As Bengali as he may be, Manik Sarkar and the Left’s electoral strength in Tripura lies in mobilising the indigenous Kokborok-speaking voters.
Despite a long history of tribal insurgency, the community, comprising 31.5 per cent of the state’s overall population, remains the bedrock of the CPM’s support as yet another election draws close.
An index of the Marxist influence over the indigenous electorate is reflected in the clean sweep by the CPM-led Left Front in elections to the autonomous district council (ADC) for tribals in 2005 and 2010.
In the last Assembly election in February, 2013, the Front captured all but one of the 20 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes, while in 2008 it had conceded defeat in just one to former rebel leader and incumbent Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT) president Bijay Kumar Hrangkhawal.
Besides, in the nine Lok Sabha polls held between 1980 and 2009, the CPM won the two Lok Sabha seats — West Tripura (general) and East Tripura (ST) — seven times, losing only the allegedly rigged polls of 1989 and boycotting the 1991 edition.
But the indigenous people accept this as normal and the result of the development work done by the Left Front government for all.
“The Bengali-tribal contradiction is a matter of the past and the Left Front works for all. We have rights over land and jobs, so we have no reason to blame anybody in racial terms,” said indigenous youth Ashok Debbarma, 30, a CPM sympathiser.
The Marxists had gained a foothold in Tripura’s electoral politics in the middle of the forties when the indigenous people were caught in a crossfire — influx from erstwhile East Bengal had been continuing under royal patronage and the princely state itself, ruled by Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya (1923-1926), was reeling under severe economic problems and poverty.
Gana Mukti Parishad (GMP) led by the legendary Dasharath Deb, who later became chief minister (1993-1998), launched a resistance programme against misrule.
By the middle of 1948, GMP merged with the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI), giving fresh impetus to the communist armed struggle in Tripura.
Nripen Chakraborty and other leaders had arrived to strengthen the communist movement, based exclusively on indigenous people, by August 1950.
“The communists had fought for our rights through the fifties and sixties when the entire indigenous population was being swamped by refugees from East Pakistan. It was only for raising the demand for a district council based on the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution for indigenous people that the CPM and CPI had suffered a debacle in the elections of 1967, winning only three of the 30 seats in the Union Territory’s Assembly,” said Manoranjan Debbarma, indigenous MLA from Mandai.
He also pointed out that even after the outbreak of ethnocentric politics in Tripura, when the state’s exclusively tribal-based regional outfit and now-defunct Tripura Upajati Juba Samity (TUJS) had come into being, the Marxists continued their struggle for rights of the indigenous people.
But the Marxists’ greatest success lay in mobilising non-tribal settlers in movements for indigenous people’s rights like the ADC.
The Left Front had come to power for the first time in 1978 and faced two consecutive ethnic riots in 1979 and 1980 because of the sharp polarisation brought about by the TUJS and Amra Bangali parties.
Nevertheless, the first Left Front had set up the ADC on the basis of Fifth Schedule of the Constitution through elections in January 1982 and within three years it passed under the more powerful Sixth Schedule.
“The ADC is now a vibrant body and symbolises the hopes and aspirations of indigenous people, so the Marxists enjoy their confidence,” said Manoranjan.
On ethnic composition of the party and domination of non-tribals in the CPM, party secretary and central committee member Bijan Dhar said, “Marxists do not believe in ethnicity, race or religion. We look at people on the basis of their class composition and character and prioritise our programmes for development of the poor and oppressed communities. This is the reality and the secret of our success.”
The Left’s popularity is reflected in its continued electoral supremacy over the past 36 years except for a brief interregnum of five years between 1988 and 1993.
With a fragmented and demoralised Opposition, the Marxists are well on course to retaining both the Lok Sabha seats this time, too, on the strength of their statewide organisation and an overwhelming campaign spearheaded by chief minister Manik Sarkar and his lieutenants.
For the Opposition, it is a fight for the second place.