In Tripura, the Bharatiya Janata Party scored one of its most resounding victories in recent times. After a concerted campaign, the saffron party breached the Left bastion, reducing the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to a shell of its former self. The BJP, along with its ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, won more than two-thirds of the seats in the 60-seat Assembly.

But the party has another task to contend with before the business of administering the state begins: choosing a chief minister without upsetting any constituency. In a state where the indigenous tribal population has often been pitted against its Bengali-speaking residents, that may be almost as difficult as the battle to dislodge the Left.

The frontrunner

So far, Biplab Kumar Deb, the party’s 48-year-old state president, appears to be the frontrunner. Even in the run-up to the polls, Deb featured prominently on the party’s promotional hoardings across the state. An import from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, he is believed to be well-liked by the party’s central leadership. In an interview with ahead of the elections, the party’s state prabhari (convenor) and senior Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh man, Sunil Deodhar, had spoken glowingly of Deb’s leadership, saying that he was one of the most admired leaders within the party’s state unit.

It was Deodhar who had brought Deb to Tripura from Delhi. He is said to have spotted Deb when he was working in the capital as an apprentice to senior Sangh leaders, including KN Govindacharya.

Speaking to in March 2017, Deb had given an account of his political roots. He came from a family of Jan Sangh – the earlier avatar of the BJP – followers. The foray into the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, he had said, was a natural step. “My father did Jan Sangh when few people even knew about them in Tripura,” said Deb, who was born in Tripura’s Udaipur area.

However, in spite of Deb’s apparent popularity, there has been talk of propping up a tribal face instead, said a BJP leader. It would address a long-running grievance among Tripura’s indigenous population, that it has been left out of the decision-making machinery in state capital Agartala.

An indigenous face?

In the 35 years that the Left has ruled in Tripura in all, the only tribal chief minister to have led the state was Dashrat Deb, who was at the helm from 1993 to 1998. Deb was in the running for the post even in 1978, when the Left came to power in the state for the first time. But he was passed over for the Bengali leader Nripen Chakrabarty.

In an interview to a veteran journalist from the state, Subir Bhowmik, the founder of Tripura’s communist movement, Biren Dutta, had admitted that this was “one big mistake” by the party. “Tribal extremism would never have taken off had Deb been made the chief minister,” he admitted.

Dutta was referring to the insurgency that raged in Tripura in the 1980s and ’90s, centred on the demand for a sovereign tribal state. It was triggered by concerns that migrant Bengalis were displacing the state’s indigenous tribals. The demographic change that Tripura has seen over the years is cited as a reason for these anxieties. In 1948, indigenous tribes accounted for over 80% of the state’s population, now they account for about 30%.

More recently, the BJP’s ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, put forward the demand for Twipraland, a separate tribal state. The BJP understands these apprehensions well. The tribal vote was instrumental in its success against the Left. It would be keen not to repeat the Left’s mistakes.

On Monday, a meeting of indigenous groups is expected to take place in Agartala to impress upon the BJP the community’s desire for a tribal chief minister. According to members of the BJP, the party’s leadership is mindful of these aspirations – and there are at least three tribal leaders being considered for the post.

The other contenders

The first is Jishnu Debbarma, convener of the state BJP’s Janajati Morcha or tribal unit. An old BJP hand, Jishnu Debbarma is part of Tripura’s erstwhile royal family, and known to have a sizeable following among the state’s indigenous population. However, he is not yet a legislator. Elections in his constituency, Charilam, have been postponed because of the death of the Left candidate.

Then there is Atul Debbarma, who won from the Krishnapur constituency. A doctor by profession and a Sangh man, Debbarma spent time in Nagpur before returning to Tripura recently. Currently, he practices in Agartala. According to reports, Debbarma is also a “Sanskrit scholar and Vedic specialist.”

Finally, there is Rampada Jamatia – an old Vishwa Hindu Parishad hand who won from West Tripura’s Bagma. A retired employee of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, Jamatia is known locally for his connections to the Sangh. One of the most influential tribal leaders of the state, Jamatia is also one of the vice-presidents of the BJP’s Tripura unit.

A final decision is likely to be taken by the party’s central observers for the state, Nitin Gadkari and Jual Oram, in a day or two, said a BJP leader.