On Friday, 14 October, Raima Valley (Scheduled Tribe) constituency MLA Dhananjay Tripura became the sixth MLA to leave the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) camp in the north-eastern state of Tripura.
An MLA from the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT)'s NC Debbarma camp, and an ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Tripura resigned from his membership of the Assembly and joined Pradyot Debbarman’s TIPRA Motha. He is the second MLA from IPFT (NC) to join Motha.
Days before the desertion of Dhananjay, the ruling BJP got a jolt when dissident MLA Burba Mohan Reang of Karbook constituency resigned from his membership on 23 September and joined TIPRA Motha.
He was the fourth saffron MLA to leave the party after Ashis Das of the Surma constituency, Sudip Roy Barman of the Agartala constituency, and Ashis Saha of the Town Bardowali constituency.
BJP’s Cadre Loss Is Motha’s Gain
It was quite well-known in political circles that Burba Mohan had been unhappy with the saffron party and he sided with Sudip when he rebelled against the party. He was buying time to avoid any by-election in his constituency, and as Sudip is now in the Congress, it was expected that he would very soon join the grand old party.
Burba Mohan leaving the saffron party isn’t a surprise but what caught the eyes is his decision to join Motha, instead of Congress. This comes after the Leader of Opposition in Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) Hangsha Kumar Tripura left the BJP along with over 6,000 supporters to join Pradyot’s party.
The saffron party can claim that the MLA for a long time has himself disassociated from the party and his leaving would have no effect on the party's prospects. However, it can’t be denied that this defection, coming after high-profile Hanghsa's exit, puts the party on the back foot in the hills.
The Karbook assembly seat, a reserved one for the Scheduled Tribes, was won by Burba Mohan on the saffron party’s ticket in the 2018 state Assembly elections by a slim margin of 2.53 percent, defeating CPI(M)’s Priyamani Debbarma. And now, with the MLA also going Motha’s side, the arithmetic of this seat becomes difficult for the party in the upcoming Assembly elections.
On the other hand, Dhananjay Tripura as the IPFT (NC) candidate from the NDA won the Raima Valley (ST) seat in the 2018 polls by fetching 47.25 percent votes. He defeated CPI(M)’s Lalit Mohan Tripura, who bagged 42.39 percent votes.
Motha Continues To Rule the Hills
In another important development, on 20 September, Speaker of the Tripura Assembly Ratan Chakraborty disqualified the membership of Simna (ST) constituency MLA Brishaketu Debbarma, who quit the IPFT (NC) last year.
It was quite a surprise that the speaker took more than a year to arrive at the decision when he disqualified Ashis Das for joining Trinamool Congress within 3 months. As the time left for the state elections is less than six months, it is less likely that the seat will see any by-election.
No doubt, the Opposition parties saw the role of electoral politics in this delayed decision of the speaker. More than that, Brishaketu’s late disqualification shows the growing worriedness within the saffron party about its prospects in the hills where the village council polls are likely to be held by November this year.
If the saffron party performs badly in these council polls, the morale of the party is likely to take a hit ahead of the state elections in 2023.
Why the Saffron Party Is in a Sorry State
Already the BJP’s ally in the hills, IPFT (NC), has been in decline. After the change of power in the state in 2018, both the allies tried to strengthen their bases in the hills and in between there were clashes between the supporters of the two allies.
Basically, IPFT (NC) has been a troublesome ally. So, the decline of IPFT (NC) in the hills should have been good news for the saffron camp. But the party is worried as the decline of IPFT (NC) is mostly helping the Motha, although a section of IPFT prefers to join the saffron party.
On 29 September, ex-Dasda Block Advisory Chairman (BAC) and IPFT (NC) leader Jiren Reang along with his supporters joined the saffron party in Kanchanpur sub-division of north Tripura in the presence of Chief Minister Manik Saha. In May this year IPFT (NC) Assistant General Secretary Mangal Debbarma along with over a thousand supporters joined the saffron party.
Despite all of this, none can deny the fact that the IPFT (NC)’s decline has largely contributed to the rise of TIPRA Motha in the hills – and this has put the saffron party in a fix. The party supporters have been unhappy for a long time with the leadership for the party’s muted response to the cause of Tipraland since it joined the saffron government.
Added to this, the tribal party is facing issues as its supremo NC Debbarma, also the state revenue minister, hasn’t been able to give more time to the party due to health problems.
The responsibility of the party mostly has been under the second-in-command Prem Kumar Reang, who was inducted in the Manik Saha-led Cabinet and currently holds the Fisheries and Co-operation Ministries.
However, Prem Kumar Reang doesn’t have the same kind of charisma like NC Debbarma over his supporters. And Motha is clearly exploiting this situation in its favour – and IPFT (NC) leaders and supporters also find it easy to connect with Motha’s Greater Tipraland demand.
Are the Hills Going To Witness the ‘Surma Model’?
In the by-elections of the four assembly seats held in June, the Congress didn’t put a candidate in the Surma (SC) assembly constituency and supported TIPRA Motha’s candidate Baburam Satnami, who came second to BJP’s winning candidate Swapna Das.
As Burba Mohan was seen with the Sudip camp, his joining of Motha once again strengthens these speculations that the grand old party is most likely to adopt the "Surma model" in the hills to defeat BJP.
The organisation of the grand old party has been weak in the hills. Importantly, in recent times, the state Congress leaders have been giving statements in favour of uniting non-BJP forces to defeat the saffron party in the upcoming polls of 2023.
More MLAs To Leave the NDA Camp?
Burba Mohan left BJP just a day after former chief minister Biplab Deb’s victory in the Rajya Sabha by-elections. He received 43 votes. The BJP then had 36 MLAs and its ally IPFT(NC) had 7 MLAs.
It means that both Burbamohan and Dhananjay Tripura voted in favour of the BJP’s candidate. But now, both are in the Motha camp. Already, there is another dissident BJP MLA, Dibachandra Hrangkhawl, the former state Congress president who was also seen with the Sudip camp.
Also in the list is the dissident leader of IPFT (NC), Mevar Kumar Jamatia, who was the state tribal welfare minister in the Biplab-led BJP Cabinet.
The Mevar-led faction of IPFT already joined Motha, including his wife Gita Debbarma. But in the Rajya Sabha bypolls, he voted for BJP’s Biplab Deb.
Days after that, he clearly indicated his political views by attending the Indian National Lok Dal’s Fatehabad rally, aimed to bring the non-BJP forces together on 30 September.
The political circles in the state are full with speculations that a section of NDA MLAs, particularly from the tribal communities, are expected to join the Opposition ahead of the assembly elections. The desertions of Burba Mohan and Dhananjay within a month indicate that these speculations can’t just be brushed away.
(Sagarneel Sinha is a political commentator and tweets @SagarneelSinha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)