'We gave Tripura to Congress' India; BJP not a credible force in state', says PBK Manikya, head of royal family
We didn't give Tripura to India. We gave our state to the Congress party, because the India we knew was of Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. The India we knew was of Sardar Patel
Agartala: Tripura is set to vote on Sunday. The ruling Left Front is looking at a record eighth term, while Opposition Congress is facing elections under a new leadership and hoping to gain on a possible anti-incumbency sentiment emerging from the two-decade long Left rule. The BJP, on the other hand, is being considered a serious contender for the first time and the party hopes to directly make a dent in the Left bastion.
In the backdrop of the hectic poll preparations, Pradyot Kishore Manikya, heir of the royal family in Tripura and the working president of the state Congress unit, spoke to Firstpost about elections, his relationship with the Congress leadership, and his vision for the state. The royal scion also cleared the air about his recent meetings with bigwigs from both BJP and the Congress, and explained why he is comfortable with the grand old party and does not see the BJP as a credible force in the state. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:
Q: Many in Congress believe that the Maharaja is an institution in himself. How much weight does your say carry in Tripura politics?
A: The Maharaja can be influential across the state because we have an emotional connect with the people. People have benefited under the rule of the Maharajas. I don't think I have ever discriminated on the basis of the party the people vote for. To me, everyone is a Tripuri first. When you have that approach, people tend to see you as more than a politician.
Q: Your recent meeting with Himanta Biswa Sarma and Sunil Deodhar led to speculations that you were offered a Rajya Sabha seat. Then, there were reports of the All India Congress Committee offering you a more prominent role, presumably that of national general secretary, but you were disinterested. What is the ground reality?
A: Himanta Biswa Sarma and I have known each other for almost 20 years. Regardless of him joining the BJP (Sarma was a Congressman for more than two decades before he joined the BJP in 2015) and his personal attacks on Rahul Gandhi, I have a good relationship with Himanta. Sunil Deodhar tagged along with Himanta. This meeting with Himanta did not have a political agenda. In Tripura, I am not a small character. So, if Himanta came to meet me, maybe he wants to come back to the Congress.
The BJP had invited me to join the party in 2016. They raised the offer at various points, sometimes promising a Rajya Sabha seat or chief ministerial berth. My father joined the Congress in 1963 under Nehru and became an MP in 1967. My mother became an MLA in 1983. We have been in Congress. Why would I leave now! I have no such desire. Rahul Gandhi wants me to play a larger role. And I have said whatever responsibility he gives me, I will do a good job at it.
Q: BJP is surfacing as a possible challenge to CPM. Did they try to convince you they can wrest Tripura from Left's clutches and take it forward in a better direction?
A: Who did I talk to in the BJP! I have already made it clear. Himanta is a former colleague of mine and a friend. I didn’t meet the BJP man. I met a friend. If I have to talk to someone in the BJP, my aunt Vasundhara Raje is the chief minister of Rajasthan.
Q: To put it in another way, do you consider BJP capable of toppling the Left government and taking Tripura forward in the right direction?
A: Forty-six of their candidates are ex-Congressmen. Has the BJP built their organisation? How many people from the Left have joined the BJP? I don't see the BJP as a credible force. BJP had come second in Lok Sabha elections in Tripura East in 2004. And then what happened? After the elections, they went back. In a Left-ruled state, if you don't invest in an organisation, you will not make an impact no matter how much money you spend. They have given nine seats to the IPFT. The BJP is fighting in 51. In those nine seats, there's a demand for a separate state. The BJP is interested in winning the election. They are not looking at creating a party in Tripura. You don't win an election like that.
Q: Some media reports claimed you are not happy with the Congress because you feel that it was going soft on the Left. Is that true?
A: I was definitely unhappy. Now, they have changed and have made it clear that they won't go easy on the Left. Many in the Congress were of the view that we have to be stronger against the communists. And I do believe that both, the Left and the BJP, have never accepted the Constitution of India. My father was the King of Tripura when we merged with India. We didn't give Tripura to India. We gave our state to the Congress party, because the India we knew was of Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. The India we knew was of Sardar Patel. So, our connection with the Congress is different from that of other monarchs. We won't have given it (the state) to Jinnah. We willingly became a part of India because of our understanding of how the Congress party works.
Q: You have said in the past that alliance between Congress and Left is not possible in Tripura. Why do the Left and INC find it difficult to team up?
A: Because the Left’s ideology has largely been against the interest of the state. We have never seen BJP run the state, so I cannot speculate how a BJP government will perform. But the communist ideology has been against the very existence of erstwhile Tripura. We don’t have a progressive government under Manik Sarkar.
Q: Could you give us some details about your meeting with Congress leaders Jyotiraditya Scindia and Rahul Gandhi?
A: He (Scindia) is my cousin. What happens when two cousins meet? Sometimes, we eat Singju, we have Eromba, and we talk about Phanek, about how to go to Loktak (a lake in Manipur).
Q: And, Rahul Gandhi was also present...
A: Rahul is not only a Congress leader. He is also of my age. We speak on various things concerned with making the Congress stronger. He has just become the party president. He wants inputs. So we spoke on that and we are also planning to come up with strategy.
Q: So you discussed your poll strategy?
A: Not poll strategy, but post-poll strategy; regional and national strategy. If the Congress gets its act together under the new president, we will be good for this country. We are in a transition phase and views of people like us (gestures towards NSUI president Fairoz Khan, present in the room) have to be taken into consideration, because India, now, is more under-35 (age wise) than over-35.
Q: Did you guys also talk about taking Congress forward?
A: Absolutely. We talked not only about taking Congress forward, but about taking India forward in a way that doesn’t leave the North-East behind, doesn’t exclude South India, doesn’t ignore Kashmir. How this country will be more successful and how it will be less divided, why there can’t be leadership coming out of the North East, Jammu and Kashmir, or south India. We talked about how to make the Congress party more inclusive. We talked about democracy, and inviting ideas, and conceding the right to disagree. The party cannot be controlled by one or two people, like what we are seeing in the BJP.
Q: Putting aside the poll preparations, did you also sort out your differences with the Congress leadership?
A: If I can’t speak to my president about whatever is troubling me, then he is not my president. There are things you agree on and others that you disagree on. And that is the good thing about the Congress that you can bring up your differences. Maybe, that’s why I am very comfortable with the Congress.
Armstrong Chanambam is an Imphal-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
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