Shubham Ghosh, 25, a resident of Agartala, was among the vast majority of young people who wanted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to displace the long-reigning Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front in Tripura and actively participated in campaigns to bring this about. Today he sings a different tune. “The CPI(M)’s misdeeds of 25 years cannot match up to what the BJP has done in just five years. Most people of my generation are regretting the role we played in bringing them to power,” said Shubham.
With elections on February 16, the ruling BJP faces not only growing resentment among the people but also an opposition that has set aside their differences to join forces. In the prevailing situation stands a third player: the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA) Motha party, led by Pradyot Manikya Debbarman, a scion of the royal family of Tripura and hailed as the “Bubagra” (king) among the tribal population. TIPRA Motha, with its hold over the majority of the 20 reserved seats in the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) region (out of a total of 60 Assembly seats), is seen as “the kingmaker” in this election.
What can be particularly worrying for the ruling party is the open expression of disappointment with its performance in the past five years by sections of those who still actively support the BJP. Lack of development, unfulfilled promises, authoritarian attitude, and allegations of corruption and nepotism have alienated a sizeable section of the young voters from the BJP. Many of the old hands in the party feel that only a small section of the party is benefiting from it being in power.
Chandan Das (name changed), 56, said, “I am still a BJP worker, but I have got nothing from it. My situation remains as it was, if not worse. If the situation is so bad for me, can you imagine what it must be like for those who are known to be anti-BJP?”
His son Pranab is a graduate, but unemployed. “We were Congress first, but we thought that by joining the BJP we will be able to bring about the change that was needed. After all, there was a BJP government at the Centre and one in the State, so we naturally assumed the State would prosper,” said Chandan. However, he would still prefer the saffron party to return to power. “I like the party, though not everyone in it. I will again walk in the rallies. Those who work for the party here do it out of respect for Narendra Modi, and the BJP at the Centre,” he said.
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The repeated complaint heard on streets, at tea stalls, in markets, and practically everywhere is that “nothing has been done in the last five years”. The allegation is that very few of the 299 promises made in the party’s ‘vision document’, released ahead of the 2018 election, have been fulfilled. In its report card brought out in January, the government has highlighted its achievements, which includes increasing social security pensions from Rs.1,000 to Rs.2,000 for 3.81 lakh beneficiaries; raising minimum wages for construction workers; providing subsidised loans to entrepreneurs; inaugurating colleges and universities; developing infrastructure; and implementing schemes for tribal welfare.
However, many people point out that many of the schemes were set in motion only months before the election. For instance, the increase in social security pension came about only in September 2022; and the 12 per cent hike in Dearness Allowance and Dearness Relief for government employees and pensioners in December 2022.
Sanjay Das, a 40-year-old former Congress activist who drives an auto in Agartala, said, “The State has not witnessed this kind of deprivation even during the CPI(M) regime. I used to be a Youth Congress activist, but I changed to the BJP because I genuinely thought that it would bring about a change. They have only served the interest of their own people, while the masses continue to groan in misery.”
The nationalistic and religious fervour that gripped the State when the BJP roared into power in 2018 have receded into the background in the face of more immediate and realistic concerns. In what is being seen as a desperate attempt to change its image, in May 2022, less than 10 months before the election, the party removed its flamboyant and controversial Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb, and replaced him with the more low-key Manik Saha. People across the State welcomed the change.
However, in spite of an apparent anti-incumbency sentiment, in organisational terms the ruling party is well ahead of its main opponents, the CPI(M) and the Congress. In the 2018 election, the BJP-Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) alliance won 43 out of the 60 Assembly seats, while the Left could only manage 16. The Congress, which until the 2013 election would secure at least 40 per cent of the votes, got only 1.8 per cent. The BJP, whose vote share in 2013 was 1.54 per cent, had clearly captured a massive section of the Congress votes.
Intolerance to opposition
With the BJP subsequently refusing to allow the Left and the Congress any political space in the State, neither party was able to stem the inexorable downward slide they found themselves in. In fact, intolerance towards any opposition and the use of brute force to subdue political opponents have been the oft-repeated allegations against the ruling party. The results of the 2019 three-tier panchayat elections exemplified the extent of the violation of democratic rights in the State: the BJP won 93 per cent of the seats uncontested. According to the CPI(M), between March 2018 and June 2021 alone, 662 party offices, 204 offices of Left organisations, and 3,363 houses of CPI(M) activists and supporters were “gutted, ransacked or looted”.
The prevailing situation practically forced the two erstwhile mortal enemies, the CPI(M) and the Congress, to join forces. Former Chief Minister and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Manik Sarkar told Frontline, “The crux of this election is that the BJP must be defeated in order to rescue democracy, implement the Constitution, re-establish the freedom of the press. At the same time uphold the tenets of secularism and ensure that the minority get full freedom and opportunity to pursue their work and live their lives. On top of all these things, people need to survive; they need jobs.”
Restoration of democracy and demand for free and fair elections are the rallying cry for the Left-Congress combine. The tie-up appears to be as much a survival strategy as it is a joint ideological stand. Tripura Pradesh Congress president Birajit Sinha emphasised that in spite of all the differences between the two parties, “the first priority is to defeat the BJP in order to have the democratic political process restored in the State. The people of the State are looking at us. We cannot ignore their demand.”
However, after decades of fighting each other, a sizeable section both within the Congress and the Left are uncomfortable with the newfound friendship. A Congress worker admitted that many in his party have refused to work with the CPI(M). “For so many decades we have been under attack from the Left, and now we are being told to be friends with them. I may agree reluctantly, but why should everybody else?” he said.
The BJP, which had received most of the anti-Left votes, is also hoping that the alliance will not go down well with the anti-CPI(M) voters who may see the seat-sharing deal to be opportunistic and bereft of any professed ideology. Sushanta Chowdhury, Minister of Information & Cultural Affairs, told Frontline, “The people of the State have been under the misrule of the CPI(M) for 25 years. They will not want that party to come back. The Congress has lost its political base here as most of its supporters have joined us. This unholy alliance will be rejected outright by the people, just as it happened in West Bengal.”
In Tripura, the tribal vote, with its sway over 20 reserved seats, has always been the key to electoral triumph. This time too, TIPRA Motha, the most powerful political force in Tripura’s tribal belt, literally holds in its hands the fate of the three national parties.
At a picturesque spot on National Highway 8, from where begins the Hathai Kotor (literally Big Mountain), Rajani Rupini and Sukumati Rupini sell fresh vegetables. They spoke of a time when business was better and more cars plied past their stalls. “Now people are too scared to stop and buy from here,” said Rajani. This was the spot from where on July 10, 2017, the movement for a separate tribal state of Tipraland, headed by the IPFT, began, introducing a twist to the politics of Tripura. For 11 days, agitating tribals blocked NH8, the lifeline of Tripura.
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The IPFT, then led by the late N.C. Debbarma and Mewar Kumar Jamatia, united the tribals around a cause and broke the Ganamukti Parishad’s (GMP)—the tribal wing of the CPI(M)—decades-long dominance in the region. A timely tie-up with the IPFT paved the way for a hitherto insignificant Tripura BJP to catapult to power the following year. The BJP-IPFT won 17 of the 19 reserved seats that went to the polls; and the GMP with two seats was wiped out in its erstwhile stronghold.
However, the relegation of the Tipraland issue to the back burner despite IPFT leaders joining the government, and neglect and broken promises by the ruling coalition, gave rise to a new political force in the form of TIPRA Motha in 2021. With its call for “Greater Tipraland”, TIPRA Motha captured the overwhelming support of the people in the region. All other parties in the tribal belt, including the IPFT, weakened or disintegrated as MLAs, leaders and workers flocked to Motha. In the 2021 elections to the TTAADC, Motha won 18 of the 28 seats; and the IPFT, the strongest political force in the region until then, won nothing. Its ally, the BJP, however, managed to win nine seats.
Motha goes it alone
As the Assembly election approached, Motha was the most sought-after party in Tripura, with both the BJP and the Left-Congress combine vying for its support. However, talks between Debbarman and the Union Home Ministry and the BJP foundered on Motha’s insistence on a “written assurance” regarding the formation of Tipraland. On January 27, Debbarman laid to rest all speculation by announcing that his party would contest the election alone.
“Since 1977, all regional parties from Tripura have gone to Delhi and returned with some agreement or the other before elections; and after the election the Tiprasa [indigenous people of Tripura] got nothing…. I want to tell all the Tiprasa, there will be no alliance in this election.... We will fight to defeat those who are against our demand,” said Debbarman. If no political understanding with any other party is reached before the election, then this will be the first time since 1977 that a regional party in Tripura is contesting the Assembly election without any alliance partner.
Motha’s unwavering stance on the demand has complicated matters as none of the other three parties is agreeable to the formation of Tipraland. On January 30, Motha sprang a surprise by releasing a list of 42 candidates, including 22 for the non-reserved seats. For all its sway in the tribal belt, its influence is limited to small pockets in around eight other constituencies where the tribal vote can be a factor.
In earlier elections, the BJP’s tie-up with the IPFT gave it a distinct advantage in these constituencies. This time, however, Motha’s ascendance has thrown all equations to the wind, and no one can say which party will come out on top in the triangular contest.
“While it is expected that the BJP will be hurt by Motha in certain non-reserved seats, we will also be hit in some constituencies,” a CPI(M) leader told Frontline. “In Majlishpur, for example, the 10,000-11,000 tribal votes are not expected to go to the BJP; even if a chunk goes to Motha, the BJP will be in big trouble, as the Left-Congress adjustment has been well received there. But the situation as of today [February 1] is still very fluid.” Interestingly, Debbarman also sent a signal to the Left by not fielding any candidate against CPI(M) heavyweight and State secretary Jitendra Choudhury, who is contesting from Sabroom. Said Choudhury on January 31: “We are in talks with TIPRA Motha.... This morning the party chairman Pradyot Manikya Debbarman called me and told me your victory is certain as all TIPRA Motha supporters will vote for you…. He said, ‘I cannot field a candidate against someone like Jitendra Choudhury.’”
Concerns of Motha
However, Debbarman has his own concerns. His hope for a unification of tribal parties was shattered when the IPFT chose to remain with the BJP, and, according to political sources, there is already grumbling within the Motha leadership over the selection of candidates.
Debbarman’s social media post on January 30, after the release of the candidates list, was telling. “I have tried my best, and though I have also realised that a good number of leaders feel that their ticket were more important than the cause for our movement, they should realise that I am fighting for the people and not them! Some will go but more will join and new leaders will emerge,” he wrote.
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The tribal people are quite aware of the reality of the situation and welcome their Bubagra’s decision to not enter into any pre-election alliance. Bikash Rupuni of Twisikam Para village in Hathai Kator said, “After so many years, the IPFT could do nothing for us tribals, and so we have decided to give Bubagra a chance. We will give him 20 seats from here [TTAADC region], but that won’t be enough to form the government. Let alliances be decided after elections.” Bikash himself was an IPFT activist before joining Motha.
Debbarman’s rigid stance has the unequivocal support of the tribals—a support that comes with a lot of hope and sacrifice; yet, at the same time, as the vegetable sellers Rajani and Sukumati agreed, “life was easier before”.
- The ruling BJP faces not just anti-incumbency sentiment but also an opposition, the CPI(M) and the Congress, that has set aside their differences to join forces.
- A third player is the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA) Motha party, led by Pradyot Manikya Debbarman, a scion of the royal family of Tripura and hailed as the “Bubagra” (king) among the tribal population.
- TIPRA Motha, with its hold over the majority of the 20 reserved seats in the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) region (out of a total of 60 Assembly seats), is seen as “the kingmaker” in this election.
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