IN 1978, the Left Front came to power in Tripura for the first time, a feat that was achieved in a large part due to Nripen Chakraborty, who was singlehandedly responsible for having built the party’s base in the smallest Northeastern state. When Chakraborty moved into the chief minister’s official residence after assuming charge, the only thing that went inside the bungalow was an old tin trunk. After losing the 1988 polls to the Congress-led alliance, he walked out of the bungalow with the same old trunk, before leaving for the MLA hostel in Agartala in a cycle rickshaw.
Chakraborty is no more, but his legacy has been carried forward by someone, whom he once mentored: Tripura’s current CMManik Sarkar. At 64, Sarkar has served three straight terms as chief minister of Tripura, the only Left-ruled state in the nation, and eyeing a fourth term.
In this age of the SUV-riding smartphone-carrying new age politician, Sarkar can easily qualify to hold a Below Poverty Line (BPL) ration card. The affidavit submitted by the chief minister for the 14 February Assembly polls says that his cash in hand has reduced from Rs 3,000 in 2008 to Rs 1,080. In 2008, Sarkar’s bank balance was Rs 13,920; that has also come down to Rs 9,720 in the past five years. To call an asset, the man only has a 432 square feet tin-shed house that he inherited after his mother Anjani Sarkar passed away in 2009. His wife Panchali Bhattacharjee is a retired Central government employee. The couple does not have any children.
Sarkar has often said that he has depended on his wife to sustain them. The two met when Panchali was part of the Leftist student movement that Sarkar led in Tripura in the 1970s. Like her husband, Panchali also believes in a humble living and works as a social worker after her retirement. “Since Panchalidi is a social activist as well, there are occasions when she has to go to the same event as the CM, but she never uses the official vehicle,” says Krishna Rakshit, a woman leader of the Left Front in Tripura. “She walks or takes an autorickshaw.”
A teetotaller, who loves to eat omelettes, Sarkar might also pass off as the lowest paid chief minister in the country. “He gets Rs 9,200 per month as salary and Rs 1,200 as subsidiary allowance, and deposits the entire amount in the party fund,” says CPM state secretary Bijan Dhar. “In return, the party pays him Rs 5,000 per month as sustenance allowance. He does not have a mobile phone, because he is always in his office working late into the night.”
In 2008, the Left pulled off a resounding victory for a fourth consecutive term, winning 49 out of 60 seats in the Assembly. The Congress-led alliance won 11 seats. That has been the political narrative of Tripura for the past 20 years. For the Opposition, the CM’s clean image has been the biggest huddle.
“It is true that Manik Sarkar is very honest and perhaps at an individual level, we do not have a figure like him,” admits veteran Congress leader Tapas De, “but to try and win an election on the basis of having a clean chief minister is not enough. In the past 20 years, the CPM has nothing concrete to show except an honest CM.”
Shattered by poll reverses in Kerala and West Bengal, the Left would be desperately hoping that Sarkar will pull off what VS Achutanandan and Buddadeb Bhatttacharjee could not do in Kerala and West Bengal — keeping the CPM relevant in Indian politics. So how does this CPM apparatchik manage to win election after election in a state that has seen both the horrors of insurgency as well as the glooms of underdevelopment? The fact remains that Sarkar, as chief minister from 1998, has also been the most successful politician in the Northeast when it came to scaling down a long-sustained ethnic insurgency.
Sarkar’s clean image is partly complemented by his ability to be seen at the right place at the right time. For instance, he makes it a point to visit each and every blood donation camp organised in the state. It is telling that Tripura now has the highest number of voluntary blood donations in the nation.
“To check insurgency, on the one hand, while the government was successful in generating employment for tribal youths, on the other, Sarkar also pushed hard for counter insurgency operations and was able to bring to Delhi’s notice the issue of cross-border insurgency from Bangladesh,” says senior political observer Sujit Chakraborty.
HOWEVER, THAT is not to say that Sarkar’s administration is flawless. “Despite his honesty, the CM has been weak in acting against corruption within his party and the bureaucracy,” says former CPM MP from Tripura, Ajoy Biswas. “He shields corrupt leaders with his inaction so that no one revolts against him and his leadership.”
In 2012, a Rs 7.79 crore Unique Identification (UID) — Aadhaar scam — was unearthed in the state. The Opposition alleged that the state government had received Rs 50 per enrollment of Aadhaar from the UID authority but had paid only Rs 26 per enrollment to a Delhi-based consultant. The 13th Finance Commission had also awarded Rs 6.40 crore to the state to arrange for conveyance and cash payment for BPL card-holders to ensure successful enrollment but not a single rupee reached the intended recipients.
In 2011, the Assembly was rocked by a Rs 400 crore scam involving the selling and transferring of 12,880 acres of land in the tea estates in north Tripura over a period of many years. In 2008, the then Tripura food and civil supplies minister Sahid Choudhury had to quit office for his alleged links with Bangladeshi HuJI terrorist Mamun Mian, who was arrested in Agartala. “Sarkar went out of his way to give a clean chit to the minister,” adds Biswas. “This shows that he is weak.”
Of late, Sarkar has also come under criticism because of what some call his “dictatorial ways”. “He does not appreciate criticism and does not listen to his own Cabinet colleagues,” says a senior CPM leader on condition of anonymity. “Since he is a Politburo member and close to the power centres in the party, others cannot take him head on.”
That may be so, but for the CPM, Sarkar is still their best hope, their proverbial last straw. Perhaps in Sarkar, the Left has found the stability that deserted it in other states.