The hills, currently dominated by the TIPRA Motha of the royal scion Pradyot Debbarman, are witnessing the start of a renewed political battle ahead of the Lok Sabha polls with the ruling BJP and the Opposition CPI(M) starting their work. This preparation work is also done keeping in mind the pending Village Committee polls — still not known when these polls pending since March 2021 would be held.
TIPRA Motha: Signs of a Receding Wave
The TIPRA Motha, which attracted attention through its stunning performance by winning 13 seats in its debut election early this year in the state assembly polls and became the main Opposition party, is now grappling to maintain the momentum in the hills. There are reasons for that.
The party first shot into the state’s politics after it came to power in the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) in 2021 banking on the promise of Greater Tipraland, a demand which isn’t properly described by the party.
Two years later it fought the state polls again on Greater Tipraland but it adopted a soft approach to the issue by bringing forward the issue of a constitutional solution for the tribals of the state. After the elections, for months, it talked about a Centre-appointed “interlocutor” to look into its demand for a constitutional solution.
Pradyot himself said several times about a Centre-appointed “interlocutor” visiting the state but that didn’t happen. Importantly, both the Centre and the state government, as of now, have avoided mentioning the word “interlocutor”. That was visible when the state government introduced the supposed “interlocutor” AK Mishra as advisor of the government of India on northeast affairs.
The shift of the party’s stand from Greater Tipraland to a constitutional solution to an interlocutor has only created confusion among the party’s rank and file. Amid this, the party, despite being the main Opposition party in the state assembly, took a soft approach towards the BJP adding to more confusion.
After the elections, even the party’s activities have lessened, barring some occasional protests here and there. Although now aware of the ground reality and delay of the visit of the “interlocutor”, Pradyot has again sharpened its attack against BJP and called his supporters to re-ignite the Greater Tipraland demand. In addition to this, there have been water, food and job crises in the remote hill areas — and all these things are slowly and gradually contributing to the dissent against Motha.
The BJP’s Renewed Push to Wrest the Hills
After coming to power in the state for the second time, although with a reduced vote share and tally, the saffron party has been in an advantageous position in the hills. On June 9, the party’s tribal wing Janajati Morcha along with its ally Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura organised a rally called Janajati Yuba Sandesh in Khumulwng, the headquarters of the TTAADC. The main target of the BJP-IPFT rally was TIPRA Motha.
Former deputy chief minister Jishnu Debbarman, who also belongs to the same royal family of the state to which Pradyot belongs, criticised Motha for engaging in divisive politics and pledged to seek votes as a “sevak”, not as a king — this was an indirect attack against Pradyot. Apart from him, other notable leaders present in the rally include state BJP president Rajib Bhattacharjee, BJP’s MP Rebati Tripura from East Tripura Lok Sabha constituency, state tribal welfare minister Bikas Debbarma, who is also the state president of the Janajati Morcha, and the IPFT’s lone MLA and state minister Shukla Charan Noatia.
That the BJP has been serious about gaining strength in the hills was clear with the visit of national party president JP Nadda this month. On June 17, he addressed a rally celebrating 9 years of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre in Santirbazar of South Tripura. The choice of the venue for the rally was significant. Santirbazar is a reserved seat for the Scheduled Tribes.
Although this seat falls under the West Tripura Lok Sabha constituency, the seats neighbouring Santirbazar have a significant tribal population and most of them fall under the East Tripura Lok Sabha constituency, which is reserved for the Scheduled Tribes. The saffron party, although quite confident about retaining the West Tripura seat, isn’t sure about the East Tripura seat. That’s the reason, the party has already started its preparations in the hills as its rival Motha grapples to maintain momentum.
Significantly, Nadda avoided criticising Motha while heavily criticising CPM and Congress in his rally. But as soon as his visit ended, some top Motha leaders, including TIPRA Women Federation vice-president Radha Mala Debbarma and TIPRA Youth Federation vice-president Ranjit Moslom joined the BJP in the presence of top leaders like Rajib Bhattacharjee, Rebati Tripura and Bikash Debbarma. This shows that BJP is following a blow-hot and cold approach towards Motha. While the state leaders will criticise Motha, including Pradyot, central leadership will try to avoid that.
The Left Too is Desperate to Regain Its Lost Base in the Hills
After the setback in the assembly poll, the CPM realised that its soft strategy towards TIPRA Motha in the hills to come to power backfired badly. The Left party ruled the northeastern state for 35 years (from 1978-1988 and 1993-2018) based on the solid support base it had among the tribals and if it has to come to power again, the party needs to get back its lost tribal base.
Short-term methods aren’t going to help the party and after realising this, the party has started its programmes in the hills and also changed its strategy. During its party programmes, the CPM now not only is targeting the BJP but also the TIPRA Motha. The party has even formed a committee to regain its base and this committee includes state party secretary Jitendra Chaudhury, who is a tribal himself. But it is headed by party stalwart and former chief minister Manik Sarkar, who this month along with a party delegation from June 7 and 8 visited the remote hill villages, worse hit by water, food and job crises, falling under the subdivisions of Ambassa and Longtharai Valley of the Dhalai district.
The party has been trying hard to revive its tribal wing, Gana Mukti Parishad — and also its affiliates, Tribal Youth Federation and Tribal Students Union. After the assembly elections, the party made former state minister Naresh Jamatia the president of GMP replacing Jitendra, who along with holding the post of the state secretary is also the legislative party leader of the CPM in the state assembly. Currently, GMP is holding conventions in different parts of the hills and these are attended by Jitendra, Jamatia and Radhacharan Debbarma, senior tribal leader of the party and also the former Chief Executive Member of ADC.
It is clear that with signs of Motha struggling to retain its momentum in the hills, its rival — BJP and CPM — are sensing an opportunity to challenge the tribal party’s dominance. But that’s not going to be easy for the two parties. The presence of the tribals was less in Nadda’s Santirbazar rally, according to reports, showing that bringing them on the saffron boat is going to be a challenge for the BJP.
For the CPM, the challenge is more difficult. Rebuilding an organisation, which is in shambles, is definitely a tough task. In addition to this, the party currently lacks new faces in the hills. It faces the challenge to fill its various organisations with young tribal faces. Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that although TIPRA Motha is still dominant in the tribal belt, there are indications that political ground is slowly changing in the hills of the northeastern state.