Five years ago, the 25-year-long reign of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Tripura ended. The party was swept aside by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which stormed to power, winning 36 of 60 seats in the state Assembly.
Ever since, the Left party has found it hard to regroup and mobilise politically, say its members.
Consider the situation in Khayerpur, once a citadel of the party. The veteran Left leader Pabitra Kar held the seat for five straight terms starting in 1993 before losing to the BJP’s Ratan Chakraborty in the last election in 2018.
The CPI(M)’s functionaries say things have gone from bad to worse since, with the party allegedly struggling to operate offices and hold public rallies. The reason: the BJP’s purported violent backlash to any political activity by the Left.
Dipak Bardhan, a member of the CPI(M)’s Khayerpur unit, said that the “fear” of the BJP had led to many of its members leaving the party or “supporting silently”.
“My house was attacked three times,” said Bardhan. “We could not start our membership drive due to the terror of the BJP government.”
Bardhan said while the party’s “organisation is fully operational, our cadres can’t come out to support us due to the atrocities of the BJP government since it has come to power”.
A recurring complaint
As Tripura heads to polls on February 16, CPI(M) leaders across the state recount similar experiences in the past five years.
Shubankar Mazumder, who heads the youth wing of the party’s Pratapgarh Assembly unit, said its cadres were so “isolated” that they could not even attend weddings or other social events. “It resulted in a severe reduction in the number of youths joining the party because of fear,” he said.
What had been unfolding, the party’s state secretary Jitendra Choudhury, insisted, was an attack on “democracy”.
“Even with our repeated efforts, we failed to open a number of offices,” said Choudhury, adding that “more than 600 party offices have been demolished by the state government and BJP”. Twenty-five party workers, Choudhury claimed, had been killed in incidents of political violence.
The BJP strongly contests these allegations. “Every day, they are organising protests and rallies on the ground,” said its spokesperson Subrata Chakraborty. “But after the demonstrations and processions are over, they are claiming there is no democracy or law and order. If there is no democracy, how are you performing your organisational activities everywhere in the state?”
Allegations of violence and rigging
Nonetheless, CPI(M) workers have several stories to share of alleged violence by the BJP.
Anita Das Paul, who lives in Agartala, claimed several BJP supporters “came to my house and assaulted my father-in-law” days after the party came to power in March 2018. “They threatened us and asked us to resign from CPI(M),” she alleged.
Anita’s husband Surajit, who is part of the Left party’s workers’ union, said he, too, was beaten up by “a mob of 50-60 who came on bikes”. “They came for us because we do CPI(M),” he said, adding that his family was not allowed to vote in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections “as they didn’t allow us to visit the polling centre”.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the CPI(M) lost both seats in Tripura. Its vote share also plummeted from 64 % in 2014 to 17%.
At the time, the party’s leaders attributed the loss to rigging and intimidation of the voters.
Fresh faces and a new alliance
This time, the party is looking to reverse its fortunes by fielding fresh faces – more than half its candidates are first-timers – and allying with the Congress, once its arch-rival in the state.
The Congress, though, has been dealing with its own share of troubles in the recent past. Once a formidable force, the Congress drew a blank in the 2018 election and was reduced to a near non-entity: its vote share dropped from 36.5% in 2013 to 1.8%.
Besides, observers say that the alliance was not quite the coming together of two compatible forces – prior to the arrival of the BJP, the Congress was essentially a tent for non-Left forces in the state.
In 2018, as the BJP emerged as the primary contender to the CPI(M), many of the Congress’s supporters chose to back the BJP.
Sujit Chakrabarty, a resident of the Khayerpur assembly, was one of them.
He is disappointed with the BJP’s performance but is loath to vote for the CPI(M). “We wanted a non-Left government,” said Chakrabarty. “CPI(M) only works for their party workers. You have to be a CPI(M) cadre to get the government benefits.”
He added, “The BJP came to power with the Congress vote. The BJP was never here...but it is very unlikely that Congress people will vote for a CPI(M) candidate because of their long enmity and hatred.”
‘Things have silently improved’
CPI(M)’s leaders insist the party has managed to get its act together in the last couple of weeks, especially since the model code of conduct kicked in, giving the Election Commission administrative control of the state.
“After EC took over things have silently improved,” said Shyamal Chakraborty, the party’s MLA from Sonamura.
Chakraborty said the party had also tailored its campaign to work around the BJP’s alleged high-handedness. “The residents don’t express their support to us but we are in touch with them,” he said. We have changed our style and strategy to reach them.”
Mazumdar, the youth wing leader, elaborated, “We are visiting house to house. We still can’t open the office, but we are doing silent campaigns.”