Tripura elections

Invincible Left

Print edition : March 22, 2013

Chief Minister Manik Sarkar at a press conference at the CPI(M) headquarters in Agartala on February 28. Photo: PTI

Riang tribal women on their way to the polling booth on February 14, in the State's Khowai district. The large turnout and the tribal community's evident integration into mainstream politics marked the Assembly elections in Tripura.

The CPI(M)-led Left Front wins power in Tripura for the fifth consecutive time by an overwhelming majority.

THE Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front has been returned to power in Tripura for the fifth consecutive time with an overwhelming majority. It won 50 out of the 60 State Legislative Assembly seats in the February 14 Assembly elections, bettering its position after the 2008 elections by one seat. The CPI(M) alone won 49 seats, three more than last time, while the Communist Party of India (CPI) secured one seat. The Left’s vote percentage has also increased from 51 per cent in 2008 to 52 per cent.

The Congress won all the remaining 10 seats, while its allies, the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT) and the National Conference of Tripura (NCT), drew a blank.

Tripura Chief Minister and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Manik Sarkar said after the victory: “It is a verdict of the people in favour of peace, harmony and development. We will continue to humbly discharge our duties to live up to the expectations reposed in us by the people.” The only major loser from the Left Front was Science and Technology Minister Joy Gobinda Debroy of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). The highest victory margin in the elections was achieved by Finance Minister Badal Chowdhury, who won by 12,429 votes from his Hrishyamukh constituency. A major win for the Left was the Ramnagar seat in Agartala, where the CPI(M)’s Ratan Das beat Congress heavyweight Surajit Dutta, securing for his party its first win in 25 years in the State capital.

“Peace and development” was the Left Front’s main election slogan. After the State was plagued by insurgency movements for decades—the two major extremist groups that were operating in the State were the National Liberation Front of Tripura and the All Tripura Tiger Force—the Manik Sarkar government has been successful in bringing about peace and stability. “In 1998, when Manik Sarkar became the Chief Minister, the State was still reeling under extremist activities. Today, the people of Tripura feel safe and can see for themselves the all-round development taking place. More than 80 per cent of the insurgents have either surrendered or died. In fact, this was the first election since 1977 in which the extremists could not intervene in any way,” Gautam Das, the spokesperson of the CPI(M) in Tripura, told Frontline.

It is usually assumed that an unusually high turnout of voters in free and fair elections indicates an anti-incumbency mood. This hypothesis, however, does not seem to apply in the case of Tripura. In the 2008 Assembly elections, the percentage of votes polled was 91.32, and the Left returned to power, with the CPI(M) winning 46 out of the 56 seats it contested, as against 38 out of the 55 seats it contested in 2003. In this round of elections, the total votes polled in Tripura was 93.57 per cent, a record in the country, and the party yet again improved its tally. Far from any anti-incumbency factor working against it, the CPI(M) has been bettering its score with each successive election. According to Das, the anti-incumbency factor is absent in Tripura because the aspirations of the people are being fulfilled.

Weak opposition

The Congress-led opposition’s main election plank was “Paribartan” (change), which had been the Trinamool Congress’ slogan in West Bengal when it ousted the 34-year-old Left Front government there from power in 2011. Both the States being Bengali-speaking, the politics of West Bengal has always had an impact on Tripura. Political observers said that the social scenario following the “paribartan” in West Bengal made the electorate in Tripura wary of voting for change for the sake of change. Significantly, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee did not field any candidates in Tripura, as she had done, albeit unsuccessfully, in 2008.

Trouble in the Tripura Pradesh Congress camp began with the announcement of the list of candidates by the All India Congress Committee (AICC). Resentment over nominations led to intra-party violence on several occasions. A spate of resignations from the Congress just weeks before the elections further served to demoralise the party. A large number of Congress leaders and workers even joined forces with the CPI(M) at the last moment. Even after the Left had begun its campaigns in right earnest, the Congress was sorting out its internal issues. Its defeat appeared to be a foregone conclusion weeks before the elections.

“In Tripura the Congress does not have a leader who has the ability to take on the entrenched domination of the Left. Time and again, whoever was entrusted with the party’s leadership in the State came up against stiff opposition from rival factions, had to face fierce infighting, and could not expect endorsement from the central leadership,” a high-level source in the Congress told Frontline.

Manik Sarkar factor

The Left, on the other hand, has been going from strength to strength under Manik Sarkar’s leadership. The enormous popularity of Sarkar, who is known for his unimpeachable integrity, has been a key factor in the Left’s victory. Sarkar, who is reportedly the “poorest” Chief Minister in the country, is certainly rich in the affection of the people of his State, and it was he who once again was the lead campaigner for the Left Front.

“One of the main reasons for this great victory is the honesty of the government, the honesty of the Chief Minister, his tolerance for dissent, and his broadmindedness. He is bringing in a new era in the Communist movement, one of equality and open democracy,” Minister of Culture, Education, Tourism and Scheduled Caste Welfare Anil Sarkar told Frontline. Manik Sarkar, who succeeded Dasarath Deb as Chief Minister in 1998, won from his Dhanpur constituency with a margin of over 6,000 votes. This will be his fourth consecutive term as Chief Minister.

Harmony and integration

One of the biggest achievements of the Manik Sarkar government is its success in maintaining a harmonious relationship between the indigenous people and the Bengali-speaking settlers and thereby helping the integration of the tribal population, which accounts for around 31 per cent of the total population of the State, into the mainstream. This has been accomplished by the smooth and efficient running of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council, as well as by the overall development programmes spearheaded by the State government.

A case in point is the steps taken to ameliorate the distress of the tribal people dependent on forest produce. The State government took a leading role in protecting their rights by giving them permanent pattas (passbooks encompassing these rights) and assistance to set themselves up in their livelihoods. Special steps have also been taken to protect and develop their language, Kakabarak, by publishing school textbooks and dictionaries in it.

“The memory of the dark days of the violence, arson and carnage under Congress rule is still fresh in the minds of the people. The Left’s efforts in bringing about peace and stability have not only paved the way for smooth economic development but also endeared it to the tribal people and the Bengali population alike,” said the CPI(M)’s Debasish Chakraborty, an expert on Tripura politics.

In this election the Left won 19 out of the 20 seats reserved for the Scheduled Tribes, and eight out of the 10 seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes. The divisive and formerly secessionist INPT could not win a single seat in the 11 tribal constituencies where it contested. Even its president, the former extremist leader Bijoy Hrankhawl, could not win from his Ambassa constituency. The tribal people, it seems, have preferred mainstream politics to separatist politics.

The Congress’s strategy of using “King” Bikram Manikya Debbarma, a scion of the erstwhile Manikya dynasty, to woo tribal voters did not work, indicating that traditional loyalties have made way for a modern and progressive attitude towards elections and development.

“The tribal people are not fools. The king spoke in the voice of feudalism, but the people responded to the voice of progress,” said Anil Sarkar. According to social observers, as a result of the development programmes, a middle class is emerging from the tribal population and that can be seen in the popularity of technology and Facebook among the tribal youth.

Benefits of development

This peace and stability created the proper milieu for development. Tripura has been making huge strides in practically all fields of social development. The State has a literacy rate of nearly 90 per cent, and the gap between the genders in terms of literacy has been reduced.

In terms of employment and per capita literacy, Tripura has reportedly attained the fourth position in the country. It has succeeded in pushing the infant mortality rate (IMR) and the maternal mortality rate (MMR) below the national average. More than 95 per cent of the population has access to safe drinking water, and 80 per cent of the State has been brought under the government’s electrification project. The provision of 35 kilograms of rice at Rs.2 a kg to every family holding a BPL (below poverty line) ration card through the public distribution system has also been very popular.

The benefits of development have been trickling down. Though Manik Sarkar has maintained that the focus of his government has been more on development than on increasing the per capita income, the annual per capita income of the State has increased from Rs.29,081 in the Tenth Plan period (2002-07) to over Rs.50,000. In an article in Economic & Political Weekly (January 12, 2013, Volume XLVIII, No. 2), Radhicka Kapoor, who is with the Planning Commission, pointed out that Tripura’s performance was the best in the country in terms of poverty reduction despite having a growth rate below the all-India average. In Tripura, the decline in the poverty head count ratio (HCR) between the years 2004-05 and 2009-10 was a huge 22.6 per cent. One of the reasons for this was reportedly the State government’s ability to provide employment through various projects. Tripura has been judged the best performer in the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) for the last three years and has one of the best functioning panchayati raj administrations in the country.

One of the chief impediments to development in the region had been the lack of good roads. Today a network of roads connects Agartala to the most remote parts of the State. In fact, every village panchayat and village committee has been connected by all-weather roadways. Until recently there were regions that could only be accessed by elephants or helicopters. This was the first election in the State when neither was needed.

Once a food-deficit State, Tripura is today on the verge of attaining self-sufficiency in food. At present the State produces more than 7 lakh tonnes of rice a year, closing in rapidly on its demand of 8.5 lakh tonnes a year. Much of this is made possible by the extension of irrigation. Whereas Tripura once had hardly any irrigation, it now provides assured irrigation to more than 60 per cent of its arable land.

In the end, the reason for the CPI(M)’s repeated success in the State was perhaps best summed up by Anil Sarkar: “We may be a poor State with a lot of problems, but we recognise that our main asset is our people. It is in them that we invest our efforts and our trust. Ultimately it is they who will bring glory to Tripura.”