“Communist ideology wants us to stay happy with little,” said Prasenjit Banik, a 27-year-old student of rural management and development in Tripura University and a resident of Santirbazar in South Tripura district. “But why shouldn’t we also, like the rest of the country, aspire for more?”

In Tripura’s hills, traditionally home to the state’s tribal population, 28-year Parosh Kalai echoed Banik. Kalai studied tourism in Delhi University but returned home a couple of years ago to start a business. “The CPI(M) keeps saying they are pro-poor, pro-poor. But 25 years you have been in power, how much longer do you want us to be poor?” he asked.

As Tripura votes in the assembly elections on Sunday, this is a grievance most young people like Banik and Kalai have against the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist). People between 15 years and 29 years of age make up 30% of the state’s population. Their discontentment should worry Chief Minister Manik Sarkar and the Left party, which has ruled the state since 1993.

“My father did [vote] Left, I am sure he will vote for them again, but their ideology is outdated,” said Banik. “The young generation doesn’t like it.”

Narendra Modi's aspirational 'New India' has caught the attention of unemployed youth in Tripura.

‘Shanti sampriti’ over development

The older generation is less hard on the government. They lived through years of militancy and conflict that roiled Tripura in the 1980s and 1990s, when demands for an independent state for Tripuri tribals had spawned an armed movement. For 18 years until 2015, the state was a “disturbed area” under the Armed Force (Special Powers) Act, which gives security personnel sweeping powers to search, arrest and even kill in such areas with a degree of immunity from prosecution.

“Most of my adult life, I have known one party, and I am quite alright with them,” said 55-year-old Jayanta Das, who runs a travel company in Agartala, said. He added that he was “too old to change now”.

But what about the alleged underdevelopment and lack of jobs under the Left? “Development is okay, but what is more important is shanti sampriti [peace, fraternity],” Das answered. “We have seen very bad times and it is the Left who made life liveable. But if there is a change, there will again be gondogol [trouble], so might as well stick to the CPI(M).”

Sunil Kalai, a government school teacher in West Tripura’s Bagma, felt the same way. “We have a stable life, I have a job, a rubber plantation, there is no reason to be unhappy with the government,” he said.

But Kalai’s sons, in their 20s, are supporters of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura and its demand for a separate state of Twipraland for the Tripuri tribe.

The tribal party is an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which analysts claim has emerged as a formidable contender in these elections. It is perhaps the first party that has managed to mount a serious challenge to the Left in the last 25 years.

But Kalai is dismissive of the old tribal demands. “There is no need for a separate state and all that, we should learn to live peacefully with everyone,” he said. “Otherwise, we will again go back to the bad times.”

Unlike his sons, school teacher Sunil Kalai is against the tribal demand for a separate state of Twipraland.

‘Petty bourgeois attitude’

An unemployment crisis and lack of job opportunities has deepened the generational difference in perception of the Left government. Struggling to find their feet, the younger generation is more attracted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aspirational “New India”.

But the communist party is dismissive of these anxieties. State general secretary Bijan Dhar blamed these on the “petty bourgeois attitude among the new generation”. He said, “Yes, the middle class may have some problems but it has to be solved democratically, not through bourgeois politics. This is a pro-people’s government.”

Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Bijan Dhar is not overtly worried about the disenchantment of the youth with the government.

Dhar’s party colleague Jitendra Chaudhury, who is one of two Lok Sabha members from Tripura, asserted that the state had created many employment opportunities but that “the insurgency of two and a half decades affected the state like anything”.

Still, he claimed, the party had nothing to worry about. “We have faced tougher elections than this when our candidates have not been even able to campaign because of threats by insurgents,” he said. “The BJP is just the Congress with a better propaganda machinery.”

Lok Sabha MP from Tripura Jitendra Chaudhury says the ruling party has faced tougher elections than the one scheduled for Sunday.

Pabitra Kar, a communist party legislator from Khayerpur and deputy speaker of the state Assembly, conceded that “job creation” was a problem. But he added that the state’s lack of industries was linked to a “lack of infrastructure and connectivity”, which were largely in the Union government’s domain. “In spite of that, it [development] has been happening slowly, and it will happen,” he added.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) legislator Pabitra Kar admits job creation is a problem in Tripura.

While the ruling party may not be particularly worried about the employment situation in the state, the subject is at the core of the BJP’s election campaign – the first point in its vision document for the state promises employment for at least one member of each family. “There are more than seven lakh unemployed youths in the state,” claimed Sunil Deodhar, the BJP leader in charge of party affairs in Tripura. “The state government talks about Tripura having the highest literacy rate in the country, but it is a fraud. Literacy doesn’t bring development, education does.”

Sukumar Debbarma, who owns a shop that deals in automobile parts in Sepahijala, seemed to agree with this view. “We are four brothers, all of us are educated, but what’s the point?” he asked. “There are no jobs. There should be a change. We have given the Left enough chances.”

For shop owner Sukumar Debbarma, the lack of jobs in Tripura despite a high literacy rate is a major problem.

‘Manik Sarkar has fed me’

While the BJP’s promise of more jobs seems to have won it considerable support among young people, political analysts point out that it may not necessarily translate into electoral gains. “One has to understand the basic determinants of electoral behaviour in Tripura,” said one analyst who did not want to be identified. “People still vote on the basis of ethnicity and language here. And the Bengali middle class is uncomfortable with the IPFT [Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura] because they see it as an extension of communal insurgent groups. So that is going to go against the BJP.”

The analyst cited the case of the 2003 and 2008 Assembly elections, when the Congress had sided with the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra – a tribal coalition that included the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura – but failed to make significant gains. Political commentators attributed the failure to the party’s links with the separatist group National Liberation Front of Tripura, which the state’s Bengali population was not comfortable with. “You have to understand that the Left represents a certain sense of security to a large section of Tripura’s people,” said the analyst.

As a person in rural West Tripura put it: “Twenty years ago, there were jungles and insurgents here. Now there are roads and I have my own shop. Manik Sarkar has fed me – why will I betray him?”

Photographs by Arunabh Saikia.