The CPM in Tripura is a case of multiple ironies. To the majority of tribal people, it’s a Bengali party, while to the majority of Bengalis it is a party that favours the tribal interest. The party crows about its ‘Tripura Model’ of governance.
It cites whopping figures of development, the most notable being an impressive decline in poverty levels and the attainment of 97% literacy by 2016. However, census data reveal that 82% of the houses — 94% of the tribal households — in the state are still kutcha. The party claims to champion change over continuity but it presents to us an increasingly ageing profile.
Four reasons why the February 18 election is an existential battle for the party and why it will feel tremors from the outcome even outside Tripura:
Ageing support base
A cursory look at the profile of CPM candidates in this election reveals the party has predominantly preferred older contestants over young in a state where youngsters in the age group of 15-29 constitute 30% of the population. The party has not fielded a single candidate from its affiliated youth outfits like the SFI.
Three longitudinal field visits undertaken by this author — from September 2017 to February 2018 — revealed that young people, Bengalis and tribals, have shifted away from the CPM. An overwhelming majority of the respondents who professed support to the CPM tended to be older. Young people on the other hand said they feel alienated from the party on account of multiple factors.
While tribal youths felt doubly alienated due to cultural and economic loss, an overwhelming majority of young Bengali respondents said they as an aspirational class were frustrated with the party. Consequently, the author found that while tribal youths related with the IPFT, Bengalis were willing to give the BJP a chance. This leaves the CPM with the herculean task of garnering young votes for its ageing candidates while its arch-rival, the BJP-IPFT alliance, has fielded significantly younger candidates. Seven of the nine candidates fielded by the IPFT in ST seats are young.
At a time when the BJP has been aggressively pushing for change with the slogan ‘Chalo Paltai’ (let’s change), the CPM’s slogan of ‘Shanti, Sampriti, Unnayan’ (peace, fraternity, development) seems like a footnote to the current political polemics in the state.
In fact, most CPM supporters have more negative things to say about the BJP rather than positive things about their party. While the same thing might be said of BJP supporters whose prime drive happens to be hate for the CPM rather than love for the BJP, this prospect of negative voting spells trouble for the ruling party as the electoral agenda has been set by the BJP rather than the CPM.
It was startling to find leaders and supporters of the CPM privileging criticism of the BJP’s campaign and poll promises rather than present a positive case for their own agenda. Facing 25 years of anti-incumbency baggage, the CPM seems to be reacting to an agenda set by the BJP.
Cadre vs people paradox
Our field work found that the electorate is divided into pro-CPM and anti-CPM blocs. The positive correlation of a substantially high number of respondents articulating an anti-CPM position while claiming to be adversely discriminated in matters of allotment of MGNREGA work and other policy benefits indicates tough going for the Left Front.
Secondly, a great majority of anti-CPM respondents argued that Left cadres at the village and local level have been the prime beneficiaries of government schemes. If the prevailing mood of the respondents is any indication, in a polemical sense it could be reasonably inferred that the coming Assembly election is turning more and more into a contest between CPM cadres vs the people.
The silent voters
Our field work also revealed another significant factor. There is a category of silent voters. It is qualitatively distinct from the category of fence-sitters. A significant section of people preferred to remain silent about their political preference but gave enough indication that they have already decided for whom they will vote for but would not like to reveal on account of the power equations prevailing in their respective localities.
In the light of the fact that the CPM has been in power in Tripura continuously for the past 25 years, this category of silent voters should worry the Left Front. More often than not, the supporters of a ruling party with an entrenched cadre base tend to be more vocal.
On the positive side for the CPM, the state leadership is aware that the BJP is determined and decisive in the current election unlike the Congress in the past, when the latter party used to come across as a docile and indecisive alternative. Bijon Dhar, the state general secretary of the CPM, concedes the challenge is unprecedented but asserts that the BJP is just electoral hype without any structural and ideological entrenchment
However, one thing is unambiguously clear in this election: while for other parties this is just another election, for the CPM it is a battle for existence. Tremors from this outcome will be felt by the party even outside the state.
(Sajjan Kumar has a Ph.D from the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He is associated with People’s Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research organisation specialising in field work-based electoral and political research.)