In the State Assembly elections in Tripura held in February, the CPI-M stormed back to power with a huge majority for the fifth time in a row. The result surprised not only the Congress which had taken its victory as a foregone conclusion, but many others as well who had expected that the CPI-M would be either defeated or would win with a very slender majority. In the event it was the CPI-M 49, CPI 1 and Congress 10 in a House of 60. The two electoral allies of the Congress drew blank.
The Congress was so much confident of its victory that even after the counting started and the CPI-M was found to be leading in most constituencies, Congress election managers in Agartala said these were the results of the first one or two rounds of counting and as counting progressed, the initial trend would be reversed. It did not happen. A dumbfounded Congress could offer no rational explanation of its defeat. But to be fair to the Congress, there were others too who were equally surprised by the CPI-M’s landslide victory. One of them is Ajoy Biswas, himself a former CPI-M leader and an ex-MP of the party, who built up the party organisation among the Bengalis of Tripura.
A quick look at the past history of the CPI-M in Tripura would help understand the situation. Way back in the 1940s, the Bengal unit of the undivided CPI sent two organisers to Tripura to build up the party among the tribals who then constituted about two-thirds of the population. They were Biren Dutta and Nripen Chakraborty (who later became the Chief Minister, was expelled from the party for criticising Jyoti Basu and eventually taken back and rehabilitated in the party just hours before his death in a Kolkata hospital).
Dutta and Chakraborty painstakingly built up the party among the tribals. Both of them could speak Kokborok, the language of the Tripura tribals, as fluently as they could speak their mother tongue Bengali. The CPI—and after the split in 1964, the CPI-M—came to be known as the party of the tribals. Meanwhile, a slow change in the population pattern was taking place all the while. The partition led to a huge influx of Bengali Hindus into Tripura from the contiguous areas of what was then East Pakistan. The demographic pattern started changing. The Bengalis were outnumbering the tribals. No political party could ignore this change in the population pattern. Nor the CPI-M, too.
A large number of the Bengali imigrants became government employees as Tripura could offer very little scope of employment in any other sector. So it became necessary to build up the party among the Bengalis whose number was increasing. Ajoy Biswas started organising the State Government employees and soon the CPI-M got what it was seeking—an entry among the Bengalis. Today, Biswas says, the 1.75 lakh government employees together with their family members constitute roughly 25 per cent of the electorate of 24 lakhs.
The government employees have been nurturing a grudge against the State Government because it did not implement fully the recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission. The government employees, including policemen, are getting less than what they should according to the formula of the Pay Commission. The Congress is also fully aware of this discontent and during the poll campaign it assured that if it came to power, recommendations of the Pay Commission would be fully implemented. It was expected—not only by the Congress but other opponents of the CPI-M as well—that the majority of government employees would vote against the ruling party. In the event, they did not. There is no easy explaining why they did not. Terror tactics adopted by the CPI-M is one explanation that has been offered, but it does not seem convincing. There must be other factors, too.
Similarly, the tribals were expected to vote against the ruling party. By forging a poll alliance with two tribal parties—the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and the Nationalist Conference of Tripura (NCT)—the Congress had hoped the majority of tribal votes would come to the alliance and go against the CPI-M. This did not happen either. One explanation that is being given is that the CPI-M took full credit for the various Centrally-funded schemes for tribal welfare. And the tribals were afraid if the CPI-M was voted out, these schemes would be wound up. This does not seem too convincing either. The tribals are well aware that Centrally-funded schemes would continue to be implemented irrespective of the party in power in the State.
The opponents of the CPI-M alleged that immediately after the poll results were declared and the CPI-M won hands down, the ruling party resorted to widespread terror in the State. Local newspapers also reported a number of such incidents. Two persons were killed and many injured in the attacks. But again, there is no explanation why the ruling party should try to terrorise the people after the polls when it was comfortably back in power for another five years.
According to independent observers, the Congress in Tripura, unlike the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal, never conducted a sustained political movement against the ruling party. Ajoy Biswas, for example, says that Mamata Banerjee had fought the CPI-M for fourteen long years, suffered physically at the hands of CPI-M men but she never gave up and continued her fight. Ultimately it bore fruit. By contrast, the Congress in Tripura is galvanised into action each time the poll bells start ringing. And as soon as the polls are over, the party goes into hibernation again. “This is not the way to fight the CPI-M,” says Biswas. Besides, the Congress in Tripura is faction-ridden from top to bottom. Even during the poll campaign, there were physical clashes between groups of Congressmen over the distribution of tickets.
All in all, the factors that went into determining the 2013 Assembly polls in Tripura decisively in favour of the CPI-M need to be gone into and analaysed in detail. A superficial and instant ‘analysis’ would not unravel the mystery why the CPI-M under Manik Sarkar’s leadership is winning the confidence of the voters time and time again.
The reviewer was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Dasgupta.