All parties in Tripura are appeasing TIPRA Motha as they think its votes would be crucial in the elections

By Jayanta Bhattachary

The ruling BJP and the opposition Congress- CPI-M alliance are vying with each other to woo TIPRA Motha, led by a scion of the Tripura royal family into an electoral understanding as the tribal party’s votes will be crucial in determining who will rule the north-eastern border state in next month’s election.

The TIPRA Motha led by Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma, which rules over the Tripura Tribal Autonomous District Council on its part has been demanding a ‘Greater Tipraland’, comprising of all areas where the tribals of Tripura live including TTADC areas as well as areas elsewhere and has strategically stated it would support any party or alliance which agrees to its demands.

The party swept the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) elections held in April last year, winning 18 of the 28 seats over the ‘Greater Tipraland’ demand in a direct contest with the ruling BJP-IPFT alliance.

The saffron party’s partner- Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura - has since seen its base erode steadily with workers and MLAs deserting to the former royal’s fold. There is also talk of it seeking to merge itself with Debbarma’s outfit.

Analysts say the statehood demand will affect results in 20 assembly seats, where tribals hold considerable clout electorally, in the 60-member House, besides others where they are a consequential minority.

Debbarma said that his party is willing to forge an alliance with any national party that provides a constitutional solution to the demand of the indigenous people of the Tripura, who form one-third of the state’s estimated 40 lakh populations.

The BJP government here on its part has pulled out all stops and poured projects for the development of this remote state where employment opportunities are few and far between.

However, the tribal party is adamant that it wants more than just financial packages including a modern airport named after Debbarma’s grandfather – Maharaja Bir Bikram Manikya Debbarma, which was recently inaugurated with much fanfare.

“We want a constitutional solution to our demand, which only the central government can provide. It is not possible to solve our problem by sanctioning any financial package only,” Debbarma has told reporters on several occasions.

The party wants the Centre to discuss its demand, but has not received any response so far. All major political parties in the state including the ruling BJP, opposition CPI (M) and Congress, have however rejected the demand on several occasions, calling it “separatist and divisive”.

Some fear that if ‘Greater Tipraland’ state is formed, tribals, who form one-third of the population, will control two-thirds of the territory, and non-tribals, who form two-thirds of the population, will have to settle with only one-third of Tripura’s area.

However, Tipra Motha points out that such majoritarian versus minoritarian fears are unfounded. “Many Bengalis live in the tribal council area. We want them to live in peace and harmony. In the princely state of Tripura, Bengalis and tribals lived peacefully and we want to maintain that tradition,” Debbarma said.

The princely state, which was ruled by tribal kings for about 500 years, joined the Indian Union in 1949.

“If the Centre is not in agreement with our demand, then Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Union Home Minister Amit Shah should give us an alternative solution in writing and we will discuss it with the people of our community.

“However, the Centre is neither responding to our demand nor inviting us for dialogue. It can negotiate with groups that took to arms but not with us as we are agitating peacefully,” he said.

Anti-incumbency coupled with frustration among the tribals as well as the re-emergence of CPI(M) and Congress in the political horizon of the state has already set warning bells ringing in the ruling BJP camp. Its chief minister was as a consequence replaced last year with an eye on this year’s polls.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which swept the 2018 assembly elections riding on voters looking for a change as well benefiting from a division of votes between Congress and its tribal ally IPFT in tribal areas and managed to end the 25 years Marxist rule in the state, is consequentially extremely keen on getting the former royal on their side and is believed to have sent out several feelers to him and his close aides.

The CPIM and Congress which have agreed on an electoral alliance, have also reached out to Tipra Motha party.

The problem with agreeing to `Greater Tipraland’ demand for the mainstream parties is two-fold- Firstly, part of the areas which the somewhat vague call envisages are in other states and even other countries including in Bangladesh and Myanmar. Secondly, agreeing to it will create yet another micro-state and risk alienating the Bengalis of Tripura as well as Cachar in Assam who have been BJP loyalists in recent elections.

“The CPI-M and Congress alliance too discussed possibilities of alliance with Tipra Motha to ensure their victory. But no party or alliance can forge an alliance with them, conceding to their demand because it would impact the majority Bengali vote bank”, said political analyst Sekhar Datta.

Prominent BJP leader and MP Reabati Tripura is however confident of the Saffron party’s victory. “We have a strong organization among the tribal population and in the last tribal council elections we won in 10 seats out of 28. Now we have further consolidated our organization. We expect that we would win in at least 14 tribal reserve seats out of 20. But our leaders do not want to take any risk about victory, so they have held talks with TIPRA Motha”, he told PTI.

Tipra Motha spokesperson, Anthony Debbarma however made it clear in an interview with PTI, “We cannot backtrack from our demand for a separate state because we are also committed to our people. When the PM or the Home Minister can talk to those who took up arms, why can’t they call us for discussion? If the government of India has any alternative proposal for a constitutional solution of our problem, then they can tell us”.

He reasoned that a hung assembly was a distinct possibility and in that case his party “would emerge as the decisive factor” and may well be the Trump card in the game of politics in this corner of India.