IT’S PAST 9 pm when Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar walks into the CPM office in Agartala in a starched, spotless white kurta, a trademark that bore the brunt of the Prime Minister’s attack. The 69-year-old Marxist is unruffled by the BJP’s blitzkrieg, amidst a polarised battle for the state he has ruled for two decades. Modi had said it was time to replace “Manik (gemstone)” with “HIRA (diamond)”: Highway, I-way, Railway and Airways. A day later, Sarkar held a rally in which he took on the BJP for aligning with the IPFT, a party demanding a separate state. As the face-off intensifies, Sarkar talks to Amita Shah about his new opponent, the Tribal vote bank, the youth and his government’s policies. Excerpts.
How is this election different from earlier ones?
This time the BJP is at the Centre (laughs). There’s RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal controlling the party. BJP is the political mask. Like in other parts of the country, here also they are not leaving any stone unturned to create trouble.
How do you view the response to Modi’s rallies?
They have collected people to divide Tripura into two parts. They have no dearth of money. RSS is campaigning here. But we are getting very good responses from the common people, which I did not see in the last election.
What do you think of BJP’s ‘Cholo Paltai (let’s go for change)’ slogan?
Our people have an alternative slogan—‘Cholo Paltai Delhi Te (let’s bring change in Delhi)’, prepare for the next Parliament elections.
What is the CPM’s biggest strength and weakness?
Our strength is Tribal and non-Tribal unity, peace and integrity. Our weakness is that we have no money power, no media power, no muscle power (laughs).
Our strength is Tribal and non-Tribal unity, peace and integrity. Our weakness is that we have no money power, no media power, no muscle power
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The BJP is talking of anti-incumbency. How are you countering that?
Anti-incumbency is what BJP is facing in Gujarat and in Rajasthan. In Tripura there cannot be anti-incumbency because we have not taken any steps against the interests of the common people. There are limitations on financial ability and Constitutional power. We cannot meet every basic demand of the people until policies are changed at the Centre. Despite this, we have tried our best to take care of problems faced by our people irrespective of caste and creed. Why else would new faces attend our meetings?
The BJP is claiming that the Tribal vote which backed the Left is now supporting it.
Absolutely wrong. A section of Tribals was always anti-communist, anti-Left. At one point they moved to the Congress and a section of that has shifted to the BJP.
How about the opposition’s claims that the youth are disillusioned with the Left?
The youth’s problem is unemployment. It’s a national problem. This cannot change unless our national policy is changed and purchasing power of the people is improved. Only then will demand grow and production improve. Jobs will be created. This is what we are fighting for at the national level. In our state, we have not closed the doors of government and administration to provide jobs. At the Centre, they have not filled vacant posts. Over 4.5 million posts have been disbanded. We are creating new posts by extending our health sector, education sector, administration, infrastructural development, etcetera. Every year we employ 6,000-7,000 people.
Why is the unemployment rate the highest in your state?
There is no industry as there was no infrastructure. We have now improved road, rail, air, telecom connectivity. Our power generation is surplus. Our per capita income has risen from Rs 11,000 to Rs 80,000. More than 65,000 have been employed. We are not sitting idle. The youth know that.
What is your most memorable experience in 20 years?
Combating the extremist onslaught and bringing back peace between Tribals and non-Tribals. In 2015 we decided to withdraw the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) after 18 years. That is the bedrock of the development of the Left democratic movement here.
How do you view the BJP aligning with the IPFT?
The IPFT wants to divide Tripura and develop a separate Tribal state. The BJP claims to be a nationalist party and defender of the country’s unity. On the other hand they are aligning with a party which is trying to dismember Tripura. This is a volte face.
What will be your priority if you get another term?