All eyes are on Pradyot Bikram Manikya Debbarma, the Tirpura royal scion and chairman of the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (or TIPRA Motha), and the alliance he will pick ahead of the Assembly election in Tripura, because of the influence this two-year-old party has on the State’s tribal constituencies.
Just two-months before the April 2021 election to the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC), Mr. Debbarma founded the TIPRA, which registered a stunning victory by winning 18 of the 28 seats. The TIPRA was the disruptive vehicle that displaced the usual power brokers in the State. Left parties that ruled the council since May 2015 could not win a single seat; nor did Mr. Debbarma’s former party, Congress, and the BJP’s ally, the Indigenous People’s Party of Tripura (IPFT). Only the BJP appeared somewhat insulated from the storm unleashed by the TIPRA, winning nine seats.
Mr. Debbarma hit the national headlines when he walked out of the Congress after a public showdown with its national leadership, which he accused of playing deaf to the State’s sentiments in September 2019. He was heading the Congress State unit when he resigned. With the victory in the council election, he established himself as a major player in State politics. With its sway over the tribal belt, the CPI(M), which is aiming for a larger anti-BJP alliance, is keen on having the TIPRA Motha on its side. The BJP, meanwhile, is watching nervously from the sidelines. The TIPRA Motha, in less than two years of its existence, has grown into the stature of a kingmaker.
The party is going into this year’s election with the slogan of ‘thansa’, which means “unity” in Kokborok, the lingua franca of most of the north-eastern State’s 19 tribal communities, and a demand for Greater Tipraland, which he insists is key to protecting the Constitutional rights of the tribal population. The Greater Tipraland includes the region under the TTADC and 36 other villages within the Tripura State boundaries. And thansa is aimed at uniting all Tribal political entities to ensure that the community’s vote doesn’t scatter.
Mr. Debbarma is an unusual politician. On Twitter, he describes himself as a sportsman, musician, wannabe mimicry artist, magician and animal lover. At Tripura Castle in Shillong, according to some estimates, he has over 100 pet dogs. Videos of him strumming guitar and belting out Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life or dribbling football have often made waves.
Mr. Debbarma has spent most of his life at Tripura Castle in Shillong. Speaking at a TED Talk event in Shillong in 2014, he said he got into politics by default. “It was 25th February, 1996 and 1:30 am, I remember the date because I was watching the Champions League (football match). There was a knock at the door, my chowkidaar (security guard) informed [me] that a few armed men are at the gate. Turned out they were policemen, who without a warrant or any evidence arrested my sister, just on the basis of her ethnicity. That was the first time that I felt acutely conscious of my ethnicity,” he said.
While it may have been the moment of personal awakening for him, Mr. Debbarma did not exactly stray into politics, he was born in it. His parents have served in Parliament and the Assembly for multiple terms. And his family, the Manikya dynasty, had been ruling the Twipra Kingdom from the early 15th century to 1949.
Mr. Debbarma’s politics has centred on upholding and preserving the tribal cultural identity. Thus, one of the prominent strains of his campaign has been to give prominence to the Kokbrook language, fuelling allegations that he is playing divisive politics dividing the State on parochial lines of tribals versus Bengalis. He denies the charge and claims the TIPRA Motha will contest outside the tribal belt too, a total of 45 seats in the Assembly elections. Many of his critics also point out that while he is championing Kokbrook, his royal ancestors are responsible for the downfall of the language, since they gave Bangla primacy over it. They quote families’ close ties with Bangla literature giant and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s close association with the family. The family hosted Tagore for an extended period of time in Agartala where he did a lot of his writing.
His well-wishers and critics are both watching Tripura closely to see whether Mr. Debbarma and TIPRA Motha’s gambit will be successful or not.