A bit like elderly couples who begin to resemble each other after years of marriage, political parties in government, regardless of their original programmes and ideological persuasion, tend to exhibit like traits following long years in power – they invariably begin to represent all aspects of state power, move away from people, and almost always forget the message of their original mandate. The degree of change differs, depending on how long they have been in power.
The electoral result in Tripura, where the Left Front won 16 seats out of 60 in the recently-concluded assembly elections after 25 years in power, reflects just such a scenario. The shock of the defeat has evidently jolted outgoing chief minister Manik Sarkar to concede that his party was not prepared for the results. The first reactions from the CPI (M) following the loss complained of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s use of money power and communal polarisation, allegations that had a ring of truth but do not explain the entire reason for the defeat.
The first strategy of the BJP was straightforward, and one adopted by it repeatedly across states. It attacks the strongest point of the political opponent and shows it up as a weakness. For Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi, the party targeted his simplicity and public connect to create an image of an urban anarchist. In West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s case, the party took aim at her secular politics, tried to expose it as being actually communal and made her defensive enough to make appearances at Hindu religious functions – something she need not have done since she is widely known to be an avowed Kali devotee.
In Sarkar’s case the BJP was successful in tearing, almost to shreds, the Left Front government's claims to being incorruptible and efficient by unearthing a jobs scam and highlighting his inability to bring business and jobs to his state. The attacks were far too strong to counter with logic, like the difficulty is generating jobs and business in a remote hill state, or with Sarkar's reputation for personal rectitude and being the poorest chief minister in the country.
So, in this sense, one reason for the CPI (M)'s loss was external. However, the BJP strategy could be used to make big dents because of some self goals by Sarkar's government. These were basic issues that the Left refused to see, blinded by its long years in power and comfortable in the knowledge that there was no strong opposition to it in the state. The party’s comfort level in Tripura stopped it from correctly gauging the power of the BJP election machine that has ensured the installation of BJP or BJP-allied governments in 22 states, and now 23 with Tripura in the bag.
An example from the CPI(M)’s own history of being in power will explain what long years in government can do to move a party away from its core agenda. In West Bengal it introduced landmark land reforms under ‘Operation Barga’ after first coming to power in 1977. This is what provided the momentum that kept putting the Left Front back in power in election after election. Even when land was acquired in later years, as in Rajarhat, it was done after generally involving the local community and the landowners in the decision-making process. However, when the Left Front was voted out in the state in 2011 after 34 years in power, it was on the very land acquisition issue, where it was seen to have cheated poor landowners and used its massive mandate to push things through, as land is a state subject. Singur and Nandigram were the flash points. In the interim it was accused of being anti-people, anti-labour and even pro big business, not opposed to foreign capital – mainly due to its proximity to the Salem group of Malaysia – its ambiguous stand on disinvestment and formation of employees’ unions especially in the state’s fledgling IT industry of the time.
Perception is king, so no amount of reasoning on compensation amount could turn the tide following the agitations in Singur and Nandigram. This is also what happened in Tripura. Voted to power in 1993 on an agenda that included pro tribal measures and hailed for its policy of redistribution of resources, by the time it was voted out last week, it was accused of doing exactly the opposite by displaying the negative aspects of state power, marginalising tribal and ethnic groups, and generally being unable to grasp the nature of people’s aspirations. It began to resemble state power.
Some instances will clarify this. It initiated projects that displaced people from their homes, it did not insulate the ethnic population from the rising number of Bangladeshi refugees who had made the state their home, it unleashed a sort of Bengali imperialism on the tribal and ethnic population by giving Tripuri second language status and despite its Left-liberal views, allowed the use of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the state.
Aware of the rough and tumble of politics, politicians do not usually look for long years in power. One term is good, two is a bonus, and a third term is manna from heaven. So Manik Sarkar surely had an exceptional innings as chief minister of Tripura. However, the one thing that stands out as he leaves office is his simplicity. For the rest, it will take a lot of parting of the cobwebs to see into his days past as chief minister in order to assess his true contribution to the state.