could a rotating tribal party mean a political reset?

Months before the elections, Tripura is witnessing a political reconfiguration. An internal turnover within the ruling Bharatiya Janata party forced a change of chief minister – Biplab Deb was replaced by Manik Saha on May 15. Now the party’s main ally in the state, the Tripura Indigenous Peoples Front, is also in crisis.

On July 2, more than 11,000 party members and leaders joined the Tipra Motha at an official ceremony in Agartala.

Tipra Motha is an opposition party led by Pradyot Kishore Debbarma, former Congress leader and scion of the Tripura royal family.

The demand for a separate state for the considerable tribal population of Tripura, which influences at least 20 of the 40 seats in the assembly, is the reason given for the defections.

Mintu Debbarma, one of the rebel leaders of the Tripura Indigenous Peoples Front, told Scroll.in that party leader NC Debbarma remained silent on the demand for statehood. “This is why we join Maharaj Pradyot – for his call of thansa” or unity.

The merger could shake the tribal voting base of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party, which the party has cornered since its landslide victory in the 2018 elections, directly as well as through its ally, the Tripura Indigenous Peoples Front.

This also signals the emergence of the Tipra Motha as an opposition force to be reckoned with in Tripura.

Manik Saha, newly sworn in Chief Minister of Tripura. Picture: Facebook

A split in the ranks of the IPFT

The Tripura Indigenous Peoples Front rebellion is led by Mevar Kumar Jamatia, who was removed from his post as state tribal affairs minister when Saha became chief minister and was recently detained in Delhi for allegedly attacking a student. While Jamatia, a member of the Legislative Assembly, has yet to personally leave the Tripura Indigenous Peoples Front, many of his supporters have left the party fold.

In March, Jamatia told the state assembly that the youth supported the demand for a separate tribal state carved out of Tripura as it would address uneven development.

The proposed state of Twipraland would cover the tribal areas of Tripura, comprising about 70% of the state’s territory and a third of its population. These areas are currently administered by the Tripura Autonomous District Council, which has powers under the Sixth Schedule, a constitutional provision that provides for decentralized autonomy in certain tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura. .

Despite a self-governing council, the tribal areas of Tripura remain poor. The Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura has traditionally called for a separate state.

“He [Jamatia] played a vital role in bringing together the indigenous leadership,” said Mintu Debbarma, who also alleged that the BJP played a role in splitting the ranks of the Tripura Indigenous Peoples Front.

When the Saffron Party first forged an alliance with the Tribal Party in 2018 it was receptive to considering Twipraland’s request, the central government reportedly promised NC Debbarma a high-level committee to examine it. Since then, the BJP has skirted the issue. It has made for a rocky alliance over the years, and now former party colleagues are also accusing NC Debbarma of walking away from the request.

A leadership crisis within the Tripura Indigenous Peoples Front may have accelerated the rebellion. Mintu Debbarma said NC Debbarma, 86, had become too old to lead the party. “But he declared himself party chairman by removing Mevar Kumar Jamatia, who was elected party chairman in April this year, which is beyond the law,” he said.

“NC Debbarma is acting as the B team of the ruling BJP,” said Mintu Debbarma. ” Our request [for ‘Tipraland’] cannot be deleted this way. We are fighting for our ability to survive and our constitutional rights.

The tribal area election figures send a clear political signal to the party. In 2018, the Tripura Indigenous Peoples Front won eight seats in the 60-member Tripura Assembly, while the BJP won 36 seats. According to the 2011 census, Tripura has a tribal population of 13 lakh inhabitants, who would determine election results in 20 assembly seats.

Last year, the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura failed to win any seats in the Autonomous District Council elections. The Tipra Motha won 18 seats – in its first polls – and the BJP won the remaining 10 seats.

Former Tripura Indigenous Peoples Front spokesman Mangal Debbarma, who recently joined the BJP, said the tribal party has been steadily losing ground since the district council elections. “People tend to support whoever is in power to get benefits,” he said. “Tipra Motha rules the tribal areas while the BJP is in power in the state.”

The outgoing members of the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura are heading either to the BJP or to the Tipra Motha, explains Mangal Debbarma. Some lawmakers will also join Tipra Motha as the elections approach, he predicted. “Former Minister and MP Mevar Kumar Jamatia could also join as he has good relations with Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma.”

The rise of the Tipra Motha

The steady influx of leaders from the Tripura Indigenous Peoples Front is a major impetus for Tipra Motha, which seeks to establish “Greater Tipraland”, comprising the Tribal Council area of ​​Tripura as well as places inhabited by Tripuris outside of the council area.

After its decisive victory in the autonomous district council elections last year, the Tipra Motha tried to consolidate the tribal vote in the council area. The outfit is also targeting non-reserved outdoor seating.

The results of the by-elections to the four assembly seats in Tripura in May are another indication of Tipra Motha’s growing influence. In the Surma assembly constituency poll, outside the tribal district council areas, the Tipra Motha finished second to the BJP, indicating that it may also be a spoiler in other parts of the state.

Political analyst Swapan Bhattacharya said Tipra Motha leader Pradyot Debbarma has become one of the most popular tribal leaders after Dasaratha Debbarma, the only tribal chief minister of Tripura.

He said the ruling BJP, which faces infighting, is also not in a comfortable position due to “mismanagement” and “lack of job creation”. “But the BJP is very aggressive,” Bhattacharya said. “He’s always the strongest player because he has the central power.”

However, Bhattacharya predicted, the party could still struggle to win an outright majority in the 60-seat state assembly. “Tipra Motha may appear as a major factor as he has significant influence in 20 tribal seats,” he said.

Political scientist Vanlalmuana Darlong, who teaches at the University of Tripura, also agreed that the BJP may struggle to win the 20 tribal belt seats due to the growing popularity of Tipra Motha. BJP leaders like Lok Sabha MP Rebati Tripura had campaigned in the tribal areas in the district council elections but did not get much support.

Not the loss of the BJP?

The ruling BJP, however, exudes confidence and says Tipra Motha is “not a threat”.

Rebati Tripura told Scroll.in that some Tripura Indigenous Peoples Front leaders joining the Tipra Motha would not affect the BJP. The parliamentarian, who is the former leader of the Scheduled Tribe morcha of the BJP state unit, said the saffron party would work with the Tripura Indigenous Peoples Front legislators who remain with the party.

“A lot of people think the BJP is weak in the hills where the tribals live,” said Rebati Tripura. “But we did well in the last election as well.”

He pointed out that the BJP already has 10 state legislators, 10 district council members and one MP from tribal areas. “No opposition party has such strength,” he said.

According to him, Tipra Motha had a one-pointed program: a separate state. It was unsustainable, he said. In contrast, he said, the BJP was working to improve road and water connectivity, health facilities and education in the tribal areas.

An opposition alliance?

Further analysis of the partial poll results offers some additional answers as to how the tokens could fall ahead of the assembly elections. The BJP won three seats in the Assembly with a 44.9% vote share while the Congress won one seat. The Trinamool Congress – which ran a high-tension campaign – won 2.85% of the total vote, while the Congress and the Marxist Communist Party of India won 20.1% and 19.75% respectively.

This dealt a blow to the Trinamul Congress, which had been trying to make inroads in the state. Tripura Trinmool Congress President Subal Bhowmik said the party had little time to prepare for the by-elections. “Also, in by-elections, voters prefer to vote for the ruling party,” he said, adding that the party was strengthening its organizational structure ahead of assembly elections.

The fate of the Communist Party of India-Maxist hangs in the balance – the party has lost one of its citadels, the seats of Jubarajnagar.

Meanwhile, Congress entered the assembly after seven years when its leader, Sudip Roy Barman, won the prestigious seat of Agartala. This boosted party morale for the assembly election campaign.

Immediately after the poll results, Barman said he would call an anti-BJP cross-party meeting to rally the opposition. When asked if there will be an anti-BJP alliance, Barman told Scroll.in: “We will work on this – anything and everything to defeat the forces of evil.”

A six-time legislator, Barman served as health minister in the BJP government led by Biplab Kumar Deb before joining Congress. The 56-year-old enjoys strong support in urban areas, especially in Agartala.

Barman said Congress’s vote share soared in partial polls and his victory sent a “great vibe” throughout the state. Congress would make a comeback, he claimed, because “people are being harmed by the BJP’s mismanagement.”