Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar, 64, is campaigning at distant constituencies since morning everyday. But he took time off for a free-wheeling interview to Sudipta Bhattacharjee at the CPM party office in Agartala and spoke on a wide range of subjects, including his conviction that the electorate would vote him to power for a straight fourth term.
Excerpts from the interview
You joined politics in 1967 by participating in the food movement. Do tell us about your entry into the CPM.
As a schoolboy in Class IX or X, I was elected “cultural affairs minister”. We took to activism as part of the food revolution when we spontaneously launched an anti-hoarding movement and sold rice at subsidised rates to the people. Prior to that we had a “forest julum (agitation)”. Left leader Nripen Chakraborty (we didn’t know about him in those days, we only knew of Dasharath Deb) came to meet us students and encouraged us. That laid the foundation for my future activities. We petitioned IAS officer Umanath Sharma on the escalating food prices and gheraoed him. Gherao was a new word then. There was police firing at Udaipur (my home) in Tripura as protests spread and a fisherman was killed. We went into hiding. I came to Agartala from Udaipur as a college student and joined the polytechnic. There I was influenced by a student leader, Amal Bhattacharya. That paved the way for my entry into Left politics...
You won your first Assembly election from Krishnanagar constituency in Agartala in 1980. Since 1998, you have represented Dhanpur in Sipahijala district, on the Indo-Bangladesh border. What have been your priorities?
My goals are clear: the people’s quality of life must be improved. Within the limitations of a state government we try to ensure that. There is no room for complacency. I work for development, not for raising per capita income (although our per capita income in the Tenth Plan was Rs 29,081, it is now Rs 50,000). A lot of work remains to be done. Ameliorating the problems of the electorate is possible only if the government at the Centre helps. The Centre has been apathetic to us but I aim for the sky, taking one milestone at a time. Regarding my party’s priorities, the manifesto underlines connectivity, improvement and modernisation. We started with minus-zero, when we took over from the Congress. A lot has been achieved in the farm sector. Infrastructure has to be developed and the purchasing capacity increased. We have to aim for industrialisation and improved telecommunication. Tripura must register healthy growth and a self-sufficient economy.
You recently met President Pranab Mukherjee and demanded better connectivity between India and Bangladesh. The Agartala-Akhaura rail link is making slow progress. How do you propose to expedite the project, which is being sponsored by two ministries (DoNER and external affairs) and other border-related issues?
For industrialisation and progress, we need to open our borders internationally. We have been speaking of linking up with Chittagong sea port and Ashuganj river port and of rail and air link. The road link exists, as we are bound by Bangladesh on three sides. The Sheikh Hasina government is cooperating with us and their attitude is not negative. We hope to have the Akhaura-Agartala rail link completed. Flights between Agartala and Dhaka and Chittagong would help, even twice a week.
You have been projected as one of the “cleanest” chief ministers in the country. Tell us something about your development agenda, given the lack of industry here, though you are setting up specialised business parks for rubber and bamboo.
We are pitching for the agricultural sector by consolidating connectivity with industry. We are trying to create infrastructure. Industrialists are showing keen interest. We have nature’s gifts — abundant reserves of natural gas, rubber (superior quality) and bamboo. About 60 per cent of the country’s agarbatti sticks are made in Tripura. We have a rich harvest of fruits — pineapple, jackfruit, orange, litchi and banana.
The Centre has been cool to your demand for harnessing surplus power. How do you hope to tackle this?
We are a power-surplus state. I’m glad you mentioned this because the Centre’s inertia is preventing us from sending the power to the national grid. It could allay power crisis. Perhaps it will happen some day, when power generated here will help other states.
Do you have any plans of employment generation for the youth?
The Centre asked us to cut down on government jobs but we are not doing so. We have opened employment avenues and given jobs in schools and offices to nearly 25,000 youths in the past year. When Tripura became a state in January 1972, there were 28,000 jobs. Today that figure is 162,000. These figures should speak for themselves.
Insurgency has been minimal during your tenure. Do you have any message on this for your counterparts in the other northeastern states?
Insurgent outfits raise some ideological and political questions. Not all indigenous community members are insurgents, but they are the most impacted. Our government explained how their reasoning was hollow and faulty. We brought about development in tribal areas. Secondly, we strengthened security on our own and created pressure. We did so with the people’s support. But the militants are still active. They are being mobilised by the Congress and the INPT to disrupt these polls.
You mention in your election rallies that the credit should not go to your government for the peace that prevails. That it should go to the people. How was this ensured?
Hindus, Muslims, Bengalis and indigenous communities comprise this state. If they did not cooperate, no amount of guns or bullets could have ensured peace. I am telling our people that they have restored peace. Now they must protect it. I tell the people that even if they cannot afford luxuries, they should have the basics and live in peace.
Will you be able to protect the last Communist bastion of the country, saving the party’s face before next year’s parliamentary polls?
I don’t make false promises. What I cannot deliver, I do not claim to do. But I will try my best to ensure development. Land acquisition is directly from the landowner, the government is only the facilitator. So we hope to have industry, a shining economy. And yes, we hope to bring the Left to power once again.