New Delhi: Over the weekend, Pradyot Manikya Debbarma set tongues wagging in both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress-Left camps in poll-bound Tripura with his cryptic Facebook post, saying, “Thansa (Kokborok word for unity) will happen”. Kokborak is the language spoken in Tripura’s tribal areas.
Debbarma’s party, the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA Motha), said Monday that it is ready to contest on its own and will release its list of candidates soon. But both sides (BJP and opposition) are still said to be exploring options for a last-minute breakthrough and are pulling out all stops to woo the man who calls himself bubagra (Kokborok word for king).
Meanwhile, the question doing the rounds in Tripura’s political circles is which camp he will throw his weight behind, if at all he goes for an alliance.
If Debbarma has made up his mind, he is not revealing it yet. As the time for stitching up an alliance recedes fast — Tripura votes on February 16 — Debbarma, who is addressed widely as Maharaj (including during media interactions), is seen as holding the key to whoever comes to power in the tiny northeastern state of 28 lakh voters and 60 assembly seats.
Of those, 20 are dominated by tribals — whose interests Debbarma claims to espouse and among whom his party is said to hold sway. Barely months after it came into existence as a party, TIPRA Motha won the 2021 Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) polls.
Scion of the erstwhile Manikya dynasty of Tripura, Debbarma comes from a political family. Both his parents were members of the Congress. His father Kirit Bikram Kishore Debbarma was the last king of Tripura, while his mother Bibhu Kumari Devi was elected to the 10th Lok Sabha from Tripura East constituency on a Congress ticket.
Debbarma’s own political life began with the Congress, before he quit the party in a huff in 2019 reportedly over differences with the party’s then general secretary and northeast in-charge Luizinho Faleiro, among other reasons. Two years later, TIPRA Motha was born.
The Shillong Connection
For a man who is widely believed to hold the key to the 10 lakh-odd tribal votes in the state, Debbarma’s political rise has been meteoric and his own association with his home state, a tad belated.
He mostly grew up outside the state. In fact, in a state where one of the sticky political issues is whether the script of Kokborok should continue to be Bengali or be changed to Devanagari, nobody seems to mind the fact that most of Debbarma’s speeches and interactions are in Hindi, not in Bengali or Kokborok, which are the two most spoken languages in the state. There is an occasional smattering of Kokborok and much more, of English. Debbarma has in fact demanded that the Roman script be used for Kokborok.
For the upcoming elections, Debbarma is playing hardball, insisting on a written commitment on Greater Tipraland from his would-be allies. The ‘Greater Tipraland’ idea also includes Tripuris living in Assam, Mizoram, and Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.
As speculation about his “alliances” reached fever pitch, he posted on Twitter Sunday, “Good morning everyone ! Just wanted to tell some people in the media that I was always told as a child that A king never sells his kingdom and money and power come and go but good name lasts forever . Have a good day everyone.”
Good morning everyone ! Just wanted to tell some people in the media that I was always told as a child that A king never sells his kingdom and money and power come and go but good name lasts forever . Have a good day everyone 🙏
— Pradyot_Tripura (@PradyotManikya) January 22, 2023
That his own business interests lie outside of that territory does not unduly perturb “his people” either. Pradyot owns The Heritage Club – Tripura Castle, a 35-room luxury heritage hotel in Shillong, housed in the erstwhile summer residence of the Manikya dynasty.
He also often refers to his own journalistic past. In 2006, he had founded the magazine TNT (The NorthEast Today), which too was based out of Shillong.
A friend from his TNT days recalled the “journalist, entrepreneur hotelier” as a man who was willing to go the extra mile for his ventures.
“Tripura Castle was probably the first heritage hotel in the NE (Northeast) and he thought about it before others. He would carry stacks of the magazine to the ISBT, to the hawkers. He would fill the back of his ISUZU with posters and hoardings of the magazine and paste it in Shillong and Agartala, on the backs of auto-rickshaws. Even in politics, he is not somebody who would engage in use-and-throw politics because he is a man very conscious of his past, his family name,” the friend told ThePrint.
‘Great host, slippery customer’
People who know Debbarma describe him as a man of many interests, and a man of convictions.
His Twitter bio reads: “Chairman of T.I.P.R.A, Head-Erstwhile Royal house of Tripura. Sportsman, Musician, Wannabe Mimicry n Magician artist, Animal lover. Elected MDCTakarjala/Jampuijala”.
But he is also somebody who can keep people guessing.
As a senior Congress leader who has been in several alliance talks with him in the last year or so said, “He’s a great host. You can have very interesting conversations with him on a range of topics but he is slippery. When you come out you realise you have no political capital to show from that evening.”
He makes no bones of residual resentment against the Congress party for “not understanding his worth”. “The men who forced me to quit from the party, including Luizinho Faleiro who was general secretary in charge of Tripura have gone on to other political parties,” he had told ThePrint.
The former chief minister of Goa, Faleiro is now in the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
In his speeches, Debbarma invokes the names of his ancestors and says 13 lakh Tiprasa (tribals of Tripura) are waiting for Bubagra to give them something, that is why as a scion of the royal family, he cannot betray “his people”.
A former associate speaking to ThePrint on conditions of anonymity said, “In some respects, you can say he’s a little impulsive. But he is passionate about things he does. He has many interests, he plays the guitar very well, and was a good footballer. He was at one point the greatest organiser of music concerts in the Northeast. He would go out of his way to help people. If a youngster approaches him for examination fees he would not only give the money but even handhold him. But he can be very very stubborn.”
Friends describe Debbarma as a foodie who would any day take up food challenges. “He can take a challenge and eat 7-10 pizzas at one go,” the friend added.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)