Meet Tripura’s ‘kingmaker’: Pradyot Manikya Debbarma vows to ‘change’ the politics of Northeast

TIPRA Motha is contesting 42 of 60 Assembly seats and has turned down alliance offers from both the ruling BJP or the Opposition Left-Congress alliance

As chairman of the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (or TIPRA Motha), Tripura’s royal scion Pradyot Bikram Manikya Debbarma seems to be holding more cards up his sleeve in determining the political fate of his state than what he is willing to show now when the state elections are knocking at the door.

The state’s ruling dispensation, the BJP, looks desperate to hold on to its turf amid a perceived anti-incumbency wave hitting the party inside just a single term in power. The Opposition is hoping that the BJP’s damage control measures, like the mid-term removal of its sitting chief minister Biplab Deb and replacing him by then state unit president Manik Saha, may fail to cut ice with the electorate. The seat-sharing arrangement between the Left and Congress has only added to the challenge of Saha in steering his party through to a second term. And, of course, there is the Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamul Congress factor which reserves the potential to spring up a few surprises.

Tripura goes to polls on February 16. And Debbarma and the TIPRA Motha are critically poised, hoping to turn the tables once results are announced on March 2. No wonder the former royal is already being referred to as prospective “kingmaker”. In less than two years of its existence, the Motha registered a stunning win in 18 of the 28 seats in the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) polls held in April 2021 routing the Left, the Congress and the well-established Indigenous People’s Party of Tripura (IPFT). The BJP was restricted to only nine seats.

The Motha is currently contesting in 42 out of the 60 Assembly seats and has turned down alliance offers from both the ruling BJP or the  Opposition Left-Congress alliance. Once a close aide of Rahul Gandhi and the party’s state chief, Debbarma walked out of the Congress after a public showdown with its central leadership in September 2019 when he accused the party of turning a blind eye to Tripura’s real concerns and switched over to forming his party that currently holds sway over the state’s tribal belt.

Motha as a ‘movement’

Debbarma prefers to call the Motha a “movement” rather than a party. “We are trying to unite not just tribals but all communities to understand that there is a genuine problem in 70 per cent of Tripura and beyond as well. I was a politician when I was in the Congress, now I am a leader of a movement. I resigned from Congress since I felt suffocated there. Now, we will do something which will safeguard the next generation as well,” he said.

Debbarma rubbished Opposition claims that his demand for a separate state of “Greater Tipraland” is unrealistic because it entails annexing parts of Assam and, even, Bangladesh. “This is red herring led by the Opposition,” he says, adding that as an “educated person” he would never come up with something as silly.

“Our demand for greater Tipraland is very much within the boundaries of Tripura. It also includes the 36 villages which are kept outside the Autonomous District Council and may be some other parts of Tripura so that you can have a contiguous area of self governance and rule. Nobody wants an inch of Assam. Mizoram and Arunachal, I think, want an inch of Assam. Meghalaya wants a pie of Assam. Not me. This is not a demand similar to that of the Nagas who want parts of Manipur and Burma. I have educated people in my party and I would never say something that goes beyond the boundaries of our Constitution,” he asserted.

The tribal-Bengali relationship

The relationship between Tripura’s tribal communities, the original residents of the region, and the Bengalis, later settlers in the area from historical influxes who eventually came to dominate the demography and convert Tripura into a Bengali-majority state, has remained problematic. Debbarma maintains that the solution to the tribal-Bengali relationship issue lies in the proposed realm of Greater Tipraland.

“I think both the tribals and Bengalis have been given a short hand by the Government of India at various stages and I think both need to realize that they are not each other’s enemies. But there are forces from outside who are trying to divide us so that we don’t talk about issues which have actually hurt all of us. The people of Tripura have accommodated, and rightfully so, many Bengalis because of what happened in the Bangladesh war and the riots and persecutions in East Pakistan.

“Why is the Centre also not asking the other states of North East like Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Manipur, which have not taken in a single persecuted minority. Fact is that there has been a historical imbalance and we want to protect the rights of the Bengalis in the state of Tripura and in the realm of Greater Tipraland. But we also want to further empower the tribals. Bengalis are free to stay there as equal citizens with equal powers.”

Is this sab ka sath sab ka vikas?

Debbarma’s pitch is that he wants to change the way things have been run in the state. “ADC is 70 per cent of the state, it comprises 35 per cent of the state’s population. Yet we get just 2 per cent of the budget. Is this ‘sab ka sath sabka vikas?’,” Debbarma asked while denying Opposition claims that he was trying a wedge between tribals and Bengalis.

Asked why he rejected a pre-poll larger alliance against the BJP, the leader said: “My fight is to achieve something for the people and not score a point and look good in front of the national media. We will win the elections on our own strength. We are fighting in 42 seats and we will cross 31 on our own. It’s the CPM, BJP and Congress who are unsure. That’s why they are fighting in alliance with either the IPFT or in alliance with each other.”

Responding to home minister Amit Shah’s statement that the Motha has “cut a secret under-the-table deal with the Left”, Debbarma said: “Amit Shah should check his own backyard. BJP is fighting in 20 seats in Nagaland but yet it has already claimed that it will form the next government. There’s no way they will win more than 2-3 seats in Meghalaya but they are already saying they will form a government there. They do the same secret understanding thing in Tamil Nadu with AIADMK and in Maharashtra with the Shiv Sena. Amit Shah should realize that we are not in the habit of creating B-teams.”

When BJP wanted a deal

Debabarma countered Shah’s statement by asking why the were invited to Delhi for talks. “They did it because they know we are not in alliance with any party. Himanta Biswa Sarma met us in Guwahati. They were willing to strike a deal. But we said we wanted things in writing and we wanted transparency.”

“We wanted in writing a Constitutional solution to the demand for greater Tipraland under Articles 2 and 3. And if they have a better idea they can offer it to us. They said they have a better point of view. We said fine, whatever you have please give it to us in writing, but they refused. They did the same thing with IPFT in 2018 and look at what happened to IPFT. Credibility in public life matters a lot to me,” he explained, adding: “You cannot gain credibility by betraying and selling your people by saying something before the election and compromising and selling your people’s hopes and aspirations at the last moment in Delhi. I am answerable to my people and I cannot betray them unless I get a commitment in writing. That’s how the Motha differentiates itself from the IPFT.”

So up ahead in Tripura’s political timeline, will Pradyot Manikya Debbarma emerge as a kingmaker or the king himself? “I am a person who is sincerely trying to change politics, the way it is done in the North East. Kingmaker or no kingmaker, one thing that the rest of India should appreciate is that this is one regional party which has not gone with the central government since 2014. I think that itself is an achievement… we have held on to our morality” the former prince said, not entirely rejecting the possibility of a hung Assembly in Tripura after the results.

“I am already a Bubagra which means king in Kokborok language. That’s far bigger and far more permanent. I’ve got more love as a Bubagra than I would ever get as a politician. And I think I am very happy with what I have,” the royal scion said.

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