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Red bastion Tripura to vote Thursday

Agartala, Feb 12 (IANS) The Congress is determined to oust India's only Left regime in Tripura in elections Thursday, but the Marxists are equally confident of retaining power -- for the seventh time.

With the Tripura assembly having 60 seats, the CPI-M, heading the Left Front, has fielded 55 candidates. Its allies, the CPI and RSP, have put up two candidates each while the Forward Bloc has one candidate.

Keeping 48 seats to itself, the Congress has given 11 seats to its long-time ally, the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT), and one to the National Conference of Tripura. Both are tribal based parties.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has never won a seat in Tripura, has put up 50 candidates.

In 2008, the Left registered a thumping victory. The CPI-M alone won 46 seats and partners CPI and RSP secured one and two seats respectively. The Congress bagged 10 seats and INPT one.

The Congress is pleased that the Trinamool Congress, which fielded 22 candidates in 2008, has decided not to contest this time to prevent anti-Left votes from getting splintered.

Since 1993, the Left has secured 49-51 percent of votes in elections while the Congress-led alliance has bagged 40-45 percent of votes.

State Congress president Sudip Roy Barman outlined the main electoral issues as "unemployment, rising crimes against women and bad governance by the Left".

Manik Sarkar, the Marxist chief minister since 1998, says the Congress has a lot to answer for as it presided over the national government.

Sarkar, widely considered a rare honest man in politics, blamed the Congress-led UPA government for rising food prices and accused it of being biased against Tripura.

Besides the 64-year-old Sarkar, the other key Left candidates include ministers Badal Chowdhury (finance), Aghore Debbarma (tribal welfare), Anil Sarkar (information), Jitendra Chowdhury (industry) and Manik Dey (power).

The Congress bigwigs include Barman, his father and former chief minister Samir Ranjan Barman, opposition leader Ratan Lal Nath, and former minister Birajit Sinha.

Hours before the election campaign ended at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and Finance Minister P. Chidambaram campaigned against the Left.

Counting of votes will take place Feb 28.

The Left has ruled Tripura ever since it became a state in 1972 except for 10 years (1972-77 and 1988-93) when the Congress and a breakaway Congress led by five chief ministers rans the state.

Of the 249 candidates this time, 15 are women -- less than the 31 who were in the fray five years ago.

The Left's biggest claim is that Tripura is now a peaceful state, after having been ravaged by terrorism for four-and-a-half decades.

One third of Tripura's 37 lakh people are tribals, with 19 tribes in all, each with its distinct lifestyle. Their official language is Kokborok.

Chief Electoral Officer Ashutosh Jindal said 2.3 million voters would be eligible to exercise their franchise.

Paramilitary troopers and state security forces have been deployed in Tripura, which borders Bangladesh, to ensure a free and fair election.

Sujit Chakraborty

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