It’s easy to mistake Biplab Kumar Deb, 48, as an ordinary next-door neighbour. The chief minister of Tripura betrays neither his age nor the political weight he has come to acquire since his Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition wrested power last February in this northeastern state, routing the long-entrenched Left Front. At the helm of a once insurgency-riddled state, currently plagued by underdevelopment and unemployment, Deb faces stiff challenges. But he, who not long ago regularly trained with weights in the gym, is confident that Tripura will be back in shape soon. He spoke to Editor Ruben Banerjee about his plans. Excerpts…
Your ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) is continuing to call for a separate state for tribals, the Tipraland. Are you in a position to accommodate such a demand?
It’s not like that…like every other party, IPFT has a political agenda. But when we formed an electoral alliance, we agreed on certain things. They agreed with PM Narendra Modi’s vision of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas. People voted for this and IPFT knows this. So for now, we are busy working for the welfare of the people. Nothing else matters.
But is Tipraland, a separate tribal state carved out of Tripura, a possibility?
I cannot predict as I am no astrologer. I am an ordinary BJP worker and I am busy working for the people.
IPFT can at some point seek to rake up the issue of a separate tribal homeland for political reasons.
Being in the government is something new for both the BJP and IPFT in Tripura. It was during the Left Front’s misrule that the issue of separate statehood was raised since tribals, comprising 32 per cent of the population, felt deprived. But since we came to power, we have been jointly working for their uplift. Tribals too feel they are no more being neglected.
Do you think meeting tribal expectations is going to be a challenge? Will you give more autonomy to Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council?
Since PM Modi took office, Tripura has been on the path of development. Connectivity to the region is improving. More funds that cannot be diverted for other purposes are being given. Even if I don’t want, I can’t stop development, thanks to Modiji. There is neither shortage of resource nor intent. But, of course, we are all for financially developing the autonomous body. A report from the central home ministry is awaited.
Will you increase the number of assembly seats reserved for tribals? At present, 20 of the 60 are reserved.
Reservation has been there for a long time and there’s no demand for an upward revision. Plus, Tripura is a small state with each assembly segment having around 40,000 voters. To have even smaller constituencies may not make sense.
Some quarters in your state are seeking an Assam-type NRC since Tripura is a border state. Illegal immigration happens here too. Are you in favour of it?
The NRC is a central government issue and it has been implemented in Assam. A lot of people said it will result in chaos, but nothing of that sort happened. The Assam CM is not worried about it, but strangely the Bengal CM is. So I think we should be patient. If the NRC is beneficial and is implemented in the entire country, there is no harm. If it’s bad, let the Centre decide. Let’s wait for this experiment’s results.
So you don’t find anything negative about the NRC?
Yes, not yet. Let’s wait for the outcome.
Coming back to development, what are your key focus areas?
My key focus areas are tourism, entrepreneurship development and self-employment. Around 7.5 lakh youth are unemployed and government jobs alone will not be sufficient. We are encouraging entrepreneurs. In the past eight months, around 820 artisans have registered and they have created jobs for 4,000 people. Tourism can create jobs quickly. Tripura has so much untapped tourism potential.
You share a border with Bangladesh. Are you seeking ways to leverage that?
Of course, yes. Chittagong port is just about 100km from where my home is.
So you’ll essentially become the gateway to the entire Northeast?
Yes, gateway to the northeastern states. Bangladesh’s economy will benefit in a big way, so will ours. For example, Bangladesh needs 10,000 metric tonnes of tea. They import from other countries. If we sell it to them, they will receive the consignment in one hour at reduced transportation cost. We get a huge market, they save money. The benefit will be mutual.
How about creating education and healthcare hubs in Tripura because Bangladeshis in large numbers are going elsewhere?
Absolutely. Besides improving our own government infrastructure, we are in talks with private players. We wish to create super-specialty hospitals. For Bangladeshis, Tripura will a cheaper and easier option. My mandate is for five years, but I want to see Tripura as a modern state in three years. The remaining two years will be a bonus. I see no reason why my state cannot develop. We are a power-surplus state. We generate 700-750MW against our requirement of 200MW. We are the nation’s second-largest producer of rubber after Kerala.
As you aim to get Tripura into shape, I am told you are a fitness freak yourself. Were you a gym instructor before as many believe?
No, never. I come from a village; I went to a gym when I was young. When I moved to Delhi, I would go to the gym in the evening after work.
Do you still go? At a programme in Delhi, which was shown on TV, you surprised everyone by doing 27 pushups on the stage.
It’s 47 in fact. I don’t get time to go to gyms any more, but I still do 100-150 pushups every day. I keep myself in shape. I want my homeland to be in shape as well. Nothing is dearer to me than Tripura. The people have bestowed me with the responsibility of decorating Tripura.