The BJP is running a star-studded campaign in the Tripura Assembly elections, with several of its senior national leaders being deployed to help it come back to power in the Northeastern state.
But the BJP's top leaders aren't attacking the Left, the Congress or the Trinamool Congress as much as they seem to be targeting a new player in the state's politics - the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance or the TIPRA Motha, led by Pradyot Manikya Deb Barma, the head of the Tripura Royal family.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah termed TIPRA as a tacit ally of the Left Front, Assam CM and the North-East Democratic Alliance Convenor Himanta Biswa Sarma said that a vote for TIPRA Motha is a wasted vote.
So why is the BJP attacking TIPRA so much? What makes this four-year-old outfit the party to watch out for in these elections?
It's mainly about what the party represents, not just in the context of Tripura but the Northeast as a whole.
There are three aspects to this.
Churn in Indigenous Politics in Tripura
A key narrative that has shaped politics in the Northeastern states is the demand to protect the rights of the indigenous people of the region, against migrants from outside.
Tripura, however, is the only state where migrants (Bengali speaking refugees who came after Partition) are in a clear majority.
The non-tribal population in Tripura has increased from about 45 percent at the time of Independence to close to 70 percent now.
When the Congress was the dominant party in Tripura in the 1960s and early 1970s, the indigenous people increasingly looked towards the Communist parties to assert their political demands.
For instance in the 1972 Assembly elections, the Congress won a two-thirds majority overall but the CPM won two thirds of the seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes. In 1977, the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti was formed as an outfit representing the interests of indigenous tribes.
To accommodate their demands, the Tripura Tribal Autonomous District Council (TTADC) was formed in 1979, spanning nearly two thirds of the area in the state where - basically areas where tribals remain in a majority.
Though support from tribal communities was a key reason for the Left's win in 1977, the Left government also didn't entirely address these concerns. In the 1989 elections, the TUJS allied with the Congress and defeated the Communists.
An armed insurgency intensified in the 1990s and early 2000s in the tribal areas, mainly under the leadership of the National Liberation Front of Tripura and the All Tripura Tiger Force. On the other side, the United Bengali Liberation Tiger Front was also formed.
Though the armed insurgency was quelled over the next one decade but the grievances among Tripura's indigenous population remained.
Meanwhile, the TUS was dissolved in 2001 and two new outfits were formed claiming to represent tribal interests: the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra and the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura. The IPFT merged into INPT in 2001 but they again split in 2009.
The Left, which recaptured power in 1993, continued to expand in the tribal regions through the government's own efforts as well as defections among the tribal parties.
In 2013, the Left swept all except one of the ST seats in Tripura and the INPT and IPFT were both wiped out.
However, the Left's dominance left a considerable vacuum in the Opposition space, which the BJP came to occupy in the run-up to the 2018 Assembly elections. In the tribal areas, the party backed the IPFT in nine ST seats, while also putting up its own candidates in the remaining 11 ST seats, besides the non-ST seats as well.
The BJP-IPFT combine won 18 out of 20 ST seats in 2018. Like the Left, the BJP has also tried to expand its base in the tribal areas.
Its vast resources and domination in the Northeast under the trio of PM Modi, Amit Shah and Himanta Biswa Sarma also helped it expand in Tripura's tribal areas.
However, the BJP's gains, too, proved shortlived and it failed to strike a balance between the Bengali and tribal voters. The CAA further created a divide with tribal groups opposing it.
How TIPRA Established Itself Among Indigenous Voters
The TIPRA Motha has been the main beneficiary of the churn taking place within Tripura's indigenous voters - the decline of the IPFT and INPT and increasing opposition to the BJP. It has managed to capture a great deal of the support base of these two organisations.
TIPRA's president Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl is a veteran leader who has earlier been with Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti and the INPT.
It also emerged as the main face of opposition to the CAA in Tripura - Pradyot Manikya Deb Barma happens to be one of the main petitioners against the CAA in the Supreme Court.
The party performed exceedingly well in the 2021 Tripura Tribal Autonomous District Council (TTADC) election that it contested in alliance with the INPT. It contested 23 seats and won 16, securing 47 percent of the votes, while its ally the INPT got 9.3 percent votes and two seats.
The BJP contested 12 seats and won 9 but its ally, the IPFT, was wiped out and failed to win even one of the 16 seats it contested. The Left, too, was wiped out.
With TIPRA grabbing control of the TTADC, it made Pradyot Manikya Deb Barma the tallest tribal leader in the state. It created pressure on other tribal parties to unite under TIPRA and also made the BJP take notice of this new outfit.
In the run-up to the 2023 Assembly elections, the BJP was compelled to initiate a talks with TIPRA regarding a possible alliance. But the talks broke down due to BJP's reluctance to give Deb Barma a written commitment on a "Constitutional Solution" and creation of "Greater Tipraland".
BJP also didn't want to concede space to TIPRA in the tribal seats and preferred expanding its own base, while retaining IPFT as a junior partner with an even more reduced number of seats.
Why TIPRA is a Threat to the BJP
TIPRA is expected to do well in the 20 ST reserved seats in Assembly elections. But what makes it different from parties like the IPFT and INPT, that have dominated indigenous politics in Tripura, is that it has also put up candidates in non-Tribal seats. This makes it a claimant for non-tribal votes and, more significantly, tribal voters in non-tribal areas.
But this doesn't make TIPRA a threat only to the BJP. It is also a threat to the Left-Congress alliance, which is the main claimant for anti-BJP votes in non-tribal seats.
Had Left and Congress arrived at some kind of an alliance with TIPRA, it may have helped them win over the votes of tribals residing in non-tribal areas in addition to their own votes.
What makes TIPRA a threat to the BJP is what it represents in the Northeast region as a whole and not just Tripura. There are two aspects to this:
One: It represents a re-assertion of the politics of indigeniety in the Northeast. So far the BJP has smoothly manage to appropriate this brand of politics, through alliances and pitting one party against another. Read more about the BJP's five-step formula that helped it expand in the Northeast in this article
Two: TIPRA is demanding a Constitutional solution and a potential redrawing of boundaries in the Northeast. This could open a Pandora's Box for the BJP. Presently, the only political entities it is engaging with on a demand that involves redrawing of boundaries are the Naga insurgent groups.
This has been Pradyot Manikya Deb Barma's stand as well, that if the BJP can speak to groups tha demand Nagalim - or Greater Nagaland - why not Greater Tipraland?
The BJP's worst fear is if somehow Tripra gives a hung assembly and this provides space for TIPRA to form a post-poll alliance with the Left-Congress alliance. This would not only mean a loss of power in a key Northeastern state but it would also provide the Congress a model to counter the BJP in the Northeast.
Another possibility is that the BJP may be forced to do business with TIPRA after the elections.
Being in power in the Centre and across much of the Northeast gives BJP an advantage in Tripura, still TIPRA is unlikely to be a pushover.