FOR THE last 11 days, Chief Minister Manik Sarkar has been traversing the length and breadth of Tripura, one of the last remaining bastions of Communist power in the country. With Tripura going to polls on February 18, Sarkar will be attending 43 meetings more. But despite the packed schedule, the 69-year-old doesn’t miss his evening meetings at the CPI(M) headquarters in the heart of Agartala, every day, discussing issues related to the state or politics in general.
Much has been written about Sarkar over the years and especially the past few weeks. How he is the country’s poorest chief minister. How he or his wife own no properties or cars. How he donates his entire salary to the party, which then gives him Rs 9,000 as a monthly stipend. How he declared in his 2018 election affidavit that he has Rs 1,520 in hand and Rs 2,410 in his bank account.
But ask Sarkar about all that, and his reply is instant, sharp: “Please don’t ask me about my personal life.’’ Then ask the four-time chief minister about politics and this polls, and he gets all fired up. The fire is directed at the BJP, which has emerged as a key force in the state this time — and, as Sarkar admits, the CPI(M)’s “main rival”.
“Looking at ground reality, it seems to me the BJP is our main rival. Even at the Centre, the BJP has announced that their aim is to remove Communists from the country — and their attack is directed towards Tripura and Kerala. However, the ground that they have made in Tripura is not on their own merit or work — they have done so by eating up numerous parties, such as the Congress and much smaller tribal parties like the IPFT and its factions. Having said that, we are not ignoring the Congress. We consider the Congress, decimated as they may be, our opponent as well,’’ he says.
However, Sarkar also firmly believes that “the BJP, RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal” combine has given the Left “a fresh lease of life’’.
“The BJP, RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal, what have you, have actually given the Left a boost. We are proud that they consider us the enemy and a threat. We are diametrically opposite in ideology, philosophy, policies, programmes and the nature of our political struggle. This isn’t the first time we’ve dealt with the RSS. They have been in Tripura for decades, even as a little boy I would hear of them. They tried the same thing when A B Vajpayee was prime minister. They have tried to convert tribals in the past, make inroads on the basis of religious rhetoric, but failed,” he says.
Sarkar doesn’t expect them to succeed this time, as well.
“On the contrary, what they are doing has helped us. We provide an alternative to this RSS-driven ideology. We consider this present moment a golden opportunity on the national stage. For all those who say Communism is losing relevance in today’s world, look at what is happening in JNU and DU, and Allahabad and Hyderabad universities. This is your proof that we are more relevant than ever before — not just among the poor and the dispossessed, but among the elite and the cream of society. If we were irrelevant, why should we be the BJP’s headache?’’ he asks.
But Agartala was also rocked with violent clashes between workers of the tribal separatist group IPFT and CPI(M) cadres in August 2016, which were widely believed to be tribals versus Bengalis — a claim that is vociferously denounced by Sarkar.
“The tribal areas in Tripura continue to be the stronghold of the Left, and you will see that in this election as well. It is also not true that the entire tribal population has always been on our side. The Congress first tried breaking in to the tribal areas in the 1970s, helped with the formation of the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti (TUJS), and also formed a coalition government in 1988. So these pockets of anti-CPI(M) tribals remain. This does not mean that we have lost ground, they have simply switched over to the BJP now. And since the BJP has no real issues to fight us on, whether it’s corruption or policy — they are using these polarising divisive politics. Our stand is that we will not let Tripura be divided,’’ he says.
Speaking on criticism levelled at his government that tribals are less literate than non-tribals, in a state with the highest literacy level in the country at 97 per cent, Sarkar admits this was true but inevitable. “That’s because when we came to power there was literally no literacy amongst the tribals. But this has changed. Their literacy levels have improved remarkably and will continue to improve,’’ he says.
Sarkar then lists his government’s achievements: largest number of pattas of land given to tribals (barring tribal-dominated northeastern states), comprehensive healthcare, per capita income of Rs 80,000 as opposed to Rs 10,000 when the CPI(M) came to power 25 years ago, rubber and tea plantations, and the production of excess energy that Tripura now exports to Bangladesh.
But yes, admits Sarkar, there are a couple of issues that need redressal — 17 per cent of urban youth in Tripura are unemployed, and a 2007 report published by his government points out that the state’s weakest link is transportation and connectivity.
“Even then, we recruit around 5,000-7,000 people every year in the government. There is no central government employment here. For employment to increase, we need more industries. We are largely dependent on small scale industries. But why will industries invest in Tripura? For that, they need proper infrastructure such as connectivity through road, rail and air and telecommunications. There is little we can do here, this is the Centre’s responsibility. Ever since the Niti Aayog replaced the planning commission, our special status was taken off, which means we have even less monetary reserves than before,’’ he says.
At the Chief Minister’s “quarter’’ on Marx Engels Sarani in Agartala, four large framed portraits hang inside the sitting room, one on each walls — of Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Lenin and Marx. Another framed photograph of Tagore with Albert Einstein is kept on a shelf.
“There are several idols of Jesus Christ, and Durgas and Ganeshas — gifts from visitors which he insists that we keep,” says Panchali Bhattacharya, Sarkar’s wife, who was once a part of the women’s wing of CITU. “People come with all manner of problems. We even get estranged married couples who come to my husband, wanting him to fix their marriages.”
Inside an adjacent room, hundreds of books line the walls, spilling over bookshelves. “I have my Tagore and my Nazrul. In my job I go out and meet all these people in the districts and I get my energy from their enthusiasm. How am I poor? I am very rich as far as I can tell,’’ says Sarkar.
In Tripura, Sarkar’s honesty is not under question. “But which Manik Sarkar are you asking about?” asks Sarkar’s bitter rival and state Congress vice president Tapas Dey. “There are two — Manik Sarkar the man and Manik Sarkar the Chief Minister. Manik Sarkar the man is a very good person indeed. However, we believe that Manik Sarkar the Chief Minister, while honest himself, has shielded a corrupt government.’’