Politics

Mamata Banerjee’s Project Tripura

Print edition : September 10, 2021

Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal Chief Minister, at a rally in Agartala on February 25, 2014. She is seeking to assert herself politically in Tripura. (Right) Abhishek Banerjee, Trinamool Congress’ all-India general secretary, addressing a press conference in Agartala on August 2. Photo: AFP

Abhishek Banerjee, Trinamool Congress general secretary, addressing a press conference in Agartala on August 2. Photo: PTI

Tripura Police trying to stop BJP workers who were staging a protest against Abhishek Banerjee during his visit to Agartala on August 2. Photo: PTI

PRADYOT KISHORE MANIKYA DEB BARMA, founder of the Tipraha Indigenous People’s Regional Alliance. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The Trinamool Congress makes forays into Tripura to form key alliances as part of its plans to overthrow the BJP government and establish its base in that State.

THE north-eastern State of Tripura is turning into a political battleground with the Trinamool Congress throwing down a challenge to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by trying to assert its presence there. Having trounced the saffron party in the West Bengal Assembly election in March-May 2021, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has set her sights on the predominantly Bengali-speaking Tripura as part of her long-term plan to topple the Narendra Modi government at the Centre and expand her party’s base outside West Bengal.

The BJP, which came to power in Tripura in March 2018, not only has to contend with the Trinamool Congress’ aggressive forays into the tiny State but be prepared for a tough fight as the Congress, the main opposition party in Tripura, is not averse to an alliance with the Trinamool Congress.

The BJP has reason to worry about its position as the Trinamool Congress has made overtures to Pradyot Kishore Manikya Deb Barma’s newly formed Tipraha Indigenous People’s Regional Alliance (TRIPRA), which has burst upon the scene with a huge tribal following.

Although Assembly elections are due in Tripura only in 2023, Mamata Banerjee claimed: “We will go to Tripura and win the elections there.” Describing the BJP government in Tripura as “barbaric”, the Trinamool supremo said: “They have gagged the media in Tripura. This cannot go on.” This is not her first attempt at asserting herself politically in Tripura. Mamata Banerjee had made several attempts to get a foothold for her party in the State when the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was in power (from 1998 to 2018) but had failed to make a mark. This time the Trinamool is placed in a favourable situation as there is a growing resentment against the Modi government at the Centre and the BJP in Tripura is not a well-oiled political machine as the CPI(M) was.

Moreover, Mamata Banerjee’s resounding victory against the Modi-Amit Shah combine in West Bengal has made the Trinamool a stronger force. The party is leaving no stones unturned to build the organisatoin in Tripura. Top Trinamool leaders, including Cabinet Ministers and legislators, have been visiting the State almost every day, organising political programmes, courting arrest and inviting the ire of the ruling party.

With its close cultural and linguistic ties with West Bengal, Tripura was the most obvious choice for the Trinamool to widen its sphere of influence. Soon after being elevated to the position of all-India general secretary of the party, Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and heir apparent to the Trinamool leadership, began working at establishing the party in Tripura.

With the BJP government resisting the Trinamool’s expansion plans in the State with the help of the police and party cadres, frequent clashes have broken out between the ruling party and its new political opponent.

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Abhishek Banerjee visited Tripura twice in the first two weeks of August. On both occasions his convoy was allegedly attacked by BJP activists. “They cannot stop us in this manner. Mamata Banerjee’s party is like iron. The more they do this, the stronger will be our resolve to put an end to the darkness in Tripura and herald a new dawn with our development work,” Abhishek Banerjee said. His message to the BJP: “Write it down, in the next one and half years the Trinamool Congress will form a government in Tripura.”

Mamata Banerjee alleged that the attacks on her nephew’s convoy were carried out on the orders of Union Home Minister Amit Shah. She claimed that Abhishek Banerjee was stalked by goondas employed by the BJP, who would even board the flights he took. The Tripura Police registered a first information report (FIR) against Abhishek Banerjee and several top Trinamool leaders, including West Bengal Minister Bratya Basu, Rajya Sabha member Dola Sen, former Rajya Sabha member Kunal Ghosh, and party leaders from Tripura, Subal Bhowmik and Prakash Das, when they went to the Khowai police station on August 9 following the arrest of 14 Trinamool workers. Reacting to the FIR, Bratya Basu said: “It only proves how scared and insecure the BJP is out there. The incident shows that the opposition parties do not even have the most basic democratic rights.”

Alliance prospects

Although the Trinamool has stationed its young leaders such as Debangshu Bhattacharya, Jaya Dutta and Sudip Raha in Tripura to set up the party’s base, it is still relying on disgruntled members of other political parties, particularly the Congress and the BJP, to fill its ranks rather than build the party from the grass roots. It had tried this strategy earlier unsuccessfully. However, certain alliances may well change the direction of the wind in the coming days. Not only is there a scope for the Pradesh Congress to tie up with the Trinamool to take on the BJP, but a new political force has emerged in the form of TRIPRA, which is open to negotiations with any political party that is willing to fulfil its agenda of securing a “constitutional guarantee for the rights of the tribal people of Tripura”. Deb Barma has already held meetings with Mamata Banerjee and Abhishek Banerjee.

Deb Barma, a scion of the Tripural royal family, said: “My only purpose to be in political life is to ensure we get our constitutional demand for Greater Tripraland. We can consider having an alliance with whoever is willing to support us on this issue. I made this very clear not only to the Trinamool Congress but also to Amit Shah and Rahul Gandhi. We want a constitutional solution for the indigenous people of Tripura. Our’s is a people’s movement, rather than a political movement.” Deb Barma has demanded creation of Greater Tripraland from the areas under the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) and some surrounding tribal-dominated areas.

Deb Barma’s sudden political rise has brought about a feeling of uncertainty in the BJP camp, particularly since its alliance partner, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), has lost its tribal support base to TRIPRA, as was evident in the April 2021 election to the TTAADC. TRIPRA won 18 of the 28 tribal council seats while the BJP won 9 of the 11 seats it had contested. The IPFT failed to win a single seat. The loss of ground for the BJP-IPFT combine in the TTAADC region, which accounts for 20 of the 60 Assembly seats in the State, spells trouble for the BJP. In the 2018 election, which brought the combine to power, it won 17 of the 19 seats for which elections were held.

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Congress open to alliance

The Congress, although resentful of the Trinamool Congress for orchestrating large-scale defection from its ranks, is nevertheless open to the idea of an alliance to oppose the saffron party. Even as its workers were flocking to the Trinamool Congress, the Congress leadership condemned the attacks on Trinamool workers by the BJP and protested against the lack of democracy in the State. Birajit Sinha, senior Congress leader in Tripura, told Frontline: “First we have to stop the BJP together and then do politics. There is always a chance of the Congress joining forces with the Trinamool, as the BJP is the main enemy of the Congress. But, at the same time, we are also wary, because in Bengal, the BJP got a foothold thanks to the Trinamool. If the Trinamool wants to become an alternative to the BJP, it will not be able to do so by itself, and we have always maintained that our priority is to rid the country of the BJP and towards that end the enemy’s enemy is our friend.”

The Trinamool Congress has also made overtures to CPI(M) workers, inviting them to join its ranks if they were truly opposed to the BJP. The CPI(M), which had ruled the State for five consecutive terms until 2018, has been hit hard with the BJP’s ascension to power. The party has been losing political ground ever since its defeat in the Assembly election. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the CPI(M) came third after the Congress, managing to secure a little over 17 per cent of the votes. The BJP secured 49.3 per cent of the vote share and the Congress 25.34 per cent.

Seeking national status

The psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty said there were several reasons for the Trinamool Congress’ frenetic political activities in Tripura. With Mamata Banerjee trying to establish herself as a major opponent of Narendra Modi at the national level, it is important for the Trinamool Congress to regain the status of “national party”, which it had in 2014. To do so, the Trinamool needs to be recognised as a State-level party in at least three States, other than West Bengal, when the matter comes for review by the Election Commission in 2024.

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He said: “Mamata Banerjee's political exercise in Tripura should be seen strictly from the national perspective. The Trinamool has given serious thought to Tripura, realising that it can kill three birds with one stone. First, it will help establish Mamata Banerje’s stature as a genuine alternative to Modi if she can extend her party’s influence outside Bengal and defeat the BJP yet again. Second, it will be a step in the direction of getting national party status. Third, it will serve to divert the attention of the people and the media from issues of violation of human rights in West Bengal in view of the post-election violence, if she can establish that there is an attack on democracy by the BJP in Tripura. Hence, we are seeing top leaders from Kolkata regularly travelling to Tripura to set up the party base there.”

The frequent visits of Bengal leaders to Tripura makes the Trinamool Congress subject to the very same allegations it had made against the BJP during the Assembly election in West Bengal, that they are “outsiders”.

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