Sunday, March 10, 2013



FRONTLINE, Volume 30 - Issue 05 :: Mar. 09-22, 2013

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”

Friday, March 8, 2013




During the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Lecture in 2011, the Swedish novelist Henning Mankell recounted an incident from Mozambique, where he lives for part of the year. During the worst days of South African apartheid and the civil war in Mozambique, Mankell visited the north of the country. He was walking on a path toward a village. He saw a young man coming towards him, a thin man in ragged clothes. As he came close, Mankell saw his feet. “He had in his deep misery,” Mankell told his Delhi audience, “painted shoes on his feet. In a way, to defend his dignity when everything was lost, he had found the colors from the earth and he had painted shoes on his feet.”

In Tripura, the small state tucked into the north-eastern corner of India, no-one goes without shoes. A keen eye, even on the briefest visit, would find everyone shod – a remarkable fact for a state where poverty has not been banished. But government data on poverty has shown something remarkable. Between 2004-05 and 2009-10, the Planning Commission numbers show a decline in Tripura’s poverty rate from 40 percent to 17.4 percent. That is a drop of 22.6 percent: the highest decline in poverty figures for the country during this past decade. The Tripura decline is not shared by its neighbors: Manipur (from 37.9 percent to 47.1 percent), Mizoram (15.4 percent to 21.1 percent) and Nagaland (8.8 percent to 20.9 percent). Pointing out this data last year, the financial columnist Manas Chakravarty noted, “The state must be doing something right, although we don’t have the faintest idea about it. We need to find out fast, so that the nation can learn from Tripura and adopt its model of development, whatever that may be.” One of the indices is that despite the poverty rates, people seem to have access to their basic needs – such as shoes.

It is because of the small gains that the Communist-led Left Front won a landslide victory in the recent Assembly elections (the Left Front won 50 seats in the 60 member Assembly, with the Communist Party of India-Marxist winning 49 of those seats and the Communist Party of India one). This is the seventh time the Left has won in Tripura; five of these wins have been consecutive, and each of these has been with a two-thirds majority. In fact, but for the 1988 elections, widely believed to have been massively rigged, this would have been the eighth successive Left victory.

The politics of basic needs and of peace play a very large role in the Left’s success in Tripura. While the rest of India whittles away at the Public Distribution System (PDS), Tripura has enhanced it to the betterment of people’s lives. Not only can one get basic foodstuffs at subsidized prices, but one is also allowed to procure light bulbs through the PDS system. Bread alone is not enough for human dignity. Education is one of the most sought after public goods with schools as one part of it and reading at home another. Without light bulbs and electricity, there can be no intellectual development. By making sure that the PDS system is not simply for the survival of people, but also for their enhancement, the Left dignifies the role of the State. Such improvements are widely commented upon inside Tripura, where the development model has struck a chord with the public. The slogan for the Tripura Model is simple: people’s growth before the GDP.

As with the other states in India’s north-east, militant separatism tore through the society from the 1980s onwards. The Tripura National Volunteers and the Tripura Tiger Force and the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) wreaked havoc in the state. They targeted the Bengali population, trying to sow the seeds of division between the “tribals” (the Kokborok speakers, the Reang, the Jamatia, the Chakma, the Halam, the Mog, the Munda, the Kuki and the Garo) and Bengalis, as well as between the Christians and the Hindus. That the Communists comprised people of all communities, and had been leaders in the early rebellions in Tripura against the King and for tribal rights in the 1940s and 1950s has always threatened those who believed in sectarian politics. Turning to the gun was a sure-fire way of trying to undermine the politics of amity that had begun to define the state.

Here is a sense of the violence over October-November 1998:

October 7: NLFT fighters kidnapped seven-year old Keya Debnath from her home in Bagna in Udaipur.

October 19: NLFT fighters fired into a market in Dhumacherra (Dhalai district). Abducted Badal Roy, a laborer.

October 20: NLFT fighters abducted five passengers from a bus near Kusumbar.

November 3: NLFT fighters fired into a market place in Maynama, killing three people, including Subodh Kuri. Militants killed nine-year old Rupali Adhikary and Haradhan Debnath in a village in Madhya Barjala. Gunmen fired into a jeep on the Assam-Agartala National Highway, killing Jagdish Saha.

November 4: NLFT fighters killed six people, including a nine-year old girl in Dhalai district.

The habits of the modern State should have sent in the armed forces and pushed for the annihilation of the NLFT and its allied groups. This is the approach that the Left Front rejected. The high point of the insurgency was between 1996 and 2004. During this period, the Left was in power. It was through the strategy adopted by the Left that the insurgency wasted away after 2004 (unlike in the rest of the north-east of India). Certainly police actions were used against the insurgents, but as the governor D. N. Sahay wrote in 2011, these were not used in an “exclusive, hawkish, one-dimensional” manner. The Tripura government used its police force for these actions, and, according to Sahay, “Their conduct was under close observation at the highest level (including at the level of the Governor and the Chief Minister), in order to check personnel from going berserk and being ruthless, trigger-happy, oppressive and violative of human rights. This paid off: no complaint of human rights violation, except one or two and that too minor, came up in the course of operations. No antipathy against the security forces or the establishment surrounded the minds of citizens.”

Armed force was not the main instrument used by the Left Front government. Instead it pushed for a political solution, urging militants to give up their arms and take their views into the political domain, showing militants that their own leadership was less interested in their well-being than in an endless militancy that enhanced the lives of neither themselves or their enemies. The Tripura government used Central Government money in the insurgency, not to fatten the pockets of its privileged classes, but to build roads into every part of the state. This was not just to allow the police access to remote areas, but also to bring people from those remote areas into active contact with the rest of the state. The dividend from these roads in the long run has been immense. Apart from the police and the political leadership, the Left Front turned to its allies for help in the counter-insurgency. The All-Indian Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) worked in the most difficult circumstances, building confidence among women who had turned to militancy to come back to the politics of persuasion. “I had to stop school after standard ten as my father could not afford to pay my fees,” said Shobhamati Jamatiya in 2004. “A group from the All Tripura Tiger Force convinced me that my problems, and those of the tribal population of Tripura, would be solved if I joined their organization.” Shobhamati went to the Tiger Force camp in Bangladesh, where she trained as a militant and fighter. The work of groups like AIDWA and the corruption amongst the leadership of the Tiger Force moved Shobhamati to surrender two years later in October 2002. “I realize now that there is no shortcut,” Shobhamati said, now as an AIDWA activist. “You have to be in the democratic movement.”

Former member of the Legislative Assembly from Takarjala, Bayjanti Koloi remembers how women in her district were excited that a tribal woman had been elected for the first time. As part of her work as a legislature, she held meetings with women in the district, many of whom would subsequently join with Koloi in AIDWA. “Many women who never used to go out of their homes or who never knew about government policies began to speak out strongly about their demands. Women then began to receive threats from activists of the NLFT to stop all political activities.” The NLFT tried to break the connections between tribals and non-tribals, forcing the latter to leave and the former to stop “selling rice to non-tribals. If a tribal woman wore a sari or a bangle, she was stopped and threatened.” AIDWA’s activists held fast. Their bravery broke the cultural agenda of the militants.

Careful policies against insurgency rooted in the well-being of the people earned the Left the support of the people. It helps that the leadership of the Left in Tripura has an incomparable reputation for probity. The Chief Minister, Manik Sarkar, son of a tailor and a government employee, is known as the poorest leader in India (he had $200 in his bank account, about the same amount as he earns per year – what he earns he hands over to his Party, and receives in turn $100 as a sustainer); the only comparable world figure is Uruguay’s President José Mujica, whose net work was $1,800 (he donates 90 percent of his salary to a scheme that builds homes for the poor). Sarkar’s vices are “a small pot of snuff and a cigarette a day.” When news of the massive victory came to him, Sarkar said, “This is a verdict in favor of development, peace and stability besides good governance.”

He forgot to mention the shoes. 

Vijay Prashad’s new book, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, is out this month from Verso Books.
Sudhanva Deshpande is part of Jana Natya Manch and is an editor at LeftWord Books. 

Where the Left Triumphs » Counterpunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names