>Agartala: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) is in power in five states in the north east, out of which three are ruled by the leading party. With Tripura Assembly elections scheduled for 18 February, the BJP looks set to go to polls in alliance with the Indigenous Peoples' Front of Tripura (IPFT). All the prominent leaders of its splintered faction, IPFT- Tipraha, joined BJP on 1 February. However, none of them are contesting the elections. But it is now clear that it is the BJP, and not NEDA, which is leading the opposition in Tripura polls, since the position of any of the indigenous parties of the state in NEDA is far from clear.
NEDA was formed in May 2016 to protect the collective interests of Northeastern states as well as to unite non-Congress parties in the region.
While leaders of the IPFT and the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT) stressed that no indigenous political party from the state is a member of NEDA yet, Assam finance minister and NEDA convener Himanta Biswa Sarma, approved of their claim.
The BJP's pre-poll alliance with IPFT, despite being opposed to the latter's radical demand for a separate state, signifies the saffron party's urge to topple the Left-front government in the state. However, the party has left its former ally, the INPT, out in the cold. Those leading the BJP's poll campaign in the Left Front-ruled state said the decision was triggered by the fact that the INPT had demanded too many seats despite its rapidly shrinking political support base in the state.
"We requested the INPT to join us, but the number of seats (six seats) they demanded was way too much. That's why, we couldn't form an alliance with them," said Sunil Deodhar. Deodhar is responsible for expanding the BJP's presence in Tripura. The BJP was willing to offer the BK Hrangkhawl-led INPT one or two seats.
Exuding confidence that the BJP-IPFT alliance in Tripura will form the next government with a two-third majority, Deodhar said that if the INPT had joined hands with them, both the parties would have benefitted from the deal. He claimed that voters who had earlier sworn allegiance to the INPT were increasingly switching sides to either the BJP or the IPFT. The BJP is contesting from 11 reserved tribal seats and the IPFT from nine. Of the total 60 seats in the Tripura assembly, 20 are reserved for tribals and 10 for Scheduled Caste.
Those overseeing the BJP's election preparations in Tripura corroborated Deodhar's belief that anti-Left INPT supporters will cast their votes for the BJP-IPFT alliance as it is the strongest contender at the moment. The INPT is contesting from 15 reserved tribal seats and has allocated three seats to the National Conference of Tripura.
INPT president BK Hrangkhawl accused the BJP of underestimating his party and backing out at the last minute. He said the reason for his party's fallout with the BJP was the latter's refusal to consider the fact that INPT would lose its registration with Election Commission of India if it contested from less than six seats.
>Cloud over IPFT and INPT's status in NEDA
Veteran tribal leader Hrangkhawl, who chose to walk out of the alliance rather than merge with the BJP, said that INPT was not a member of the NEDA and hadn't attended any of its meetings. Sarma, too, said that no regional party from Tripura was a member of NEDA yet. Media reports published last year, however, had a different story to tell. Sarma evaded the question of the INPT's membership in NEDA by stating that he had no channel of communication with the tribal party.
Some in the BJP, however, clarified that NEDA was a much bigger platform than a mere electoral truck and said that INPT was very much a part of the alliance. Human rights activist Anthony Dev Verman said the two indigenous parties had been invited to NEDA meetings but no one is sure whether they are formal members of the alliance.
In September last year at a NEDA meeting, BJP chief Amit Shah had expressed hope that all eight chief ministers in the northeast would be from the NDA. The BJP is in power in three states " Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur " while its allies rule Nagaland and Sikkim. Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura are going to polls towards the end of the month. Mizoram is currently ruled by the Congress.
The BJP was counting on its NEDA regional allies to gain a foothold in these three states. But given the BJP's Hindutva image, the going may not be easy for it in Christian-majority Meghalaya and Nagaland. In Meghalaya, the National People's Party (NPP) is keeping its distance as the polls near, and in Nagaland, the ruling Naga People's Front (NPF) recently resolved to severe its 20-year-old ties with the BJP. Given these setbacks, the BJP is now focusing on Tripura.
>Alliance only for election purposes, says IPFT
The BJP and the two regional parties are changing their stance every other day in the rapidly changing political scenario in Tripura. The BJP-IPFT alliance rests on uneasy grounds as the two parties have completely opposite stands on the Twipraland issue. While the saffron party stands for an undivided Tripura, IPFT maintains that its demand for a separate state is non-negotiable.
IPFT president NC Debbarma insisted that the BJP approached his party for an electoral alliance after jilting the INPT, which was keen on tying up with the BJP after realising that "they were a politically spent force". Stressing that the electoral understanding with the BJP is only aimed at ousting the Left Front government, the IPFT said that it would withdraw support to the BJP, if the latter manages to form the next government with a landslide majority, but fails to entertain its demand.
The absence of any IPFT leaders while releasing the joint statement of the two parties has raised questions about the future of the alliance. Shrototaranjan Khisa, the editor of Chini Kok, INPT's mouthpiece and a member of its organising committee, claimed that IPFT had already given up its demand for a separate state and was only misleading the tribal people.