Invite To Gogoi, Possible Talks With Pradyot: TMC's Look-East Mission For 2024
The TMC has reached out to activist Akhil Gogoi in Assam and Tripura's Pradyot Manikya for a merger.
Since its emphatic win in the West Bengal elections earlier this year, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), led by Bengal Chief Minister (CM) Mamata Banerjee, has made it clear that its politics will not be limited to the state alone.
After restricting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to just 77 seats in the 294-member West Bengal Assembly, Mamata Banerjee and her party are being seen as the main opposition force around which other regional parties may rally in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. This thought was furthered amplified during Banerjee's visit to Delhi last month, in which she met various opposition leaders, BJP leader Nitin Gadkari and also Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
At the same time, the TMC, led by man no. 2 and party MP, Abhishek Banerjee, created headlines across the eastern region - first in Tripura and then in Assam. Speculations are rife about the party looking to make a significant electoral foray into these states. However, a concrete plan is yet to emerge.
The fact that the TMC was seriously considering Tripura as its next electoral battle was revealed after a team of 23 members from the Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) descended in Agartala last month.
I-PAC, a political consultancy firm started by poll strategist Prashant Kishor, who ran the TMC's campaign for the 2021 Bengal election, has thereafter been retained by the party till 2026.
Over the next few days, the I-PAC team was placed under "house arrest" in their Agartala hotel and thereafter slapped with FIRs for allegedly violating COVID protocols during their field surveys. A team of TMC ministers from Bengal then went to Tripura to "free" the I-PAC team, which was soon released, after they were granted pre-bail by a local court.
A couple of days later, Abhishek Banerjee, appointed National General Secretary of the party after the Bengal elections, visited Agartala too.
Thereafter, various Trinamool leaders have visited Tripura with the slogan #EbarTripura, clearly positioning themselves as an opposition to the BJP.
Three such youth leaders were allegedly beaten and arrested by the police last week in Tripura. Abhishek Banerjee again went to Agartala to secure their release, which happened after a hours-long showdown with the cops at the police station.
But, semantics apart, what is the expansion strategy that the TMC is looking at in the state which goes to polls in 2023?
Possible Alliance With Pradyot?
First, the party is trying to liaison with possible allies. The chief amongst them is former Congress leader and royal scion, Pradyot Kishore Debbarma, also known as Pradyot Manikya.
Debbarma's party, the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA) swept the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) polls in April, on the back of a demand for a separate state for the tribal 'Tiprasa' people.
“I want a written assurance of Constitutional guarantees for my tribal community people. Any political party that agrees and commits to give me the written agreement will get my support,” Debbarma said in an interview to The Print.
“I have met Mamata Banerjee and Abhishek in Kolkata and discussed these at length. I respect Mamata didi a lot as she broke away from the Congress, like I did, and single-handedly ousted the Left. She was in Parliament with my mother and then my father. I believe that she has a strong case this time in Tripura. Didi has understood the issue I presented. I want her to raise this in Parliament too", he added.
He also said that the "BJP would be finished" if the TIPRA and TMC come together as they may possibly win 58 out of the 60 seats in the Tripura assembly.
However, if it were to forge an alliance with Pradyot, the TMC may risk losing the demographic that makes Tripura a lucrative proposition for them - that of the state's majority Bengali-speaking population.
While Tripura was a tribal-majority state till independence, it saw a massive Bengali influx from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) after the partition of Bengal in 1947. Soon, thereafter, the Bengali speakers became a majority in the state.
Presently, two-thirds of the state speaks Bengali, while a quarter speak the languages of indigenous Tripuri tribal groups.
This social dynamic means that the tribal and Bengali population in Tripura have historically been seen as antagonistic to each other. Therefore, allying with Pradyot while still keeping the confidence of the Bengalis will be a challenge that the TMC will have to overcome.
The second factor that the TMC is banking on is the anti-incumbency against the BJP and also the internal factionalism in the state unit of the party. A section of the Tripura BJP has previously demanded that the present BJP CM, Biplab Deb, be removed. In fact, in October last year, eight BJP MLAs led by the state's former health minister, Sudip Roy Barman, went to Delhi to seek audience with the party high-command in order to demand the same.
"There is a political vacuum in Tripura now. There's anti-incumbency against the BJP, people don't want to trust the CPI(M) and there's no other strong political force. In such a scenario, if the TMC works strategically, it can emerge as the main contender to the BJP in the state", said a party leader.
Mamata's Invite To Akhil Gogoi
Another development that took place last week was Mamata Banerjee's invitation to Assam activist Akhil Gogoi who is head of the Raijor Dol to merge with the TMC and take on the BJP in Assam.
Gogoi was a vocal dissident against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) introduced by the BJP government in the Centre in 2019, and has also been arrested for his involvement in anti-CAA protests in Assam.
He walked free a month ago when a special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court acquitted him of all charges.
On Sunday, 8 August, Gogoi, a MLA from Assam's Sibsagar, met Mamata Banerjee. Earlier in the week, he had also had a meeting with Abhishek Banerjee. Sources say that Gogoi was asked if he'd like to lead the TMC in Assam.
However, at a press conference later in the day, Gogoi said that while Raijor Dol is still considering TMC's proposal for a merger, it is definitely looking to form a united front with the party for the 2024 elections.
"Raijor Dol has been in talks with the Trinamool Congress for a long time. I had three rounds of formal discussion with Trinamool leaders, during which their chief election strategist Prashant Kishor was also present", said Gogoi.
"We want to work in coordination with the TMC to give rise to a common platform of regional parties in India to defeat the BJP. I don't have the ambition of becoming TMC's president", he added.
The mention of Prashant Kishor, amidst speculation of him soon taking on a national role in the Congress party has given rise to another question - what happens in a TMC vs Congress scenario, as is likely to happen in Assam?
Sources close to Kishor and his firm I-PAC say that this is a part of the "national strategy" that the poll strategist is building for the Congress.
"The idea is to ask Congress to focus its energy and resources on a maximum of 200 Lok Sabha seats where it is in direct competition with the BJP. The other seats should be left to regional allies. In places like Assam or Tripura or Bengal, where the Congress is an electoral force separate from the opposition regional party, the Congress has been advised to let the regional players take on the BJP instead", said a source.
With the TMC's political negotiations in Assam beginning with Gogoi, this seems like a plausible strategy.
The party is also looking to leverage the fact that Mamata Banerjee was one of the first regional leaders to speak against the CAA and also take to the streets in protest. The issue proved to be a big electoral issue in the recently concluded Assam elections.
However, it is also interesting to note that Mamata's stance on the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) is in stark contrast to that of both Gogoi and Pradyot.
Along with the CAA, Mamata has criticised the bid for a nation-wide NRC, even criticising the Assam NRC. Pradyot, on the other hand, had filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court (SC) in 2018, asking for a NRC in Tripura. Gogoi has also endorsed a NRC in Assam, saying that it was the "only way to democratically solve" the migration issue in the state.
How the Trinamool handles this will be key to its prospects, whatever they may be, in both these states.
Meanwhile, a team from I-PAC is expected to land in Assam this week. So as far as eastern India is concerned, the #Khela is on for the TMC.
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