Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Agartala, December 18, 2022
FIVE YEARS AGO, in a room at Agartala’s Ujjayanta Palace, built by the erstwhile king of Tripura Radha Kishore Manikya, his great-great-grandson Pradyot DebBarma was trying to keep the Congress flock together. Sitting in the midst of about 20 party members, DebBarma, then the working president of the state Congress, was making last-minute efforts to galvanise his party. After the meeting, as they dispersed, he moved to the side and shaking his head said, “It’s a joke.” He knew it was a losing battle. He also knew that the people of the state “wanted more than Rabindra Sangeet.”
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won that election, had reached out to Pradyot even before the 2018 Assembly polls to join the party so it could boast a credible tribal face. This time, having quit Congress and formed the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA), or Tipra Motha, Pradyot is on a mission—a movement for a separate Tipraland for the state’s indigenous people. “We are a movement-oriented party and we cannot compromise on that,” says Pradyot. Wooed by political parties ahead of the February 16 Assembly election, he has made it clear that he will not back any party unless it signs a written agreement for a constitutional solution for the demand for Greater Tipraland.
Last time, Congress’ political decimation in the state gave BJP a cakewalk in making electoral inroads into the state for the first time. In a direct face-off with the Left, BJP cashed in on the anti-incumbency against the four-term Manik Sarkar government, the Narendra Modi factor, and an alliance with a faction of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT). This time, the emergence of Tipra Motha is likely to turn the Tripura election into a mainly triangular contest—BJP, the Left-Congress combine, and Tipra Motha. Long-time rivals the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, and Congress have joined hands to take on the ruling BJP.
Pradyot, who has made indigenous aspirations the bedrock of his politics, is hoping his outfit will make a mark in the state’s political landscape, giving a tough fight to BJP. He is relying on ‘anti-incumbency’ against the state government, the change in chief minister last year replacing Biplab Deb with Manik Saha, and BJP’s ally IPFT toning down the demand for a separate state. “The votes of Congress and Left are not transferable. BJP is Congress. Tripura has suffered under Left rule,” says Pradyot. Tipra Motha, which has captured IPFT’s space as the voice of tribals demanding a separate state, won a majority in the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) polls in 2021. In Tripura, where two-thirds of the population is Bengali and a third tribal, nearly 65 per cent of the land belongs to TTAADC, set up in 1985 for ensuring the rights and the development of Tripura’s tribal communities.
In the aftermath of Partition in 1947, the displacement of Bengalis from East Pakistan led to a demographic shift in the state, bringing down the proportion of the tribal population. If Tripura, the third-smallest state in the country, were bifurcated, the land belonging to TTAADC would become part of Greater Tipraland. Tipra Motha and IPFT brought their agitation for a separate state to the national capital late last year and got the backing of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Congress and the Shiv Sena.
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, BJP’s main strategist for the Northeast, had reached out to Pradyot and discussed the Greater Tipraland draft with him last month. “Since it was not signed by the Central government, I couldn’t agree to an alliance,” says Pradyot, who has fielded mostly candidates in the 30-40 age group, including women, several of whom were with Congress. In the last election, Sarma, who was himself in Congress earlier, had roped in candidates from his former party to contest for BJP which ended up capturing 36 seats. CPM won 16, IPFT eight of the 10 it ran for, and Congress drew a blank. Now in an alliance, CPM is contesting in 47 seats and Congress in 13.
Faced with a new political adversary, BJP leaders are targeting Tipra Motha, accusing it of creating a division between tribals and non-tribals in the state, which has 19 notified Scheduled Tribes (STs), with Tripuris forming the largest chunk. Chief Minister Manik Saha has ruled out the formation of Greater Tipraland, saying its proposed boundary passes through not only Assam and Mizoram but also Bangladesh. Union Home Minister Amit Shah, while campaigning in Santirbazar, a south Tripura town where Prime Minister Narendra Modi had held one of his rallies in 2018, alleged that Tipra Motha has a secret understanding with Congress and CPM. The other opponents of the party suspect that Tipra Motha, which has put up candidates in 42 of the 60 seats, will end up helping BJP. The tribal vote is crucial for a party to win the state, with 20 seats reserved for STs and an influential presence of the community in another 10 seats, but there is a chunk of the Bengali vote in every seat. Confident of retaining its winning streak in the region, BJP, which has again tied up with IPFT to reach out to the tribals, is banking on the Bengali Hindu vote and its Northeast development plank, particularly infrastructure, internet and tourism, under the Modi regime.
Apart from Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, BJP had won power on its own in Tripura as it started expanding its footprint in the Northeast after the Modi government took over in New Delhi. In the other northeastern states, it has banked on alliances with non-Congress parties. Modi is expected to hold rallies in all three states—Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland—going for elections in February. In Shillong in December, wearing a Garo hat and a Khasi outfit, he dedicated development projects worth ` 2,450 crore to Meghalaya while celebrating the golden jubilee of the North Eastern Council (NEC). Later, on the same day, in Agartala, he inaugurated projects worth ` 4,350 crore for Tripura.
Meanwhile, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) is trying to make inroads in Tripura and Meghalaya, too. In Tripura, which has the largest population of Bengalis after West Bengal, it has promised a ‘Bengal model’ of development. The party is contesting 28 seats, a move that former Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar has said is aimed at cutting into the votes of anti-BJP parties. TMC denies the charge. “I think the Trinamool Congress is coming up as a strong alternative to BJP in Tripura and Meghalaya. The Left and Congress entered into an alliance which is already unsteady,” says party MP Sushmita Dev. Like Pradyot, who is from Assam’s Barak valley, she too was one of the ‘Team Rahul’ Young Turks who quit Congress.
IN MEGHALAYA, WHERE elections will be held on February 27 along with Nagaland, TMC is hoping to capture votes in the Garo Hills, where former Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, who switched sides from Congress along with 11 other MLAs last year, is a formidable leader. In the last election, Conrad Sangma’s National People’s Party (NPP) had won 21 of the 60 seats and formed the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA), with the support of the United Democratic Party (UDP), the People’s Democratic Front (PDF), the Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP) and BJP, after polls. Congress, with 17 seats, became the second-largest party, but with 12 MLAs defecting to TMC, Banerjee’s party took the main opposition’s space. Seen as a Bengali party, however, it is unlikely to have sway over the Khasi and Jaintia Hills of the state.
The governing NPP, going it alone, has promised five lakh jobs to the youth and continuation of the state’s schemes for farmers. Conrad Sangma has taken on former ally BJP, accusing it of a ‘misinformation’ campaign that Focus and Focus+, providing financial aid for agricultural value chain development, was a Central scheme. Other issues, like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, and the Uniform Civil Code have also soured relations between the two parties. But BJP is hopeful of being part of a coalition government in the state again after elections. BJP, which had won two seats last time in Meghalaya, a state with a tribal majority population and 78 per cent Christians, is contesting all 60 seats, banking on multi-cornered contests in several helping the party. Getting NPP’s Martin M Danggo, a former speaker in the Assembly and five-time MLA, to switch sides has also raised the party’s hopes.
In Nagaland, which has had an unprecedented ‘all-party government’ since September 2021, to find a solution to the decades-old conflict over the political rights of the Nagas, Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio’s Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) and ally BJP are fighting together again with a 40-20 seat-sharing agreement. The Naga People’s Front (NPF), which had won 25 of the 60 seats, though 21 of its MLAs later joined NDPP, is again contesting against the NDPP-BJP alliance. However, even if Rio returns for a fourth term, NPF could again join the government to unanimously strive for an agreement on the Naga issue, a major election plank in the state. The Modi government is still facing questions over the stalemate on the Framework Agreement of 2015 between the Centre and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), with the two sides disagreeing on its interpretation. The Centre is unlikely to agree to the demand for a separate flag and constitution for the Nagas.
About three weeks ahead of polls, the Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organization (ENPO), comprising tribal bodies, lifted the boycott call against the election, saying the decision was taken after an assurance from Amit Shah. ENPO, which demands separate statehood—Frontier Nagaland, comprising six districts covering almost 20 seats—said the Ministry of Home Affairs has constituted a three-member panel and assured it that a “mutually agreed” solution would be reached after due process.
For BJP, its foray into the states of the Northeast, beginning with Assam in 2016, is testimony to its outreach beyond the Hindi belt. The three states together send only five MPs to Lok Sabha but the battle for 60 Assembly seats in each of these—each state with its own political paradigm, regional aspirations and diverse culture—is crucial for BJP which would leave no stone unturned to further strengthen its hold on the region.