New Delhi: Riding high after its victory in the West Bengal assembly elections early this year and Mamata Banerjee’s win in the Bhabanipur bypoll, the Trinamool Congress now has its eyes firmly set on Tripura.
And all this is not without a reason – the BJP-ruled Tripura, which has 70 per cent Bengali-speaking population, has a struggling Congress whose committed vote bank has nowhere to go, and the Left, which is battling what it calls the BJP’s “reign of terror”.
But while Tripura may be the most important state for the Trinamool Congress in its ambitious plan to reach Delhi via the Northeast, the party that is in search of local leadership and ideally, a local alliance, has a tough call to make before the 2023 assembly elections: To ally or not to ally with Pradyot Kishore Debbarma’s Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA) Motha.
A scion of the Tripura royal family and a former Congress leader, Debbarma has become the flagbearer of tribal rights in the state. In April this year, the TIPRA Motha won the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) elections, winning 18 of the 30 seats.
Debbarma has even been demanding a separate state for the tribals — Greater Tipraland. Tribals in the northern parts and the hilly areas of Tripura comprise about 29 per cent of the population, and are the second largest community after Bengalis.
And herein lies the Trinamool Congress’s dilemma — an alliance with TIPRA Motha with its overt tribal focus could end up alienating Bengalis, the community whose support for Mamata Banerjee is Trinamool’s primary hope in the state.
In 2018, the BJP won the state in alliance with another tribal party — Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura. IPFT, though, is now on the wane, with several leaders joining the TIPRA Motha, which looks set to emerge as the predominant political party with a tribal base.
Trinamool in Tripura
The Trinamool Congress has been sending delegation after delegation of MPs, including party general secretary and Mamata’s nephew, MP Abhishek Banerjee, to Tripura. Matters reached a flashpoint when the state government allegedly “detained” a team from election strategist Prashant Kishor’s Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) at a hotel in July.
The party also alleged that Abhishek’s car was pelted with stones when he visited the state in August.
Abhishek’s fellow Lok Sabha MP Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, who has made multiple trips to the state, said: “I went and stayed there for a long time before the 2018 elections when I found there is a lot of support for us. But BJP used money and muscle power to take that space up. That is not something we can do. But since then we have built our organisation. Now there is a formidable presence of the party organisation, where the women’s wing, youth wing all are functioning. I am confident that we will win.”
Last Wednesday, the party announced the constitution of a steering committee with several ex-Congressmen, including former MLA Subol Bhowmik (who had briefly joined Trinamool Congress once before) in the panel.
A senior political observer who did not wish to be named said, “Trinamool Congress is in search of a leader in Tripura. Outsiders cannot do that job. They need an anchor. The reason why they feel they have a chance is because Tripura has an umbilical relation with Bengal. Though we share a border with Assam, anything that happens in Bengal catches on here in no time.”
The observer added: “The win in West Bengal has created some buzz here about the state but you cannot win a war with borrowed generals. Somebody like Sushmita Dev won’t do it in Tripura.” Dev, a former Congress MP, recently joined the Trinamool Congress and was elected unopposed to the Rajya Sabha.
The observer also said the Left is being “systematically targeted by the government, offices burnt”, and “BJP is doing in Tripura what Trinamool did in Bengal”.
The remark about “borrowed” generals has to do with the fact that almost the entire Trinamool organisation in Tripura includes leaders who were earlier with the Congress, Left or BJP.
Party sources also claim that disgruntled former minister in the Biplab Deb-led BJP government Sudeep Roy Barman, “has been sending feelers”. Barman was in the Trinamool Congress at one time and was considered close to Mukul Roy, the former Union minister, who recently returned to the party after a few years in the BJP.
Importance of Pradyot
Though Tripura’s tribal population is less than 30 per cent, about 20 Assembly seats — that is a third of the state assembly — are reserved for STs, and in another 14 or so, the tribal vote bank is big enough to influence the outcome.
That is what makes Pradyot Debbarma important. Political commentators say that in a state where Muslims don’t really have a presence, Pradyot really has emerged as the only one with a committed vote bank and he knows it. That is why he is keeping his cards close to his chest and exploring all options.
Political commentators say that if he plays his hand well, Debbarma has a very good chance of being a part of any government that is formed in the state.
Trinamool Congress knows that too. “Pradyot has a very good hold in the north and in the hilly areas. Also he has a strong base among the youth… Alliance decisions would be taken at the level of Didi and Abhishek. Our job is to give feedback,” said a party leader in Tripura.
But the leader admitted the party needs to take into consideration the repercussions of an overt commitment to the tribal cause. “The question is how it would go down with the Bengalis. You have to understand that there is a bit of rivalry between the two groups and one of the reasons that the Left went down is their stand on tribals. Bengalis felt that less than a third of the population was taking away all the resources. We will consider all sides and decide,” the leader explained.
A few party leaders, however, cite the example of the BJP-IPFT alliance to make their point that an alliance with TIPRA Motha would not necessarily affect the Bengali votebank.
Baptu Chakrabarty, convenor of Trinamool Yuva, who was earlier with Congress, said: “People of Tripura know that Maharaja’s (Pradyot’s) demand of Tipraland is not possible. An alliance would help us make inroads into tribal votes. It works to their benefit too. On its own, TIPRA Motha would probably win 12-15 seats — even in some of the reserved seats, there are large numbers of Bengalis. An alliance would get them those votes too.”
(Edited by Neha Mahajan)