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How Manik Sarkar’s past success in Tripura failed him 20 years later

Maink Sarkar’s success — of bringing peace to Tripura — created a generation with little memory of conflict, and with aspirations for more. In this space grew a vibrant anti-CPM constituency, and the BJP filled it with an energetic opposition.

Tripura Elections 2018 Updated: Mar 03, 2018 16:21 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Manik Sarkar,Manik SarkarTripura,Tripura election result
Manik Sarkar at an election campaign rally in Gandhigram in early February 2018. Sarkar is Tripura’s longest serving chief minister having been 20 years at the helm.(PTI File Photo)

At the end of an hour-long interview in early January, when asked if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could challenge and replace the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Tripura, the state’s longest serving chief minister, Manik Sarkar, laughed. “Challenge? Replace? You go and ask the people. And you will know the answer.”

On Saturday, the people of Tripura answered, bringing to an end 25 years of uninterrupted CPM rule in the state and the 20-year-old reign of Sarkar.

The defeat could not have come at a worse time for the party, already at a low after losing twice in West Bengal and struggling for survival as its foremost ideological rival, the BJP, expands its control over both power and narrative. All its hopes were invested in Sarkar. On Saturday, they were dashed.

Sarkar will go down as a remarkable figure in the history of the Indian left. He placed a premium on national security and understood the importance of law and order for ordinary citizens. He understood the importance of the ‘identity’ question — and not just the class question — and stitched together a wide alliance. And he knew that culture mattered as much as economics.

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Tripura was torn between Bengalis and tribals when he took over in 1998. Insurgents, often operating from Bangladesh, stormed the state with violence. Sarkar — through aggressive cross-border operations — weakened them, and used the resulting space to fill the political vacuum. While his Bengali identity helped in consolidating control over the majority, he ensured that the CPM was active in tribal areas too, often sweeping the 20 tribal seats in the 60-strong assembly. And he focused on social development indicators.

But dissatisfaction was rampant in the state too. Even in 2013, the Congress got a little over 36% of the vote, showing the presence of a vibrant anti-CPM constituency. It needed a more energetic opposition. That is what the BJP provided.

Sarkar’s success — of bringing peace to the state — had created a generation with little memory of conflict, and with aspirations for more.

Government employees, many of them CPM cadre, were unhappy because they were still on fourth pay commission salaries. The BJP promised them a hike, committing to implement the Seventh Pay Commission. Young students were unhappy, either because they felt Tripura was missing out on modernity and jobs or because they felt the CPM cadre were getting all the jobs that were available. The BJP presented itself an alternative which would bring vikas (development).

Sarkar’s biggest asset was his clean image and projection of austerity. The BJP attacked his government’s record and capitalised on a chit fund scam to tarnish his credentials in that regard. And Sarkar’s Bengali-tribal alliance lay in tatters, as the BJP succeeded in projecting him as a Bengali chauvinist, who had deprived tribals of their share in power.

In Agartala’s colleges and bazaars, in the outskirts of the capital, in the Bengali towns and tribal villages, there was a common refrain in the election. Sarkar is a good man, but it is time for change. After 20 years, Tripura has bid farewell to a leader who mattered at a crucial time in the state’s history. But for Sarkar, it has been a cruel good-bye, for the state has shifted to his most bitter ideological rival.

First Published: Mar 03, 2018 16:12 IST