AGARTALA: The communist party workers slouching against the walls of the party office in the sultry mid-day Tripura heat, stood up straight and stopped their chat session as the stern-faced, tall, bespectacled man dressed in a crisp white dhoti-kurta, strode into the room.
The man commanding the cadres’ awe was none other than 74-year-old Manik Sarkar, who had come to personify the Communist movement in the northeast, running the sole CPI(M)-led government in a difficult and turbulent region for 20 long years, before his party’s rule was ended by a BJP wave in 2018.
He was following a punishing schedule over the last several weeks, electioneering by foot and by jeep, over the hills and dales of Tripura, a state which has been described as a ‘finger of land wrapped around Bangladesh’. Despite his age, his party cannot afford the helicopters which ferry his rivals on their forays into the state. Nor can it allow the “old war-horse” as one of his colleagues described him, to retire from the campaign.
“I convinced my colleagues that new blood should be brought in, (as) I have been contesting elections since 1979 and have been chief minister for 20 years,” he told, adding with a trace of a smile, “(However) I am there in the battlefield.”
For the average CPI(M) worker or supporter, Sarkar remains the ‘star campaigner’ for the entire Left Front, even though the big names of the CPI(M) – Sitaram Yechury, Brinda Karat and Mohammed Salim – have been fielded in the state.
“Many common people and especially his party cadre look up to him for his probity in personal and political life and his straightforward behaviour,” explained Sekhar Dutta, a political commentator on the northeast and a former journalist.
Just five years back, newspapers were busy writing an epitaph for the CPI(M) in the region and describing Manik Sarkar as the ‘last communist standing’.
However, a gruelling campaign by Sarkar and his comrades drawing large crowds show the hammer and sickle on a red field is not yet dead here. Despite the CPI(M) losing in the last assembly and national elections here, its vote bank has remained more or less intact. In the 2018 assembly elections, in the face of a Modi wave, six per cent of its vote share was eroded, but the party still retained a strong 42 per cent following among voters.
A resurgent youth and student wing is this time propelling the party to try to reclaim many of the seats it lost with leaders like Sarkar and his protege Jitendra Choudhary, the party’s tribal face, leading the campaign.
“Anti-incumbency worked against the CPI(M) in 2018. A deterioration in law and order, political violence and unfulfilled promises seem to be working against the BJP this time round, despite their road-building spree,” said Dutta.
“The real fight this time is the fight for the restoration of democracy, civil liberties and also (to create) jobs, income and increase purchasing power,” said Sarkar during the interview.
Sarkar during his term in office had earned an enviable reputation for the state with its literacy rate crossing 87 per cent besides a better-than-average rating on most health and social indicators.
However, endemic problems such as lack of industry and trade in the landlocked state despite being just 70 km away from a major port, Chittagong in Bangladesh, forcing most people to work for the state government (1.8 lakh out of a population of 40 lakh at last count) or migrate to the mainland in search of jobs remain and will possibly continue till India gets a port for the northeast.
The veteran Communist leader did try to get Tripura and the northeast, the outlet to the sea it needs by bolstering the central government’s diplomacy towards Bangladesh, offering Tripura’s share of gas-based power produced locally to the electricity-starved neighbour. However, till date trade and transit with Bangladesh from the northeast remain a problem which affects the region’s economy and prospects for job creation.
Born in a middle-class family, Sarkar joined the Communist movement as a student activist while studying at the Maharaja Bir Bikram College and soon became an SFI office bearer and eventually at the young age of 23, a member of the state committee of the CPI(M). After being elected MLA, he was made the chief whip of the party in 1980. At the age of 49 he was made a member of the party’s politburo and also chief minister of the state.
Most of Sarkar’s life was spent fighting the Congress party, and with the second phase of insurgency in the state, which he successfully controlled by a combination of carrot and stick measures towards militants, though improving a lot of the tribals remains at best a work in progress. This election of course has seen the Congress and CPI(M) joining hands to defeat the BJP, an incongruity that Sarkar readily admits.
“It is true we have fought against each other (CPI(M) and Congress) on the basis of ideology. But the RSS-BJP and their fascist rule have forced us to come together,” he said.
In case the combination manages to turn the electoral tables against BJP, the challenge will be for the two to work together as partners in a government, possibly a first of its kind. Veteran leaders like Sarkar may then well have a new role to play, that of political peacemakers.