Rarely has an autonomous council election in the Northeast garnered as much focus as upcoming elections of the Tripura Tribal Autonomous Council District (TTADC) elections. And for good reason. The ruling party is still hurting after seeing its ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) walk away with Tripura royal scion Pradyot Kishore Deb Barman’s newly formed political party—Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA). The IPFT-BJP alliance has hardly been harmonious, yet the latest development could push the two away from each other for good. 

This came as a shot in the arm of Deb Barman, who left Congress to eke out his path as a mass leader. Will this new alliance guarantee him victory in the TTADC and even the state in 2023? Where do these developments leave the CPI(M)? Where is the state headed? And does the Grand Old Party Congress have any stake in the elections or the state?

BJP IPFT: A match not made in heaven

Ever since 2018, when the BJP swept aside the CPIM and came to power, its relationship with the tribal party IPFT has been cold at best and fractured at worst. The differences came out in the open when the elections for TTADC, initially scheduled for May 2020, were first postponed to November 2020 in the wake of the global pandemic. However, when the same elections were postponed by six more months, things heated up. The IPFT led the charge seeking an explanation over why the TTADC elections were cancelled. The state government’s reason for COVID sounded hollow: many states had elections and neighbouring state Assam also had two autonomous council state elections. The elections were finally rescheduled for April this year, but it was clear that the relations between IPFT and BJP had gone too sour to save. 

The rise and rise of the Royal Scion

The history of modern-day Tripura begins with the end of royal rule, yet it would be fair to say that the power and appeal of the royals remain strong in the state. And with royal scion Pradyot Deb Barman firmly entrenched in state politics, it was only natural that he would eye the autonomous council elections as a litmus test for his and his party’s reach. 

It is his “power” that made the ruling ally IPFT, which is still in the government with two ministers in the cabinet, instead ally with Deb Barman’s TIPRA just ahead of the TTAADC elections. Political experts see the development as a new-age political scenario as most of the indigenous political parties have decided to either merge or forge an alliance with TIPRA ahead of the district council elections.

It started with other tribal parties first allying with TIPRA. On February 19, two political parties –Tipraland State Party and the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) Tipraha merged with TIPRA and announced the new name of their political party as Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance.

“The demand for the Greater Tipraland is the only alternative for the existence of indigenous tribes in their land. The Tipraland statehood demand shall be the TTAADC areas including other indigenous inhabitations areas of the state,” the newly-floated political party said.

Among other political parties, the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT) and Tripura People’s Front (TPF) have also extended their support, however, they are yet to forge an alliance or merge with TIPRA.

Manik Sarkar addressing a rally in Agartala

Hours after two indigenous political parties merged with TIPRA, Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) also announced an alliance with TIPRA after holding a series of talks with the chairman.

“The IPFT and TIPRA are working with the same goal and therefore we have decided to come together and work for the same cause after a series of discussions,” IPFT chief Narendra Chandra Debbarma said.

I PFT general secretary and tribal welfare minister Mevar Kumar Jamatia said that his party would fight together with TIPRA in alliance with a common interest.

He also said that his party is not happy with the performance of the present coalition government, but did not comment if they would exist in alliance with BJP.

“We are a separate party and differ in opinion, so we do not need permission from our ally party for taking any political decision,” Jamatia said.

On February 24, Pradyot Deb Barman’s TIPRA and BJP ally IPFT organised a joint show of strength in Khumulwng, the headquarters of Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC).

Thousands of supporters from across the state joined a march before assembling in a public gathering.

Speaking with reporters, Deb Barman said, “We are not against any community. We are asking for something which we have been deprived of. We do not trust the leadership within the state, and we want New Delhi to address it.”

The IPFT president and revenue minister Narendra Chandra Debbbarma said they would take a call on the coalition with BJP after the district council polls.

“We are holding talks with the senior leadership of BJP and political dialogue will continue with the alliance partner,” the IPFT chief added.

It must be added that unlike Tipraland, which has always been the demand of the IPFT, the ‘Greater Tipraland’ is a project that is essentially backed by Deb Barman. He believes that the new political aim of ‘Greater Tipraland’ would serve the interest of tribals and non-tribals living not just in India but also parts of Bangladesh, including Bandarban, Chittagong and Khagrachari. Is it too much of an ideal dream to be realistic? The opposition party, the CPI (M) certainly thinks so. “Those who are involved in chalking out these sectarian strategies, I want to ask them what is the purpose”, Sarkar added. 

Lashing out at Deb Barman, Sarkar asked him to explain the contribution of the kings of his dynasty to the welfare of the general public. “This is nothing but another gimmick to excite people, create division and shift people’s attention from the real issues”, said Sarkar.

Rhetoric or not, it is clear that Deb Barman has created a flutter among established political parties. From the Left (CPIM) to the Right (BJP), the parties appear confident that they will triumph, but Deb Barman might be the perfect spanner in their works. 

Where is Congress?

Does the party have any stake in these elections? The only ones who think so are, of course, Congress leaders. Deb Barman’s former party believes that the locals, tired of the misrule of the BJP’ and the ‘experience of the CPIM’ will turn to the Grand Old Party for voting. 

“The Congress party has a good hold in the ADC because the CPIM has failed to serve the people in the hills all along and BJP has not kept its promises. Now the fight will be between the TIPRA and Congress”, Dey said.

He went on to claim that local bodies are being controlled by the state election commission so they play as the tool of the state government.

“Muscle power, money power and administrative power play a big role in the elections. So, that is not the reflection of the wish of the people. CPIM got all the 28 seats in the last election in the ADC elections”, Dey added.

He also pointed out that ahead of the ADC elections the Tripura police chief has alleged that some political parties are backing the extremist group and they have the information. 

However, given the popularity of the BJP, the recent progress of Deb Barman, and the history of the CPIM in the region, Congress could very much play second, or fourth, fiddle in these elections. 

Will these elections be a referendum on state elections of 2023?

The TTAADC covers 7,132.56 sq km, around 70 per cent of the geographical area of the state. It is also home to one-third of the state’s population, and that is why it might be wrong to see this as more than autonomous state elections. The state has a majority non-tribal population, so even if the state’s tribals vote en masse for Deb Barman and other tribal parties; it may not be enough come 2023. Then, there is the division within the tribals. With Tripura/Tripuri, Reang, Jamatia, Noatia, Uchai, Chakma, Mog, Lushai, Kuki, Halam, Munda, Kaur, Orang, Santal, Bhil, Bhutia, Chaimal, Garo, Khasia, and Lepchas, Tripura has an eclectic mix of tribes and cultures. This means that it is likely that the tribal vote would be split across all parties. The only question is: which party will celebrate at the end?

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