The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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I have long been an admirer of Mani Shankar Aiyar’s columns. Like the man himself, they are racy, witty, combative and free of jargon, if not always politically astute. I have also known that he has the rare virtue of publicly owning up to a mistake. In 1987, when I worked for another newspaper, we quarrelled on the lawns of the Raj Bhavan in Darjeeling as he was very upset with my report of Rajiv Gandhi’s public meeting there the day before. Six years later, recalling that meeting in one of his columns in the Sunday magazine, Mani remembered me again, this time to say that I was the only journalist to have given the correct picture of Rajiv’s day out in Darjeeling.

Precisely because my admiration for his writings has since grown steadily, I read his column of February 25 in this newspaper on the Tripura assembly elections with utter disbelief. Well, he is the Congress general secretary in charge of the Northeast and so had to paint the party’s prospects in glowing colours. I could understand him making the rosiest of projections for the party faithful in Agartala. But making them in his column was like telling the reader that he actually believed in his own propaganda.

Let me begin where Mani began his historic blunder. He took off with the crowds at Sonia Gandhi’s meetings in Agartala and Kailashahar and said he had been “following Congress leaders to mass meetings for far too long to not know” the electoral significance of the crowds who attend such meetings and also of those who do not .

I wonder if Mani remembers a public meeting Rajiv addressed in Cooch Behar during the 1989 parliamentary election campaign in West Bengal. I recall it as one of the biggest Congress meetings anywhere in the state , other than those at the Brigade Parade Ground in Calcutta in the last 20 years. Yet the party lost the Cooch Behar seat to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) by more than 100,000 votes. I suspect that he saw the Congress’s victory in the crowds that flocked Sonia’s meetings, rather than a defeat in the invisible crowd of absentees.

But the real blunder was his faith in the alliance forged between the Congress and the new-fangled Indigenous Nationalist Front of Twipra to ensure a “forthcoming victory” in Tripura. Here was, to Mani, the infallible recipe for the winning numbers since the two parties would together take care of the Bengali and tribal votebanks. And he predicted a two-thirds majority for the alliance because “revolution is inevitable in Tripura”! His confidence had another solid reason — the Marxists would not be able to rig the elections this time, thanks to the voting machine and the “good job” done by chief election commissioner, James Michael Lyngdoh, to ensure security.

Let me now say why Tripura behaved the way it did in these elections. The alliance with the INPT, which Mani saw as the trump card, actually sealed the Congress’s fate. The Congress had long fought elections in the state with a tribal outfit, the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti, as an ally. So the party had always tried to forge the kind of combination of tribal and Bengali votes that the alliance with the INPT was expected to gather. The left presented the INPT as an arm of the outlawed Tripura National Liberation Front, which is dreaded by both the Bengalis and tribals for its gory record of killings and abductions. The people who should have held the ruling Marxists responsible for the violence feared worse in the event of a Congress-INPT victory.

The Congress’s faith in the INPT was based on the elections to the tribal-dominated autonomous district council three years ago, in which the Left Front was mauled by another tribal outfit, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, in collusion with gun-wielding rebels. The majority Bengali community, living constantly under the shadow of tribal militancy, got a major scare in those elections. The Congress’s alliance with the INPT not only revived but actually aggravated the fears of the Bengali voters.

The CPI(M) had a campaign windfall in a speech that the INPT leader, Bijoy Hrangkhawl, gave at a recent meeting in Geneva, virtually pleading for a sovereign Tripura under tribal rule. The Congress attempts at damage-control did not help. It is not so much the Reds, as Mani said, as the Bengalis who saw red at the INPT’s thinly veiled communal campaign.

If the Congress read Bengali sentiments wrong, it did no better in understanding the tribal situation. The communist party began its journey in Tripura as a party of the tribals, among whom its influence is still formidable. The victims of the state’s tribal militancy include a large number of tribal activists of the CPI(M). The Congress, on the other hand, has steadily lost its support among the Bengalis, who were once its principal votebank. The party never had much influence among the tribals. Hence its poll tie-ups with some tribal outfit or the other.

The other thing that Mani got wrong was the nature of the political polarization that the CPI(M) works on to win elections, as much in West Bengal as in Tripura or Kerala. That explains why, despite the fears of Bengalis and the Congress’s poor organization, the Congress-INPT alliance secured 45 per cent of votes in Tripura. But the left managed to hold on to over 50 per cent, the difference of five per cent giving it a two-thirds majority. Much the same thing happened in the last assembly elections in West Bengal, although the gap in vote-share between the left and Congress-Trinamool Congress alliance was wider.

In fact, one school of analysts believes that it is entrenched political polarizations, and not issues or campa- igns, that make all the difference in elections. But then vote-shares of polarized political camps do fall or rise, even if in small quantities. In West Bengal, where the left has been in power for six successive terms, and in Tripura, where it has lost the elections only once since 1978, the fall in the left vote has never been drastic enough to cause a defeat. In Kerala, on the other hand, even a fall of one per cent of votes has lead to the fall of the left — or Congress — government.

A really big event before the polls could upset such a polarized scenario in a big way. In West Bengal, the left’s biggest electoral losses in the past 25 years were in the 1984 parliamentary elections that came in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. In Tripura, the left lost power in 1988 when large-scale killings resulted in the imposition of the Disturbed Areas Act on the eve of the elections. In elections held under comparatively normal circumstances, the people’s political preferences change only slowly. The anti-incumbency factor does not work if the electoral arithmetic results in political polarization, as West Bengal and Tripura have proved time and again.

Recalling Trotsky’s thesis that revolutions are impossible unless they are inevitable, Mani was convinced that the Tripura “revolution” was inevitable. What he apparently didn’t know was that electoral revolutions are impossible unless they are arithmetically inevitable.

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