Tripura's tribal politics in which way

Sanjib Deb

Polling for two parliamentary seats in Tripura has completed and we are to wait for another few days to know the outcome. Generally, the parliamentary elections in this state is a low key affair but this time it was the most hardly contested one and comparable only with another held more than four decades ago in 1977. There are many differences in objective conditions but at least one similarity is there. It is both the elections mainly witnessed tri-corner contest and raised a question if it would herald a change in the political design of the state.

The outcome of the 1977 election could not signal any major change in the political design of the state but subsequent developments totally altered it. Let us see what message the ongoing election may have?

In 1977, a Congress For Democracy (CFD) candidate Sachindra Lal Singha narrowly defeated his nearest rival Tarit Mohon Dasgupta of Congress while the CPI(M) candidate Nripen Chakraborty finished as a distant third. In East Tripura constituency it was almost a direct fight and Kirit Bikram Kishor Debbarman of Congress defeated his nearest rival Dasarath Deb of CPI(M) by a comfortable margin.

The outcome had no signal of a change in the state's long-standing political characteristic of Congress-Communist divide but the subsequent developments made the Left a dominant force and drove the Congress into the back seat for a long time. This time what is in the store is yet to be cleared and we are to wait. Standing on this we can analyse the objective conditions that made this election different from previous all.

This time the election is going to be remarkable for more than one reason. Firstly, This election was preceded by a distinct change in the known political design of the state, the emergence of BJP as a major political power and this is for the first time a parliamentary election was held when neither the Congress nor the CPI(M) is in power. Secondly, this is for the first time the Bharatiya Janata Party become one of the main contenders in a parliamentary election in the state.

What makes this election more distinguished and remarkable is the role of the royal palace. Since the state's merger with Union of India, this is for the first time the Royal Palace asserted to capture the political power.  The Royal family members like Kirit Bikram Kishor Debbarman and Bibhu Kumari Devi earlier contested the elections but only as Congress candidate. The royal identity might have helped them to gain a few more votes but they were aspiring only to be a member of parliament and never tried to capture the political power of the state. This is for the first time the Royal Palace led by Pradyot Bikram Kishor and his sister Pragya Debbarman asserted to capture political power. Though under the cover of Congress, the entire campaign for the election was directed to accumulate peoples' support behind the states' Royal past. It was further vindicated by Pradyot Kishor's repeated assertion of his non-existent 'Bubagra' (King in Kokborok language) identity and slogans like 'puila Jati Ula Party' (First nation than party). 

There are many instances in annals of history when dethroned royalty attempted to recapture their lost power and the instant one is not different from that. However, there is a difference as the Royal Family of Tripura made this attempt through the democratic way. Whatever may be the outcome of this election it can be presumed that the mission Pradyot Bikram Kishor and his sister have undertaken will continue for some time more.

This election also will give some direction about the future course of state’s tribal politics which for a long time was confined between the Communists and some regional political parties. Signs of shifting of unquestioned loyalty of the tribals towards the Communists becoming visible for last many years and the CPI(M) leaders also were aware of it. An article written by this columnist under the caption 'Tribal middleclass worries CPI(M)' and published on December 11, 2013 bears the testimony.

Tribals have shifted their loyalty from CPI(M) become clear during last assembly elections when the party's strength among the 20 tribal reserve seats was reduced from 19 to only two. There is no sign that the party could regain their support base during the last one year and there is enough reason to believe that it has further slashed.

On the other hand, with their newly found stature in the national level and backed by IPFT's demand for separate state BJP was the biggest gainer of the tribal vote in last assembly election. With an aim to further consolidate their strength the party also was depending more on the support of the royal family and devoted much to appease them by recognizing the former king Bir Bikram Kishor Manikya Bahadur and his contributions for the development of the state. But the Congress made the master stroke by incarnating Pradyot Bikram as the Pradesh Congress president and fielding Pragya Debbarman as the party candidate.

It has definitely paid a dividend as Congress regained its position of a major political force in the state, especially among the tribals. Whatever may be the poll outcome it is now clear that the tribal voters have got divided into two camps led by BJP and Congress. The CPI(M) that once used to enjoy almost monopoly of the tribal votes stands to be the biggest loser. There is no doubt that the Royal Palace's assertion for power has brought all the changes. Now we are to wait to see the long term impact of the newly emerged equation.



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