On November 12, Tripura’s newest tribe-based political party organised a rally in the heart of Agartala. The mass gathering was held a few hundred metres from the party’s historic headquarters, a part of the Ujjayanta Palace that serves as the residence of its chief, Pradyot Bikram Manikya Deb Barman. The turnout for the event seemingly silenced critics who had dismissed the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA Motha) as a party restricted to the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) comprising 20 of the State’s 60 Assembly constituencies. It also made the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wary of the damage the TIPRA Motha could inflict in some of the 40 “non-tribal” seats in the event of a multi-cornered contest.
Barely two years after its birth, the TIPRA Motha has become the biggest challenger to the BJP not only in the TTAADC, which covers 68% of Tripura’s geographical area, but also in the general constituencies which are beyond its “comfort zone”. One reason for this is the keenness of both the CPI(M), which ruled Tripura for 25 years until 2018, and the Congress to forge a pre-poll alliance with the TIPRA Motha. Although Mr. Deb Barman has ruled out such a pact, the Congress conveyed that a tacit understanding had been reached, when its workers offered water and logistical support to TIPRA Motha’s supporters for the November 12 rally. The second is Mr. Deb Barman’s bid to reach out to the non-tribal people in order to shatter the perception that his party has been polarising a majority of the 19 tribal communities against the non-tribal Bengalis, many of whom reside in the TTAADC areas. He has been working on a “non-tribal front” of his party and has filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court for the reinstatement of 10,323 teachers, most of whom are non-tribal. The issue of the teachers was among those that helped the BJP dislodge the Left Front government in 2018 along with its tribe-based ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT).
The Left Front, comprising the CPI(M) and CPI, had won 19 of the 20 TTAADC Assembly seats in 2013 and the Congress, one. The CPI(M)’s tribal front, the Tripura Rajya Upajati Ganamukti Parishad, helped the Left Front wield clout in the TTAADC. But in 2018, the BJP and IPFT wrested 18 seats leaving only two for the CPI(M). Since 2019, when Mr. Deb Barman quit the Congress and began mobilising support for his nebulous theory of a Greater Tipraland – a homeland encompassing tribal areas of Tripura and beyond, even Bangladesh, there has been a steady erosion of support for the CPI(M), the IPFT and the BJP in the TTAADC. His credo that year in the tribal Kokborok language was: “Puila jaati, ulo party (Race first, party later)”. Over the last few months, four tribal MLAs of the IPFT and the BJP have quit and joined the TIPRA Motha.
The TIPRA Motha’s ascent started with the TTAADC elections in April 2021. The party won 18 of the 28 seats, while the BJP bagged nine. One seat went to an independent. The CPI(M) was wiped out.
While critics say Assembly elections are a different ball game from tribal council elections, Mr. Deb Barman believes people are embracing his party because of its “non-conventional brand of politics” where the “constitutional rehabilitation of the indigenous populace” is more important than taking a top post. He showed he meant business by not becoming the TTAADC chief after winning the Takarjala-Jampuijala seat. He insists he is not keen on becoming the Chief Minister if his party commands the numbers.
The local media have been speculating about Mr. Deb Barman’s possible role as a king-maker if the non-BJP parties, specifically the CPI(M), form an alliance. There are also speculations about the TIPRA Motha’s “understanding” with the BJP, which is believed to have redeemed itself after replacing the often-faltering Biplab Kumar Deb with Manik Saha as the Chief Minister. But frequent hostilities between the two parties point to the contrary.
The apparent failure of the CPI(M) and the Congress to instil confidence in the voters may stand the BJP in good stead across the 40 seats dominated by the non-tribal people. But even if the BJP aims to equal its 2018 score of 26 seats, it will have to ensure the numbers from the TTAADC area. This is where the TIPRA Motha becomes a bigger factor than either the CPI (M) or Congress.