The Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA), a newly formed tribal-based party in Tripura led by royal scion Pradyot Kishore Deb Barman has secured an absolute majority in the 30-member Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) elections held on April 6 last.

In the 30-member tribal council, elections were held in 28 seats on Tuesday last and the remaining two seats would be nominated by the Governor at the advice of the state government.

The Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA), secured 18 seats, BJP won in nine seats and one seat was secured by an independent candidate. The BJP’s partner, IPFT, was wiped out.

There hangs a tale for those who have rushed to conclude that this TTADC poll outcome was a huge setback for the BJP.  The BJP contested 13 seats of the 28 in TTADC and won 9 seats. It is their ally IPFT which contested 15 and returned to the pavilion with a duck. That is where the BJP ‘s alliance with the IPFT failed to deliver.

In the 2018 assembly polls, the IPFT had won 8 of the 9  tribal reserved seats it contested, the CPI(M) won 2 and the BJP got the rest.  The tribal vote played a key role in bringing the BJP-IPFT alliance to power in 2018 — it’s 18 out of 20 scores in ST seats ( roughly corresponds to the TTADC constituency) explained its phenomenal victory.  The CPI(M) which had never lost more than two to three tribal reserved seats since the party’s 1988 debacle lost out primarily because CM Manik Sarkar’s administration and party lost its tribal connect big time.

This time it is the IPFT which has faced a similar debacle — and that alone explains the setback of the BJP-IPFT alliance in TTADC polls.  In short, the IPFT has failed to hold the line in the face of a phenomenal surge by the new outfit, TIPRA led by a young-looking but not-so-young royal scion.

Hailing from Tripura and having covered elections in the state since 1983, let me draw the readers’ attention to the royal factor in Tripura politics.  The state has witnessed a ‘King is dead, long live the King’ syndrome since it merged with the Indian Union in 1949.

As the Communists held sway in the tribal areas since their brief insurrection in the 1948-50 phase, the uncrowned king of the state’s tribal politics Dasarath Deb won successive Lok Sabha polls from the state’s East Tripura (ST reserved) constituency in 1952, 1957 and 1962. Deb (originally Deb Barman) appeared unstoppable until Congress drafted in the real Maharaj to fight him in 1967.

‘Maharaj’ Kirit Bikram, Pradyot’s father won comfortably.  Since then, the Maharaja and his second Maharani Bibhu Devi have not only represented the state in parliament frequently but Bibhu Devi also served as Revenue Minister in the 1988 Congress-TUJS state government.  And guess who did she defeat in 1988 from the prestigious Krishnanagar seat in Agartala — future CM Manik Sarkar. In 1991, she trounced Marxist heavyweight Bajuban Reang to return to Lok Sabha. In 1998 she refused to contest from Matarbari in the state polls when the Congress was keen to field her.

Pradyot has, since he left the Congress in a huff by resigning as party’s state president, has only built on the ‘royal factor’ rather than creating new magic out of his royalty.  Tripura’s progressive rulers had been extremely popular with both tribals and Bengalis, despite the occasional insurrection caused by revenue stress and forced tax collections, especially during World War 2.

The most enlightened king Maharaj Bir Bikram not only created the state’s educational infrastructure but excelled in ethnic management. He created the Tribal Reserve to protect tribal lands from takeovers but also sheltered hapless Bengali refugees, even leading his cavalry into Raipura in East Bengal to rescue them.

So much as he patronized the great Rabindranath Tagore by awarding him ‘Bharat Bhaskar’ much before he won the Nobel and much as he brought educated Bengali Hindus to man the royal administration and Muslim and lower-caste peasants to start settled agriculture to boost his revenue, Bir Bikram created the Tribal Reserve to protect tribal interests by ensuring their lands in the core tribal area was safe from takeovers. The Tribal Reserve is the precursor of the TTADC created in the 1980s. In a way, Bir Bikram is the patron saint of tribal autonomy in Tripura much as he is the saviour of hapless, partition struck refugees.

My grandfather was the chief of the royal bodyguards and later founded many police stations in Tripura. Our family still swear by the ‘ Maharaja’ or ‘Maharani’ (Rajmata) and they are honored guests in our family Durga Puja. Without a doubt, Tripura’s royal family is the only one of its kind in the Northeast and East with much post-monarchy political influence in the state, much of it owing to the legacy of the great Bir Bikram.  They are the Scindias of the region.

Pradyot Kishore has emerged as the state’s most south-after politician, having singlehandedly led his party to a convincing victory, and thereby proving that regional parties in the Northeast do not exactly need hand-holding by national parties like BJP or Congress. In a way, he was taken the Mamata Banerjee path. But if he wants to graduate to becoming the state’s most important politician from its strongest tribal leader, he has to now promote the politics of ethnic reconciliation rather than illusory tribal homeland demands.

A tiny 10000 sq. km state with a population lesser than three to five Calcutta Lok Sabha constituencies cannot be subjected to any further division. It will ruin Tripura as a viable economic and social unit and finish all geo-economic opportunities born out of proximity to Bangladesh and the new flush of connectivity projects between the two countries.  With Bangladesh opening its ports for use by India to connect to its northeast, Tripura and not Assam would soon be the gateway to the region and the Northeast’s gateway to the sea.

Having created a political base by playing on tribal sentiments by raking up ‘Greater Tipraland’, the ‘Maharaj’ may now consider reverting to his grandfather’s politics of ethnic balance. TIPRA can well ask for 50percent ST reservation in the 60-member state assembly to ensure tribals have an equal share of political power in a Bengali majority state, but to push for the vivisection of the state would not only mean doing something alien to the royal culture of Tripura ( where kings were always fair to both tribals and Bengalis) but also jeopardize the enormous opportunity that awaits Tripura.

Pradyot’s early indication is positive – he appealed to people to maintain peace and calm and told his supporters to avoid attacking any political rival. He called for a politics of unity. That is what Tripura needs after four decades of ethnic strife that started with the bloody 1980 Mandai riots.

Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. He can be reached at: