The CPM resents personality cults. Yet Manik Sarkar — the simple, soft-spoken, austere Chief Minister of Tripura, projected as a model of integrity — towered over the party for years. As the CPM lost one of its last bastions, its sweep and scale leaving it numb, the party struggled to fathom the sudden shift in its mass base while acutely aware that its national political relevance was under serious question.
With Tripura marking the first direct electoral contest between the political Left and Right, the defeat also meant loss for the CPM in its perception battle against ideological rival BJP — represented perhaps aptly in the personalities of Manik Sarkar and Narendra Modi.
This blow is significant for the Left as it has always taken pride in punching above its weight and being an important voice in setting the national agenda, despite never being a dominant political force electorally. Kerala, the only state where the CPM is in power now, alternates between it and the Congress. The only two other states where it remains strong, West Bengal and Tripura, are now both out of its control.
It is not that the CPM did not anticipate the downslide. All its top leaders who campaigned in the state gauged a BJP surge, but hoped that Sarkar’s appeal would take the CPM past the half-way mark of 30. Brinda Karat camped in the state for nearly a month.
The CPM draft political resolution to be presented at the party Congress in April says, “The key to the advance of the Party and building the Left and Democratic Front is increasing the independent strength of the party. This has become all the more important given the setbacks in West Bengal and the lack of advance in other states apart from Kerala and Tripura.” That would now need tweaking.
As the party debates the reason for the debacle, the tussle between general secretary Sitaram Yechury backed by the Bengal unit and his predecessor Prakash Karat helped by Kerala, particularly on the question of aligning with the Congress, will only accentuate ahead of the conclave.
Sources said that when top CPM leaders met Saturday afternoon to draft the party’s response, some suggested that the BJP capitalised on the space vacated by the Congress. That had the Congress been active and contested whole-heartedly, and not allowed its vote share to slide from 36 per cent in 2013 to less than 2 per cent now, the situation would have been different. However, others argued that the CPM should not live in denial and accept that the party failed to understand the aspirations of people, especially youth.
In its statement on the result, the CPM said, “The verdict will lead to the formation of a BJP-IPFT alliance government in the state. After 25 years in government, the Left Front has been voted out of office. The BJP has, apart from other factors, utilized massive deployment of money and other resources to influence the elections. The BJP was able to consolidate all the anti-Left votes virtually appropriating the erstwhile main opposition party, the Congress.”
In his reaction to the defeat, and whether it was worse than West Bengal for the party, Yechury said, “Naturally, we need deeper analysis and introspection about the Tripura elections… We are waiting for the full results to examine the reasons for the setback, to do a proper analysis, draw our conclusion and take necessary remedial measures.”
Stressing that the Left Front had “still got 45 per cent of the votes”, Yechury added, “It was a tough battle. We knew the BJP had managed to bring together all the anti-Left elements and parties and was swallowing up the Congress.”
While the role of money and muscle power in the BJP’s success was included in the CPM’s official reaction, party leaders said in private that it could not ignore the situation on the ground, and that the party had lost connect with the youth.
“There was a mood for change. And of course it is natural since we have been in power for 25 long years… But Manik Sarkar continues to be one of the most popular leaders… The question then is: Was the BJP a better alternative? There was voter disillusionment. Unemployment was a major concern… And the BJP built a narrative based on the lack of job avenues, industries… development and all, which we could not counter properly,” a senior Left leader said.
Party leaders also said that while the CPM touted Sarkar’s integrity, the same could not be said about other leaders down the line.
CPI general secretary S Sudhakar Reddy admitted that the Left may have failed to sense the mood for change. “Among a section of the middle class, anti-incumbency might have worked,” he told The Sunday Express.
While Yechury and other CPM leaders remained silent on how to take on the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections, Reddy did not mince words to suggest that united tactics were the need of the hour. “Our party still feels that a broader secular democratic platform is needed to resist the onslaught of the BJP and the Parivar and that state-specific anti-BJP electoral tactics should be worked out.”
Among those incidentally opposed to aligning with the Congress is Sarkar, who has firmly backed the line taken by Karat and Co. Thrown out in Agartala and staring at irrelevance at the national level, he and the party are headed for heated times.