A few months ahead of what is expected to be a challenging national election, India's incumbent Congress Party, widely blamed for corruption and a stalled economy, has commenced its candidate selection process for parliamentary seats in the country's northeast, a region that includes a state where Communists maintain significant political power. According to the Indo-Asian News Service, the northeastern states boast 25 seats in New Delhi's Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament. The state of Assam alone commands 14 seats, while Tripura, Meghalaya, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh have two seats each; and Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim each have one MP.
But the tiny state of Tripura may prove to be a particular obstacle for the Congress Party. With less than 4 million people, Tripura is ruled by the Left Front, a Marxist party linked to the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M). Both of Tripura’s current MPs in the Lok Sabha are Communists. In fact, the Communists have controlled Tripura since 1993 and in February of last year retained power for a fifth consecutive term, gaining (with their coalition partners) an impressive 50 of the 60 seats in the state assembly. Chief Minister Manik Sarkar has held his seat for the past 15 years. Indian media reported that Sarkar proudly carries the title of being the "poorest chief minister in India," and reportedly has only $250 in his bank account.
Bordered by Bangladesh on the north, south, and west, and the Indian states of Mizoram and Assam on the east, Tripura is dominated by the Bengali ethnic group, but also includes a significant (about 30 percent) minority population of “scheduled tribes,” that is, the indigenous community who are the original inhabitants of the region. Tripura is a largely agrarian society, with about half the population engaged in agricultural work. Communists have found support among both the tribals and farm laborers who have historically opposed the interests of landowners and influence from the central government of India.
Tripura remains a lonely bastion of Communism in India – the party had also enjoyed a long reign of power in both West Bengal and Kerala in the south, but in recent years has become marginalized on a national basis. Indeed, after 34 years in power in the heavily populated state of West Bengal, the Communists were removed in 2011 by the Trinamool Congress. (Consider that Jyoti Basu was the Communist chief minister of West Bengal for almost a quarter-century, from 1977 to 2000, which made him the longest-serving chief minister in Indian history). Similarly, in Kerala, the local Communists lost to the United Democratic Front, a coalition led by Congress, after decades of holding power or at least significant influence in the state.
Michael Kugelman, an expert on South Asian affairs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said in an interview that it's not surprising that the Marxists have made major inroads in Tripura. “Left-wing politics have always been present in India,” he noted. “Even though the country's political trajectory has changed tremendously in recent decades, constituencies remain for what may otherwise seem to be anachronistic ideologies.”
But Chief Minister Sarkar is facing a number of problems in his little hammer-and-sickle kingdom. For example, he recently expressed his vehement opposition to a proposal by the central government to divide his tiny state in order to increase seats for Congress (which is exactly what is happening in the state of Andhra Pradesh through the artificial creation of a new state called Telangana there). Specifically, a small party claiming to represent the tribal people, the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura, has demanded that a separate state be carved out. The tribals of Tripura already enjoy some measure of autonomous rule, but the IPFT want a total separation. (There are doubts that the IPFT has much of a following among the tribal peoples they allegedly represent.)
In response, Sarkar declared that his government provides service to all people in Tripura without regard to ethnicity, religion or political persuasion. "Governance has been reaching every village in Tripura,” he told a Communist party gathering in the town of Amarpur, according to the Times of India. “People of all ethnic and religious groups are getting dispassionate services and benefits from the government. None of them have any resentment and there is transparency in running the government.” Even the local arm of the Congress Party opposes statehood for Tripura’s tribals.
But IPFT President Narandra Chandra Debbarma claimed that the "fundamental problems” of the tribals have not been solved. “Tribals continue to lose their lands. Even the state of the [Kokborok] language of the indigenous tribal people is miserable," Debbarma told reporters, adding that tribals once formed the majority of people in Tripura and now represent only about one-third of the population.
Sarkar also promised that his administration will continue to provide jobs for the state’s youth even in the face of limited resources, amidst rising unemployment. In response to the jobs shortage, some Communist officials have had their offices and property vandalized and even their persons assaulted in some cases. "We would not stop providing government jobs to the unemployed youths," Sarkar said, according to the Jagran Post newspaper. "Tripura is a small state. It has limited resources. Despite the limitations, the state government continued to provide government jobs.”
Despite their long-term domination of Tripura politics, Communists have often found themselves in trouble. In 1995, the-then chief minister, Nripen Chakraborty, was kicked out of the party for criticizing what he considered to be corruption in neighboring West Bengal under Communist Chief Minister Basu.
Last October, a low-level Tripura Communist lawmaker found himself in a particularly embarrassing imbroglio. In a bizarre episode, Samar Acharjee was filmed on a cell phone literally sleeping on a bed stuffed with rupee notes (worth about $24,000 in all). Acharjee buried himself deeper by bragging to the camera that the cash on display was only a fraction of the $110,000 he had earned by facilitating government contracts. To add to the farce, Acharjee said his dream is to sleep on a bed six times as large (meaning he wants to accumulate a far bigger fortune. He even editorialized by claiming that unlike Tripura’s ruling Communists he is not a hypocrite since he doesn’t pretend to be one of the “proletariat.”
After the video was leaked to a TV channel and spilled all across the Internet, Acharjee was finished – his braggadocio outraged many in a country wracked by political corruption and poverty. It turned out that Acharjee had earned a fortune setting up government contracts for the construction of public toilets and even had a welfare card to receive state-subsidized food (both violations of Communist Party rules). "People are dying of hunger and this idiot is showing off his money," Sunil Sharma, a furniture mover in New Delhi, told Indian media. "People like me will never see that much money in our lives. This is just wrong."
Acharjee’s misadventure offered a priceless opportunity for Congress in Tripura, who not only called for his arrest but for the public release of the assets held by the state’s leading Communists. "The government is corrupt from top to bottom," bellowed Ratan Lal Nath, a Congress Party leader in Tripura. "If a local committee member has this much money, can you imagine how much the main leaders are making?" Sarkar had no choice but to fire Acharjee (reportedly, for harboring “anti-Communist ideology” and for "staining the image of the party"). "We are embarrassed because this kind of activity lowers our party prestige," said Bijan Dhar, state secretary for the Communist Party in Tripura. "He [Acharjee] never informed us that he was a small-time contractor."
Indeed, the glory days of Indian Communists have long since gone. An op-ed in OneIndia commented on the “sheer absence” of leftist parties in national political dialogue, despite the fact that CPI-M and its rival, the Communist Party of India, are still two of the six recognized national parties of the country. “So what went wrong for the Left Front parties and particularly CPI-M and CPI?,” OneIndia rhetorically asked. “Has the Left got it all wrong in terms of reading the mood of the aspiring youth of the nation? Has it lost its entire appeal of socialism which has become more synonymous with other national parties? Has it failed to realize the near irrelevance of Communism in India's context?”
OneIndia proposed that the “Left” (an umbrella term for various Communist and Marxist parties across India) has declined due to its own “dogmatic insistence” of not seeing the “writing on the wall.” “Over the last two decades, there has been phenomenal metamorphosis of India happening, especially with the unshackling of the economic restrictions, the rise of Indian private sector as well as the aspirations of young India striving to break impediments, unleash their creativity and taking plunge into the realm of entrepreneurship by discarding the concerns of job security,” OneIndia explained. “For the youth of today, it is the entrepreneurs who defied odds to create world-class Indian companies, who are bigger idols than some ubiquitous Marxist-Leninist leaders of the past.”
Indeed, when economic liberalization has improved the lot of hundreds of millions of poor and lower-class Indians, the very notion of “class struggle” has lost all meaning. “The Left's aversion to cultural nationalism or spirituality, be it [Hindu] Vedic Spirituality or [Islamic] Sufism, too has lost most of its appeal as India's rich cultural traditions have thrived and survived and today has more appeal even globally than ever before,” OneIndia noted.
But Kugelman does not think Marxists will completely vanish from India’s political landscape. “India's political history can help explain why this is the case,” he said. “For much of the Cold War, India refused to align with either of the two superpowers, though in reality it did lean toward the Soviet Union. This, along with the resiliency of postcolonial liberation views -- as well as a long-running Maoist insurgency in eastern India -- has ensured the continuation of these leftist views.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.