Tripura BJP president and Rajya Sabha member, Manik Saha, 69, who has replaced Biplab Deb as the Chief Minister, had joined the BJP on December 11, 2016 — a development that was no more than a footnote in the local press.
A leading dental surgeon, Saha, along with a few others, was then welcomed into the BJP fold at a press conference addressed by Deb, who was then heading the BJP’s state unit. In fact, that press conference had made more news for Deb’s assertion that the BJP, which was then gradually gaining ground in Tripura, would not forge any pre-poll alliance with regional parties ahead of the Assembly polls. The BJP would go on to win the 2018 Assembly polls in an alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT).
But Saha, whose father Makhan Lal Saha was a known businessman of Tripura, continued to have the image of a greenhorn in a party unit packed with leaders with long political careers. Later, he was made the head of the “prishta pramukhs”, who play the role of the BJP electoral machinery’s pivot. Significantly, he also remained a steadfast loyalist of Deb, even as the state party started developing cracks with dissent brewing against the CM.
Academically, Saha’s record had been remarkable. He completed his Bachelor in Dental Studies from Government Dental College, Patna, securing fourth position in the university rankings. He obtained his post-graduation degree in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery from KGMC Lucknow University in 1995 with flying colours. Later, he also served as a professor of dental surgery at Tripura Medical College and Dr B R Ambedkar Teaching Hospital. Among his many honours, he is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Indian Dental Association.
Saha’s induction into the BJP was actually perceived more as an attempt by the BJP to win over the civil society of Tripura, which had been under the CPI(M)-led Left Front rule continuously since 1998.
Saha’s loyalty and clean image paid off in 2019, when the BJP dispensation helped him become the president of the Tripura Cricket Association, a cash-rich body. He was also an athlete in his youth and participated in badminton tournaments at the university and national levels. He was declared the best NCC cadet among junior division boys in 1970.
His influence over the saffron party continued to grow with Deb making way for him to take over as the Tripura BJP president in January 2020. Deb’s removal as the party unit chief was a key demand of the dissident leaders, who wanted the leadership to enforce its “one man, one post” policy in the state.
And in March this year, Saha also became the first BJP leader from the state to get elected to the Rajya Sabha. However, his steady rise in the party did little to address the simmering discontent in the state unit amid the perception that Deb was trying to retain control over the organisation through him.
A party section’s distrust of Saha was on display even on Saturday, with the BJP Legislature Party meeting, in which he was picked as the new CM, witnessing heated arguments among the MLAs over the party’s choice. So far, at least two MLAs, including a minister Ram Prasad Paul, has publicly questioned his appointment to the top post.
In February this year, 15 state BJP leaders, including Paul, wrote to the party central leadership, demanding Saha’s removal as the state unit chief, alleging that the party’s base was getting rapidly eroded under his stewardship.
Last year, the BJP suffered a jolt in the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) polls in which TIPRA Motha, an outfit floated by royal scion Pradyot Debbarman, registered massive gains. However, the ruling party performed well in the civic body polls held in November 2021.