19 March 2018 National Cover Story

Sunset In The East

As the ruins of its lost bastion in Tripura are inspected, CPI(M) mandarins prepare to decide on an alliance with the Congress
Sunset In The East
Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee
Sunset In The East

The CPI(M)-led Left Front’s steep fall in the recent Tripura Assembly election—ending its 25-year old rule and bringing a BJP-led coalition to power here for the first time—has brought back to boil the debate that has been roiling the party: whether an alliance with the Congress was the need of the hour.

Though the Congress is not being named, the resolution at the end of the five-day state conference of the CPI(M) in Calcutta (from March 5-9) may end with a call for uniting with all “democratic and secular” forces to deal with the bete noire number one—the BJP.

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A similar proposal, contained in a resolution moved by CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury at the party’s central committee meeting in New Delhi in January, was res­oundingly defeated in a 55-31 vote by the delegates. The main opposition to Yechury’s proposal comes from CPI(M) leaders from Kerala—the only state where the CPI(M) is in power and where its main rival is the Congress. This position was explicitly reiterated by Kerala party leader M.A. Baby rec­ently. Leaders from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are also strongly behind the Kerala comrades on this.

Mohammad Selim, a central committee and politburo member of the CPI(M), says that this was a key issue to be discussed at the party congress in Hyderabad next month. “It is not just about Congress, it s for joining with all secular democratic parties against communal forces. Of course, it will be reviewed in the context of Tripura poll results. A stronger endorsement could emerge for following such an electoral tactic but it can’t be stated with any certainty yet.”

Optimists in the party’s Bengal unit feel that even states which earlier shrank from the idea of joining forces with the Congress are now having a re-think. CPI(M) leaders from UP, Bihar and Maharashtra are likely to support the proposal, since they too face the immediate challenge of an ascendant BJP.

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The mood swing among many delegates at the Calcutta conference, party insiders say, was interesting to watch. Many who were till recently sceptical of an alliance with the Congress, especially after the discouraging experience in the 2016 Assembly election in West Bengal, are now aghast at the looming BJP threat in Bengal. The way the Hindutva group was gobbling up political space to emerge as the main opposition to Mamata Banerjee’s rule has set alarm bells ringing among them.

Past CPI(M) chief ministers like Manik Sarkar (above) were honest, and good administrators. But it wasn’t enough.

Significantly, ousted Tripura CM Manik Sarkar and many leaders of the party’s Tripura unit, who earlier had not considered such an alliance as an option now seem to be having second thoughts, as news of BJP-led vandalism and attacks against Communist cadres in the state rushes in.

Basudeb Majumdar, a four-time former CPI(M) MLA from Belonia, acknowledges that the idea of fighting the BJP along with the Congress had been discussed before the polls. “It was not an option during the Tripura elections. Communists and the Congress have different ideologies and approaches to iss­ues,” he points out. He adds hurriedly, “That’s not to say there will never be such an arrangement. It is the party’s decision.”

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A dispassionate and objective analysis of the reasons beh­ind the party’s debacle in Tripura might take a while. At present, reasons are sought by party sympathisers.

“The 25-year-old Communist regime in Tripura was nothing like the 34-year old Left rule in West Bengal,” says Swapan Chandra Muhuri. The former resident of a remote village from Tripura, who is in the unique position of comparing the two Communist regimes, tells Outlook, “The Left’s realities in the two neighbouring states are poles apart.”

An agricultural trader in Calcutta for the past two decades, he recalls what he calls the “extremely efficient administration” of the Manik Sarkar government when he was a student at Tripura’s Belonia College, where a statue of Lenin was razed to the ground recently. Muhuri has seen the video of the demolition, and it leaves him incredulous. “This is not the Belonia, or the Tripura, of my childhood and youth,” he rues.

Muhuri doesn’t think people in Tripura harbour so much bottled-up rage as to attack symbols of Communism. It’s not like in Bengal, he says, where people were fed up with the party as it infiltrated every institution—administrative, bure­aucratic, educational, even police—denying jobs, government benefits and other opportunities to ‘outsiders’ or non-party people for decades. “Unlike in Bengal,” he says, “before elections, even in the backward villages like mine, we didn’t find CPI(M) cadres intimidating voters into staying away. Local administration, even in the remotest regions, functioned well; we had drinking water taps and electricity in most houses.”

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Muhuri attributes the Left’s downfall to “the failure to adapt to the times”.  According to Muhuri, “All three CPI(M) CMs of Tripura—Nripen Chakraborty, Dashrath Deo and Manik Sarkar—had clean images. They were impeccable Communists, each leading austere lives. During their rule, there was justice, but it was not enough. People got tired of the Left’s inability to go beyond Marxism and Leninism. They wanted progress, development and a share of the excitement that the mainland offers.”

CPI(M) members in Tripura feel it was their inability to nail the BJP’s unrealistic promises that cost them the state.

Muhuri’s analysis is a representative one. Its echoes are found in the voices of others Outlook spoke to.

“They just seemed to be stuck in the past. They were not doing anything to  move forward,” said an Agartala schoolteacher, who “didn’t vote for the CPI(M)” for the first time.

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However, Tripura Communists feel it was their inability to nail the BJP’s lie that cost them the state. Majumdar, the former Belonia MLA, says, “Our failure was that we were unable to call out the BJP’s lies and convince people that they were making false promises.”

He says that the BJP poll promise of jobs to members of every household in Tripura was an implausible claim a realistic CPI(M) never made. “We tried our best, over the past two-and-a-half decades, to provide employment to the needy, the meritorious and the deserving, but our approach was grounded, honest and not beyond the realms of the possible.” Clearly, the approach failed to impress large numbers of young voters.

The party, however, has not given up all hope in Tripura. It has perfect reason not to.

“You have to remember that almost every other adm­in­istrative body in Tripura continues to be controlled by the Left Front,” points out Pradip Muhuri, a ‘moh­­okuma-level’ party leader. “From municipal cor­pora­tions down to gram panchayats, Communists still rule.”

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Bringing up the comparisons with Bengal, Pradip says: “Before the Left Front lost power there in the 2011 ass­embly elections, there were many signs. The CPI(M) lost almost half its seats in the Parliamentary polls of 2009. But in Tripura, just six months earlier, the Left swept the assembly bypolls, as it did in panchayat-level elections in north Tripura less than two months ago.”

The change in electoral fortune, therefore, is being att­ributed to money and muscle power that the BJP emp­loyed to win. A  CPI(M) cadre claimed that “goons forcefully entered booths and handed bundles of cash—not less than 10 to 20 thousand rupees to each family.”

But there is no clear answer yet whether joining hands with the Congress will be the best option for comrades in Tripura to regain their lost pride.

By Pranay Sharma and Dola Mitra

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