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How the Right outsmarted the Left in Tripura

Here is the biggest political lesson from Tripura: while the BJP put forward a different face in every state, the CPM stuck to an old idea.

, ET CONTRIBUTORS|
Mar 04, 2018, 10.03 AM IST
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BJP's shunya-to-shikhar story is as much a dream-come-true for the Modi-Amit Shah duo, as it is a nightmare for Yechury and Karat.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, after Jyoti Basu stabilised the Left Front rule in West Bengal, the joke among sympathisers of Indian communist parties was that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) ruled four states – West Bengal, Kerala, Tripura and hold your breath -- Jawaharlal Nehru University!

Since then, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Left bastions were periodically threatened: they lost elections in Kerala and even in JNU, prestigious despite it being a small campus; but West Bengal and Tripura remained fortresses because the CPM was the ruling party and the opposition. In short, although the Congress garnered more than nominal vote share, it never aspired to be the alternative.

The only difference was in 1984 when sympathy generated by Indira Gandhi’s assassination converted the electoral arena into a mythological battlefield, one so potent that even an upstart like Mamata Banerjee upstaged the communist giant Somnath Chatterjee. His father, NC Chatterjee, was Shyama Prasad Mookerjee’s contemporary in Parliament once and honourably backed by Hindu Mahasabha.

The CPM, with the ‘bhadralok’ Basu and his classy demeanour, was acceptable to plebeian and aristocracy alike, to the genuinely Left and the ones who positioned themselves as such.

Because of the balance of the state’s polity, the CPM never secured a hegemonic presence in Kerala where power alternated between the Left Democratic Front and Congress-led United Democratic Front. But the CPM in West Bengal and Tripura survived even the acutest global challenges to communism as an idea. Despite critics on the Left labelling Indian communists as bourgeoisie outfits for their decision to wrest political power through the ballot and not through the proverbial “barrel of the gun”, the party remained positioned in public perception on the left of the political divide.

The Basu government’s landmark land reforms and several initiatives of the government in Tripura saw them winning one election after another. The party did well in several areas and sectors but performed abysmally in others. Till the going was good, voters singularly focused on positives but when the tide turned, only the bleak side was visible.

The defeat of the CPM in Tripura is possibly an event of greater historical significance than the BJP’s sweep of the state because it marks the most important point in the demise of the Left as a parliamentary political force. Unlike in West Bengal, where the defeat in 2009 and later in 2011 came after years of agitation on the twin issues of Nandigram and Singur, there was no forewarning in Tripura. Consequently, the suddenness of the debacle in Tripura is more astounding.

The BJP's shunya-to-shikhar story is as much a dream-come-true for the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo, as it is a nightmare for the estranged couple of Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat who spent the greater part of the period since Modi's ascendancy contemplating ways to out manoeuvre the other, instead of jointly drawing strategies to ride out the Modi challenge.

The CPM's defeat raises questions over the Left's survival as a political idea. While Amit Shah's declaration that Tripura was just a "trailer" and West Bengal, Kerala abhi baaki hai, may be pooh-poohed in Mamata's lair at least for now, in Kerala the BJP has made impressive gains and time may not be far when it emerges as a credible alternative.

Sampling a new dish on the table is a bit contagious especially when others do not appear to be fresh. It was a quasi-literate cabbie who drew attention to this on Saturday while driving me to and fro a TV studio: garam rasgulla sab khana chahte hain (everyone wishes to check out the latest savoury on the table).

If the BJP's success has been in putting forward a different face in every state, the CPM has stuck to a dated paradigm. In the 1980s, when the focus should have been on a reunification of the communist party, leaders of the CPM and the CPI expended energies on whether the BT Ranadive line was more pristine than PC Joshi's approach. In 1996, when the unprecedented opportunity to head a coalition at the Centre was there for the taking, jealous apparatchiks torpedoed Basu's chances.

For the past two years, when it became obvious to even the novice that possibly the only way to halt the Modi juggernaut was by striking mahagathbandhans everywhere, the CPM was consumed by the battle between the Karat and Yechury "lines". The comrades, both JNU alumni, were students' union presidents at crucial moments. Sadly, the discourse presented to the voter even now is no different from what was put before crowds that jammed student messes post dinner. The possibility of the Left shrinking to the smallest "state" of its influence looms large now. But how long will even that last bastion hold?.

(The writer is the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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