Conquest of Tripura

Big lessons from a small state

By Manini Chatterjee
  • Published 5.03.18
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Tucked away in the distant Northeast and accounting for a mere two seats in the Lok Sabha, the state of Tripura remains on the periphery of national consciousness; its electoral choices of marginal interest to the so-called mainstream.

Yet, on March 3, when the results of the assembly elections came in, the Bharatiya Janata Party was exulting over its massive victory in tiny Tripura much in the same way that it celebrated its sweep in the giant heartland state of Uttar Pradesh a year ago. The party's good showing in Nagaland on the same day, and earlier victories in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, were put in the shade by the euphoria over Tripura.

That euphoria was not misplaced. It lay in the fact that Tripura was among the last red bastions in the country, ruled for the last quarter of a century not by some or other small regional outfit but the Left Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Since the run-up to the 2014 general elections, the BJP's supreme leader, Narendra Modi, has relentlessly raised the slogan of a "Congress- mukt Bharat", and the party president, Amit Shah, has marshaled all the resources at his command to deliver that dream. With the Congress scoring a duck in both Tripura and Nagaland, that slogan gained yet more traction on Saturday.

But if the Congress remains the BJP's main political adversary in large parts of the country, the Left has always been the primary ideological enemy of its mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The foremost RSS ideologue, M.S. Golwalkar, made this point repeatedly. In his book, Bunch of Thoughts, Golwalkar devotes a section to the three "internal threats" facing the nation, which he identifies as the Muslims, the Christians, and the Communists.

For Golwalkar, the communists with their internationalism and emphasis on class struggle posed a great threat to the "Hindu" essence of the Indian nation.

Ironically, though, even while reviling the communists, many RSS and BJP leaders have harboured a grudging admiration for them. While the Congress and other regional parties are dismissed as corrupt, venal, effete, and wedded to nepotism and self-aggrandizement, the BJP sees the Left as a far more formidable adversary because of the avowed "dedication" of its cadres and the "commitment" of its leaders to causes that go beyond the desire for personal power and pelf. The Left's organizational discipline also used to be a matter of envy and emulation for the RSS and BJP leaders when the BJP was a fledgling party and the communists more influential in national politics.

With the Modi-Shah juggernaut determined to expand the RSS's "One Nation, One People, One Culture" ideal to include "One Party" that will rule all of India, defeating the Congress is not enough. Other Opposition parties too have to be defeated or co-opted to achieve that goal. In this scheme of things, vanquishing the Left is imperative since it - in spite of the enfeebled state of the communist parties - still has the capacity to fight against the RSS's project of transforming India into a Hindu rashtra.

Schooled as they were in RSS shakhas, both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are well aware of this. While Modi continues to train his guns at the Congress, Shah has marked out Kerala and Bengal as his next targets - clubbing the two together even though the Left Front has been ousted in Bengal. With Tripura the only other state where the CPI(M) was in power, a victory in the state was crucial to send out a larger political message to its own workers and to the rest of the country.

To this end, the BJP planned out its Tripura campaign along the lines of an all-out war and went about it with the zeal of a conquering army. Under the overall charge of the RSS prabhari, Sunil Deodhar, who moved to Tripura two years ago, and with the help of its powerful Assam leader, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who defected from the Congress to the BJP and has become a key interlocutor for the saffron forces in the Northeast, the BJP brought into its fold practically the entire Congress unit in the state. It also tied up with the separatist tribal outfit, the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura - a crucial alliance that helped the combine sweep all the reserved tribal seats.

The BJP, which won a mere 1.54 per cent of the votes in the last assembly elections in Tripura in 2013, did not grow organically from below. But having got the entire anti-Left edifice through wholesale appropriation, the party used its own ample resources - that have multiplied manifold since its national victory in 2014 - to run a high-voltage campaign in the state for several months. Hundreds of "volunteers" from other states were brought in to help run the campaign and top leaders of the party were requisitioned to address rallies across the state. The prime minister made two trips to the state but the star campaigner was the party's latest Hindutva icon, Yogi Adityanath, whose Nath sect is said to have a big following in Tripura.

Manik Sarkar, the country's poorest chief minister and an epitome of personal probity, stood little chance of beating back the new opposition that suddenly took Tripura by storm. The pent up dissatisfaction that is normal in any state where the same party has ruled for 25 years got ignited by the " Chalo Paltai" slogan coined by the BJP much in the same way that the call for "Poriborton" swept away the CPI(M)-led Left Front in Bengal seven years ago.

But for the CPI(M) to dismiss the Tripura result as an outcome of the BJP's deployment of money power and appropriation of the Congress, and not see it as part of a larger crisis facing the Left, seems myopic and self-defeating.

The truth is that for several years now, and particularly since the BJP came to power in 2014 and proceeded to transform the political and social fabric of the country, the CPI(M) - still the biggest entity within the Left - has been retreating into a hole of its own making, comforted by a cocoon of old jargon and outdated dogma.

At a time when the Left needs to be far more inventive, creative, and imaginative to meet the changed political circumstances which threaten the fundamental pillars of Indian state and society, the CPI(M) leadership prefers to squander its time on arcane debates on "political-tactical line" that lend its leaders a veneer of theoretical sophistication at the cost of full-blooded and full-bodied mass politics.

At a time when the beleaguered communist parties need to build the broadest of alliances to take on the forces of Hindutva, the self-styled CPI(M) hardliners are loath to have any "understanding" with the "neo-liberal" Congress, lest it sully their "revolutionary" purity. In document after document - and the communists excel in excessive verbiage - the call for "independent Left mobilization" and the need for "programmatic understanding" with other parties is repeated ad nauseam - with little signs of such mobilization or understanding taking place.

The party rails against "neo-liberalism" but fails to explain in simple terms what it exactly means. Nor does it bother to launch mass campaigns against, say, spiralling school fees and hospital bills - two direct fallouts on ordinary people of the neo-liberal offensive that seeks to make profits out of the people's basic needs.

Equally, its fight against communalism is seldom witnessed on the streets and mohallas where the minorities live in fear. Civil society and human rights activists, new Dalit and student groups have come out more forcefully in the battle for a secular, plural and egalitarian nation than the mainstream Left parties who have so much more resources and manpower.

The BJP is bound to use the Tripura verdict to inject a new fighting spirit among its cadres, especially in Bengal and Kerala. It can prove to be a turning point for the Left, too, if it impels the CPI(M) top leadership to step out of its ivory tower, shed its customary hubris, robustly engage with a broad swathe of political parties and social movements, and play the much needed role of a vibrant catalyst rather than that of an embittered has-been.

manini.chatterjee@abp.in