as per the law and “under the guidance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi”.