Why Debbarma’s renewed push for Greater Tipraland is a signal to the BJP

At a rally in Agartala on March 12, Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma, chief of the Tripura Indigenous Peoples Regional Alliance (TIPRA) Motha, a regional party he recently floated with representatives from almost all tribal parties in the state, said the Motha will fight 35 seats on its own in the upcoming 2023 Assembly election if no other party agrees to its demand of Greater Tipraland.

As many as 20 seats in the 60-seat Tripura Assembly are reserved for tribals and tribal voters are a determining factor in at least 10 other seats.

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The ‘Greater Tipraland’ demand seeks to include every tribal person in the proposed state, including those living outside the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) — the TIPRA Motha rules the Council — besides providing support to ‘Tiprasa’ or Tripuris spread across other states of the country like Assam, Mizoram etc as well as those living in Bandarban, Chittagong, Khagrachari and the bordering areas of neighbouring Bangladesh through a development council.

The call by Debbarma, barely 14 months after he floated the TIPRA Motha, is seen as an attempt to position himself and his party as the dominant tribal player in the state, and possibly score over the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura’s (IPFT), an ally of the BJP government in the state.

Debbarma’s ‘Greater Tipraland’ idea goes beyond IPFT’s demand of Tipraland, which seeks a separate state for the tribals of Tripura.

Throughout his speech on Saturday, Debbarma repeated that his party is ready to sit down for talks with the Central government about the demand.

The messaging from his speech — and its timing — is a subject of intense speculation with political sources saying Debbarma, a former Congress leader and a member of the state’s erstwhile royal family — realises this is an opportune moment for him to carve out a space for himself considering anger has been building up against the IPFT for failing to deliver on its Tipraland promise.

Since 2018, when IPFT joined the BJP-led government in the state, most of its support base, disenchanted by its failure to deliver on ‘Tipraland’, has shifted to the BJP or TIPRA Motha.

With about 11 months left to go for the 2023 Assembly elections, Debbarma’s demand is seen as an attempt to build a political and electoral plank for himself and to retain his hold over his supporters.

Debbarma’s public assertions and his success in organising the rally — perhaps one of the largest such gatherings in the state by a regional party — are seen as larger signals to the BJP that’s flush from its recent success in the Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur.

His call for ‘thansa’ or unity among tribals, while warning against possible attempts to break the party’s support base, is seen as a desperate attempt to hold his ground against the might of national parties, at least until the Tripura goes to polls around 11 months from now.

Throughout his speech, Debbarma repeated that his party was ready to sit down and talk with the Central government about the Greater Tipraland demand.

Sources also say Debbarma’s attempt is to widen his support base beyond tribals since he knows well the limits of his politics whose main narrative is that of alleged tribal deprivation in 70 years of Independence.

They also point to the exigencies of running the cash-strapped ADC. Since the TIPRA Motha came to power in the Tripura tribal council last year, Debbarma has repeatedly asserted that the state government hasn’t been providing enough funds to the district council.

In May last year, he said the ADC hardly had any funds for development and announced that he would forgo his entire year’s salary as a member of the tribal council. He also returned the official vehicle provided to him.

That Debbarma is hoping for a plank bigger than that of the IPFT was evident in how he balanced the Greater Tipraland demand with an outreach to non-tribals in the state, saying he and his party were not against any community but were only asking for their own Constitutional rights.

His peaceful rally at Agartala stood in contrast to a similar rally for tribal statehood organised by the IPFT on August 23, 2016, which culminated in clashes among communities.

Debbarma entered politics in 2008 with the Youth Congress, before becoming state Congress president in 2018. Under him, the party got a vote share of 27 per cent in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, rising from the ashes of the 2018 Assembly elections, when its vote share had plunged to 1.7 per cent.

However, he quit the Congress following disagreement with the party’s stand on the NRC and CAA, among other issues. On October 22, 2018, Debbarma had filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking the revision of NRC in Tripura, a stand that is said to have cost him his PCC presidentship.

Since then, he has been working to bring all tribal parties under one umbrella. After a series of failures, in 2021, he finally brought IPFT, IPFT Tipraha, NCT, INPT, TSP, TPF and other regional tribal parties together, though the TPF and IPFT left him soon afterwards. All the tribal parties later merged to form the Motha, making it one of the largest tribal parties ever built in Tripura.

Whether Debbarma will ally with the BJP remains to be seen but the BJP isn’t likely to be comfortable with his Greater Tipraland demand. With a declared agenda against dividing the tiny 10,000 sq km state, the BJP had earlier turned down ally IPFT’s Tipraland demand.

Besides, its recent electoral wins in UP and elsewhere has emboldened the BJP to even think of a singular fight in the state.

After the poll victories in the four states, Tripura BJP leader and Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Pratima Bhoumik said the party should be able to win 50-plus seats on its own in the 2023 elections, and ruled out any alliance talks as of now.

Yet, both Debbarma and the BJP know that it’s easier said than done — that the state’s hilly terrains might be slippery for a national party that has little hold on local issues. Which is why Bhoumik kept a window open, saying alliance talks would be considered closer to the elections.

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