In less than two years, Pradyot Manikya Debbarman’s Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA) Motha party has emerged as the most dominant indigenous party in Tripura’s tribal belt. After forming the party in 2021, Debbarman, with his call for a separate State of Greater Tipraland, swept the elections to the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council. With victory practically assured in the Assembly election in most of the 20 reserved seats in the TTAADC area, all eyes are on Motha. While both the BJP and the Left-Congress combine are desperate to rope in its support, Debbarman has chosen to contest the election alone, in 42 out of the 60 Assembly seats. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:
All eyes are on your TIPRA Motha party in the election and many believe that you will play the role of a kingmaker. How do you see the election?
I believe we will do extremely well. I do think there has been a lot of misunderstanding and mishandling in the tie-up between the Congress and the CPI(M). The BJP is not sure whether to go with the IPFT [the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, the BJP’s ally] or fight the election alone. All this has led to a lot of confusion. Ours is the only party that has made its stand clear from day one: there will be no compromise without a written understanding [on the issue of Greater Tipraland] or a constitutional solution to the demand.
The BJP, the Congress and the CPI(M) have stated clearly that they will not support the creation of a separate State. Are you still open to dialogue?
No. If they want the Tripuris to remain in the same State, they will have to come up with a counter-offer in writing [specifying] what mechanisms will be put in place so that the tribals of Tripura get justice.
Your gesture of not fielding a candidate against the CPI(M)‘s Jitendra Choudhury in Sabroom has been interpreted as an overture to the CPI(M).
When Balasaheb Thackeray refused to heed the NDA order and supported Pratibha Patil because she was a Maharashtrian, or when Mamata Banerjee, who was not a member of the UPA, supported Pranab Mukherjee because he was a Bengali, why can I not do the same if Jitendra Choudhury, who happens to belong to my community, is fighting outside a reserved seat? As a tribal, I have been magnanimous not to put up a candidate against him. But his party is still an opponent and we will fight them in the rest of the seats.
There are certain things I can do that the Congress, the BJP and the CPI(M) cannot. I can take decisions because the buck stops with me. In their case they will have to go to Guwahati, from there to Nagpur, from there to Delhi, and in Delhi to the North Block and the South Block to finally get their clearance.
You had two meetings: one with the Union Home Ministry and the other with Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. What was the obstacle to reaching an electoral understanding with the BJP?
The obstacle was that they did not give me anything in writing.
Did they agree verbally?
They came close to it. I even saw a draft proposal, and it seemed satisfactory. But until it is written, I do not trust the words of politicians.
Apart from the 20 reserved seats, you have fielded 22 candidates in non-reserved seats where your presence is limited. What is the rationale behind that decision?
We are an inclusive regional party which believes in the constitutional rights of all communities, be it Bengali, the Scheduled Castes, Manipuri, Adivasi, or Muslim. There are at least eight seats where Muslims are a factor.
In a triangular contest, who, in your view, will benefit in the unreserved seats where you have fielded candidates and where the tribal vote is a factor?
The Congress got 1 per cent in the 2018 election, and yet they are fielding 17 candidates. Why isn’t anybody asking them why they are fighting in 17 seats when their vote share is 1 per cent? We got 58 per cent in the Autonomous Council [TTAADC] elections, where there are Bengalis, Muslims, tribals, everyone. In a four-way contest we defeated all three parties.
We have a head start with 20 per cent [of the votes] and many people would like to join hands with us because the Congress and the CPI(M) have not been able to protect their workers in the last five years. The only party that has ensured that none of its workers got attacked was the TIPRA Motha. During post-poll violence, all the leaders of the various parties would pack up their bags and leave for Kolkata or Delhi. TIPRA Motha extended its umbrella of protection to everyone who would choose to stand behind it.
The Left and the Congress have said the main issue in this election is the restoration of democracy. According to the BJP, it is the continuation of peace and progress. What do you think is the crux of this election?
If you have to restore democracy, you will have to do it in Delhi, not in Tripura. If you are claiming to bring in development, then removing a Chief Minister ahead of the election is an admission of failure in the first four and half years. Neither the Left-Congress nor the BJP is offering anything new to the people. They are going around with jargons and agendas set by New Delhi.
For far too long, the tallest leaders of Tripura have waited in the airport with a bouquet of flowers to receive small-time leaders from Delhi, who would come down and give instructions. The time has come to reverse this trend, and let Tripura tell Delhi what it wants rather than Delhi dictating to us what it needs.