A total of 28.23 lakh voters are expected to exercise their franchise in the upcoming Tripura Assembly elections scheduled to be held on February 16, 2023. All major political parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Congress and TIPRA Motha, are preparing for the D-day in full swing.

Rishiraj Sinha, a researcher hailing from Tripura, breaks down the first three-way contest between political parties – BJP vs CPIM-Congress vs TIPRA Motha – an unusual scenario for Tripura, where none of the parties seem to have a clear edge.

In 2018, BJP had won 36 seats and IPFT had won 8 seats and formed a coalition government in the 60 seat Tripura Legislative Assembly. However, in the past five years, five sitting MLAs from ruling party BJP and 3 MLAs from alliance partner IPFT defected to different opposition parties. Then, Congress won the prestigious Agartala constituency in the 2022 bye-election.

Where the BJP stands

The BJP’s vote share of 1.5% in Tripura during the 2013 state elections rose significantly to 41.5 %% in 2018. In the 2014 general elections, however, the party’s vote share was a mere 5.7% – which signifies that the jump to 41.5% was a result of various other factors, including rigorous campaigning and a massive grassroots movement. 

Even as six disgruntled trinamool Congress (TMC) MLAs jumped ship to BJP, it was rigorous campaigning by the party’s central ministers, then BJP President Amit Shah as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, that helped the BJP end the 25-year reign of the old Left front government. This also meant that many anti-left voters of that time i.e. traditional Congress party voters, shifted to BJP.

Tripura: For 2023 polls, Cong hopes to piggyback on BJP infighting
Former Tripura CM Biplab Kumar Deb (left) and current CM Dr Manik Saha

In the 2019 general elections in Tripura amidst allegations of poll violence, however, the BJP won both the Lok Sabha seats. But at the same time, the Congress party got a vote share of 25.34%, a significant jump from its 1.8% in 2018. This also meant that many traditional voters of the Congress party were returning back from BJP.

The BJP’s insecurity is also evident from the unlikely switch of the Chief Minister, from Biplab Deb to Manik Saha, barely nine months before the state elections. It can also be speculated to the growing dissent against the ruling party and continuous defections of BJP MLAs to the Congress.

Break down of IPFT

The Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), a regional party, started its movement demanding a separate state – Tipraland – in early 2013 and was successful in mobilising indigenous people and winning eight MLAs in the 2018 assembly election. Its alliance with the BJP also helped the lotus party win 10 ST reserved seats. The BJP-IPFT alliance won a whopping 18 of the 20 ST reserved seats. 

Is IPFT, BJP's main ally in Tripura, on the verge of a split?
IPFT members Mevar Kumar Jamatia (left) and late NC Debbarma

After coming to power, however, the IPFT turned dormant in its demand for ‘Tipraland’. Additionally, recent defection of their MLAs, death of IPFT supremo N.C. Debbarma and the emergence of Tipra Motha as a legitimate alternative, has resulted in a stark change in the dynamics of indigenous politics.

Emergence of TIPRA Motha

TIPRA Motha, another regional party of Tripura, successfully won the Tripura Tribal Autonomous District Council (TTADC) elections held in 2021 with its demand for ‘Greater Tipraland’. Party founder Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma seems to have acquired most of the vote base of IPFT, which lost faith of the indigenous people by giving up on their demand for a separate state.

Pradyot recently announced his party will fight the polls alone in 40-45 seats, which can be bad news for both BJP as well as the CPIM-Congress alliance. Pradyot is very firm on his commitment to his people for ‘Greater Tipraland’ and has decided to only ally with any political party “which will support their cause through a written agreement”. 

No compromise on Tipraland demand': Pradyot after meeting with Assam CM
Tipra Chief Pradyot Kishore Debbarman

Now, given the demography of Tripura, where almost 60% of the population consists of Bengalis, it is difficult for any major political party to agree to this demand, which also sets the tone for the election that TIPRA Motha will fight the polls alone. It is also evident with the forming of TIPRA Citizens Federation, a forum for the representation of Bengalis in TIPRA Motha, in order to create inclusivity.

This also means that the BJP-IPFT alliance that has a hold of 18/20 ST seats might take a hit this time as many believe TIPRA Motha will give a tough battle to the ruling alliance. It is also evident from the defection of one BJP and 3 IPFT MLAs to TIPRA Motha in the last one year. At the time of writing this article, minister Prem Kumar Reang, the working president of IPFT, was in touch with the TIPRA Motha supremo, also giving fuel to the speculation around a IPFT-TIPRA Motha merger.

But a crucial piece of evidence that most political analysts are missing is the new CPIM-Congress alliance. Considering a three-way fight between BJP, TIPRA Motha and the CPIM-Congress alliance, it will be very difficult even for TIPRA Motha to win all the 20 ST seats. 

If the CPIM-Congress votes were to be combined using data from the 2021 TTAADC election, the alliance comes out at 14.7% of the vote share. Now, considering the recent defection of a BJP MLA from a ST seat to Congress and the CPIM currently holding 2 ST seats, the alliance may upset both BJP as well as TIPRA Motha.

CPIM-Congress Alliance

The new alliance between the CPIM and Congress has repeatedly spoken about the absence of law and order in Tripura in the context of political violence, such as setting ablaze Opposition party offices, news channel offices like PB24, attack on Opposition leaders like the brutal attack on Tripura Pradesh Congress president Birajit Sinha to name a few. They believe that for the restoration of law and order in the state, all Opposition parties have to unite and are also insisting the TIPRA Motha to be part of the alliance.

The CPIM-Congress alliance may not only hinder the BJP and TIPRA Motha from winning the ST seats, but a successful transfer of votes between the two parties can ensure a win in many probable seats that the BJP currently holds. For example, data from the 2019 bye-election in the Badarghat Assembly constituency shows the winning candidate of BJP getting 20,471 votes whereas the CPIM got 15,211 and Congress got 9,101. The combined CPIM-Congress standing was 3,841 votes more than the BJP, which is also aware that the traditional Congress voters may shift to the grand old party, leading even the Chief Minister to publicly term the alliance ‘unholy and anti-people’.

This election is going to be the first three-cornered contest between parties — BJP vs CPIM-Congress vs TIPRA Motha, which is usually not the case in Tripura, which has always witnessed a two-cornered contest, making the upcoming election all the more interesting. None of the parties seem to have a clear edge in the polls this time and the final call will be taken by the voters of the state.

Rishiraj Sinha is a Ph.D. scholar at the Indian Institute of Science Education Research, Mohali and holds a Master’s degree in Labour Studies and Social Protection from TISS Guwahati. He belongs from Tripura and is a keen observer of politics in the state.

Also Read | People in Tripura will drive out CPI(M), Cong candidates: Biplab Deb

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