As Tripura heads to polls early next year, will two former rivals form an alliance to defeat the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party?

In September, Congress leader Sudip Roy Barman said his party would do “whatever is needed to defeat the BJP”. That included forming an opposition alliance, said Barman, who had recently left the BJP himself.

Barman’s sentiments were echoed at a massive Left rally in the capital, Agartala, last month. Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury spoke of a united opposition in Tripura. Former Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar also urged national and regional parties to close ranks against the BJP.

Should the alliance of “secular” parties materialise, it would close up an enduring faultline in Tripura’s politics. When the Left held power in the state for 25 years, the Congress was in opposition. The clashes between the two parties often tipped over into violence.

Political observers in the state felt the grassroot-level cadre of either party may not accept an open alliance after decades of rivalry.

Veteran journalist Shekhar Datta felt the two parties would have a tacit understanding. “CPM will put up weak candidates against Congress in certain seats while Congress will do the same,” he predicted.

Political scientist Vanlalmuana Darlong, who teaches at Tripura University, said while the supporters of both parties might be uneasy with an alliance, the “higher levels” of the party leaderships might reach an agreement. After all, he said, “they don’t have an option to defeat the BJP”.

‘Nobody has seen tomorrow’

Despite broad hints at a detente, both Congress and Left leaders are non-committal when asked directly about a possible alliance.

A senior Congress leader said the two parties were “closely in touch” and exploring the possibility of coming together on certain issues but when asked about a formal alliance, he said, “Nobody has seen tomorrow”.

At present, he said, there was only a political understanding to agitate against the “misdoings” of the BJP government.

A senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader also said there were no official talks about an alliance. But the matter had been discussed “at a personal level” between individual party leaders. It was crucial, he said, to ensure that the “anti-BJP vote” did not get split.

The Left, which still has a robust presence in the state, was primarily interested in “the restoration of democracy” in Tripura, he said. But for the Congress, “it is a question of their existence” in the state.

Electoral arithmetic

After the 2018 assembly elections, the BJP came to power in Tripura for the first time, winning 36 seats and an absolute majority.

The incumbent Communist Party of India (Marxist) mustered 16 seats in the 60-seat legislature. But it also cornered a significant 42.22% of the vote share.

“The vote share of CPM continues to remain intact,” said Darong. “It still has popularity at the ground level as we saw in the recent rally.”

The Congress was wiped out in 2018, with no seats and a mere 1.79% of the vote share. The party only re-entered the assembly after Barman, who left the BJP in February to join the Congress, managed to retain the Agartala seat in the bye-polls this year.

But in alliance with the Left, the party could still be a threat to the BJP, which has been riven by internal dissensions and desertions since the 2018 polls.

“There is clear anti-incumbency against the BJP,” said Datta. “[Their] track record in governance is extremely poor.” The party also faced a leadership crisis, he added, with a weak chief minister in Manik Saha, who took charge earlier this year.

Darlong agreed, pointing to a “division” between Saha and his predecessor, Biplab Deb.

According to Datta, there were four or five urban constituencies in the capital that were still “strongholds of the Congress”.

Besides, an alliance between the Left and the Congress is not unprecedented, even in states where they had been staunch rivals.

“Even in West Bengal, they contested together in 2021 and 2016,” said Datta. “It is possible in Tripura also as both parties are victims of the BJP. They may join hands, especially in the plains, where there are 40 seats.”

Roadblock in the hills?

The tribal districts of the hills are another matter. These account for 20 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes. These areas are also under the jurisdiction of a tribal autonomous district council, covered by the Sixth Schedule. This constitutional provision allows for decentralised governance and considerable autonomy to tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram.

These areas are also the heartland of Tripuri nationalism, which has given rise to demands for a separate tribal state constituted by the areas of the autonomous district council, which account for almost 70% of Tripura’s territory.

To shore up its chances of victory in 2018, the BJP had tied up with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, a party that claims to represent tribal interests. It had won eight seats. But since then the alliance has been rocky and the tribal party itself has been hollowed out by desertions.

Many of its former members joined the newly formed Tipra Motha, an opposition party led by Pradyot Kishore Debbarma, a former Congress leader and scion of the Tripura royal family. Tripuri nationalism is the cornerstone of the party’s ideology. It demands a “Greater Tipraland” – a tribal state that would cover not only the autonomous district council areas but also areas outside its jurisdiction that are inhabited by tribal communities.

The party’s growing clout in tribal areas was evident in its strong showing in the autonomous district council elections last year, where it won 16 out of 28 seats.

“Tipra Motha is still maintaining their edge in the hills,” admitted a tribal leader from the Left. But he argued that the party’s popularity had waned since the autonomous district council elections last year.

“Their performance in the ADC in the last year and a half is very dismal,” he said. “There is no difference between the BJP and Tipra Motha in terms of governance.”

Either way, Tipra Motha spokesperson Anthony Debbarma ruled out an alliance with any other party as of now.

“We have been fighting for our constitutional rights and solution,” he said. “We have been fighting for our rights and it was the CPM who exploited us in the last 25 years. We will continue to fight alone.”