Biplab Deb is a BJP chief minister with a difference. In a 40-minute interview with this writer last week, he did not mention even once any of the usual saffron agenda — Ram Mandir, beef, illegal migration from Bangladesh. “My agenda is development, development, development all the way,” he insisted.
Emphasising his deep emotional connect with Bangladesh, where much of his extended family continues to live, Deb insisted on how important Bangladesh was for India and his state Tripura.
“We want to expedite all connectivity projects through Bangladesh to emerge as India’s gateway to Northeast and Northeast’s gateway to India. Bangladesh holds the key in our Act East drive and our bilateral relations is crucial,”Deb said with great emphasis. He pointed to the successful use of the Chittagong-Ashuganj-Agartala route to transport oversized cargoes to implement the 726 MW Palatana gas-fired power project and said the elevated Agartala-Akahura
rail link, the Feni-Belonia rail link, the Sabrum-Ramgarh rail link (all ending up in Chittagong) would make Tripura the key in India-Bangladesh multi modal connectivity map. Add to that, Deb has strongly pitched for making Gumti and Haora rivers navigable to connect to the Meghna basin to add a powerful water transport component to the proposed Calcutta-Dhaka-Agartala rail and road route.
“Geography was our biggest disadvantage, our remoteness was killing all our potential, but now we turn our proximity to key cities of Bangladesh to our advantage,” says Biplab Deb. And he insists he will, in this respect, carry forward the work of his predecessor, outgoing Left chief minister Manik Sarkar. “I have asked for his cooperation to take Tripura forward and he has promised to do that,” says Deb of Manik Sarkar, having already touched his feet thrice on public occasion in a clear show of respect to a political elder despite the huge political divide.
Deb may only be talking publicly of connecting to Bangladesh in the west, but his transport secretary Samarjit Bhowmik has already approached the Indian government to consider a 257 kms rail route (from Ambassa in north Tripura to Kalay on the Myanmar-Mizoram border that will connect Tripura to Myanmar — and also provide Bangladesh an alternative route to Myanmar since the North Arakan corridor is aflame after the Rohingya crisis. Since Assam is a disturbed state with more fallout expected if tens of thousands of Muslims loose citizenship after the NRC process , Nagaland is not yet settled in the absence of a final settlement despite 20 years of dialogue and the progress of the rail link to Myanmar through Manipur is slow due to insurgent activity, Tripura and Mizoram could provide an alternate corridor connecting to Bangladesh in the west and Myanmar in the east to operationalise Narendra Modi’s ACT EAST dream.
Biplab Deb, the blue-eyed boy of the saffron establishment after leading the BJP to a huge victory over the long ruling Left Front, is seeking to leverage his special relations with the BJP leadership to get these connectivity projects cleared.
He is also seeking to leverage Agartala’s emergence as India’s third Internet gateway to attract massive IT and ITES investments, while focussing on Tripura’s core strength of rubber and horticulture to attract processing industries, focussing on high value agriculture like medicinal plants and stevia (low calorie sweetener) to boost farmer’s income and attract groups like Ramdev’s Patanjali which has already set up shop in Assam.
Tripura has sufficient power, is Northeast’s most peaceful state after crushing tribal insurgency and has proximity to Bangladesh’s major cities and specially the port of Chittagong, less than 150kms from Agartala. “Peace, Power, Proximity”, the three Ps thus form the thrust of Biplab Deb’s outreach to attract private and public sector investments to Tripura.
The one area he needs to focus on is resolution of the state’s ethnic unrest by unveiling a map for ethnic reconciliation. Dismantling an existing 10MW hydel project to make available huge tracts of fertile land for resettling most of the state’s landless tribal families is one obvious option to kickstart such a process. His predecessor Manik Sarkar did initiate the process by withdrawing the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which no Chief Minister in India’s many conflict zones has ever dared to do. Deb can surely take that step forward by focussing on the land question and resolving tribal land alienation in one bold stroke. That holds the key to Tripura’s ethnic conflict and Deb has the opportunity to kickstart a process of great significance.
Deb like Sarkar before him are very well disposed to Bangladesh, going to theextend of saying his relationship with PM Sheikh Hasina is “like mother and son.”
The realisation of geo-political realities seems more important for this young handsome 40-plus Chief Minister, tall and strapping like a para-commando rather than the usual pot-bellied Indian politician who believes in constant movement to check on people’s problems than on dishing out ideological claptrap.