Months before it heads into elections, Tripura is seeing a political reconfiguration. An internal churn in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party forced a change in chief minister – Biplab Deb was replaced by Manik Saha on May 15. Now, the party’s main ally in the state, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, is also in crisis.

On July 2, over 11,000 members and leaders of the party joined the Tipra Motha at a formal ceremony in Agartala.

The Tipra Motha is an opposition party led by Pradyot Kishore Debbarma, a former Congress leader and scion of the Tripura royal family.

The demand for a separate state for Tripura’s considerable tribal population, who influence at least 20 of the 40 assembly seats, is the stated reason for the defections.

Mintu Debbarma, one of the rebel leaders of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, told that party supremo N C Debbarma had fallen silent on the statehood demand. “That’s why we are joining Maharaj Pradyot – for his call of thansa” or unity.

The merger could dent the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s tribal vote base, which the party has cornered since its sweeping victory in the 2018 assembly polls, directly as well as through its ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura.

It also signals the emergence of the Tipra Motha as an opposition force to be reckoned with in Tripura.

Newly sworn in Tripura Chief Minister Manik Saha. Photo: Facebook

A split in the IPFT ranks

The rebellion in the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura is led by Mevar Kumar Jamatia, who was removed as the state’s tribal affairs minister when Saha became chief minister and was recently detained in Delhi for allegedly molesting a student. While Jamatia, a member of the legislative assembly, has not personally quit the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura yet, many of his supporters have left the party fold.

In March, Jamatia had said in the state assembly that the youth support the demand for a separate tribal state carved out of Tripura, as it would address unequal development.

The proposed state of Twipraland would cover the tribal areas of Tripura, comprising about 70% of the state’s territory and a third of its population. These areas are currently administered by the Tripura Autonomous District Council, which has powers under the Sixth Schedule, a Constitutional provision that provides for decentralised self-governance in certain tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura.

Despite an autonomous council, Tripura’s tribal areas remain poor. The Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura has traditionally demanded a separate state.

“He [Jamatia] was playing a vital role in bringing the indigenous leaders together,” said Mintu Debbarma, who also alleged the BJP had played a role in splitting the ranks of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura.

When the saffron party first forged an alliance with the tribal party in 2018, it appeared receptive to considering the demand for Twipraland, with the central government reportedly promising NC Debbarma a high-level committee to look into it. Since then, the BJP has skirted the issue. It has made for a choppy alliance over the years, and now former party colleagues accuse NC Debbarma of distancing himself from the demand as well.

A leadership crisis within the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura may have hastened the rebellion. Mintu Debbarma said that 86-year-old NC Debbarma has grown too old to lead the party. “But he declared himself the party president by removing Mevar Kumar Jamatia, who was elected as the party president in April this year, which is beyond the law,” he said.

“NC Debbarma is acting as the B-team of the ruling BJP,” said Mintu Debbarma. “Our demand [for ‘Tipraland’] can’t be suppressed this way. We are fighting for our survivability and constitutional rights.”

The electoral numbers from tribal areas send a clear political signal to the party. In 2018, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura had won eight seats in the 60-member Tripura Assembly, while the BJP had won 36 seats. According to the 2011 Census, Tripura has a tribal population of 13 lakh residents, who are said to determine electoral outcomes in 20 assembly seats.

Last year, the Indigneous People’s Front of Tripura failed to win a single seat in the autonomous district council elections. The Tipra Motha won 18 seats – in its debut polls – and the BJP got the remaining 10 seats.

Former Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura spokesperson Mangal Debbarma, who recently joined the BJP, said the tribal party had steadily been losing ground since the district council elections. “People tend to support whoever is in power to get benefits,” he said. “Tipra Motha is ruling tribal areas while BJP is in power in the state.”

Outgoing members of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura are either headed for the BJP or the Tipra Motha, says Mangal Debbarma. Some legislators will also join the Tipra Motha close to the elections, he predicted. “Former minister and MLA Mevar Kumar Jamatia also might join as he has a good connection with Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma.”

The rise of the Tipra Motha

The steady inflow of Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura leaders is a major boost to the Tipra Motha, which seeks to establish “Greater Tipraland”, comprising the tribal council area of Tripura as well as places inhabited by Tripuris outside the council area.

Following its decisive victory in the autonomous district council elections last year, the Tipra Motha has been trying to consolidate the tribal vote in the council area. The outfit is also eying non-reserved seats outside it.

The results of the byelections to four assembly seats in Tripura in May are a further indication of the Tipra Motha’s growing influence. In the bypoll for the Surma assembly constituency, outside the tribal district council areas, the Tipra Motha finished second after the BJP, indicating that it can be a spoiler in other parts of the state as well.

Political analyst Swapan Bhattacharya said Tipra Motha’s leader, Pradyot Debbarma, has emerged as one of the most popular tribal leaders after Dasaratha Debbarma, Tripura’s only tribal chief minister.

He said that the ruling BJP, which is facing internal struggles, is also not in a comfortable position due to “misrule” and “zero employment generation”. “But BJP is very aggressive,” said Bhattacharya. “It is still the stronger player as it has central power.”

However, Bhattacharya predicted, the party may still struggle to win an absolute majority in the 60-seat state assembly. “Tipra Motha may emerge as a major factor as it has significant influence in 20 tribal seats,” he said.

Political scientist Vanlalmuana Darlong, who teaches at Tripura University, also agreed that the BJP might have a tough time in the 20 seats in the tribal belt because of the Tipra Motha’s growing popularity. BJP leaders like Lok Sabha member of Parliament Rebati Tripura had campaigned in the tribal areas during the district council elections but did not draw much support.

Not the BJP’s loss?

The ruling BJP, however, exudes confidence and says the Tipra Motha is “not a threat”.

Rebati Tripura told that some Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura leaders joining the Tipra Motha would not affect the BJP. The parliamentarian, who is the former head of the BJP state unit’s Scheduled Tribe morcha, said the saffron party would work with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura legislators who remain with the party.

“Many people think BJP is weak in the hills where the tribals live,” said Rebati Tripura. “But we did well in the last election as well.”

He pointed out that the BJP already has 10 state legislators, 10 members of district council and one member of Parliament from the tribal areas. “No opposition parties have such strength,” he said.

According to him, the Tipra Motha had a one-point agenda: a separate state. This was unsustainable, he claimed. In contrast, he said, the BJP was working to improve road and water connectivity, health facilities and education in the tribal areas.

An opposition alliance?

A further analysis of the bypolls results offers a few more answers on how the chips may fall before the assembly elections. The BJP won three assembly seats with a 44.9% vote share while the Congress got one seat. The Trinamool Congress – which ran a high-voltage campaign – garnered 2.85% of the total vote share, while the Congress and Communist Party of India-Marxist got 20.1% and 19.75% respectively.

It came as a blow to the Trinamul Congress, which had been trying to make inroads in the state. Tripura Trinmool Congress President Subal Bhowmik said the party had little time to prepare for the by-polls. “Also, in by-elections, voters prefer to vote for the ruling party,” he said, adding that the party was strengthening its organisational structure ahead of the assembly elections.

The fate of the Communist Party of India-Maxist hangs in the balance – the party lost one of its citadels, the Jubarajnagar seats.

Meanwhile, the Congress entered the assembly after seven years as its leader, Sudip Roy Barman, won from the prestigious Agartala seat. This has boosted the party morale for the assembly election campaign.

Immediately after the bypoll results, Barman said that he was going to call an anti-BJP all-party meeting to regroup the Opposition. When asked if there would be an anti-BJP alliance, Barman told, “We shall work on that – anything and everything to defeat the evil forces.”

A six-time legislator, Barman was a health minister in the BJP government headed by Biplab Kumar Deb before he joined the Congress. The 56-year-old has significant support in urban areas, especially Agartala.

Barman said the vote share of Congress had soared during bypolls and his victory had sent a “tremendous vibe” across the state. The Congress would make a comeback, he claimed, because “people are aggrieved with the misrule of the BJP”.