Image courtesy: PTI
Manik Sarkar is a highly respected name within the Left, especially within the CPI (M), though the top leadership within the party has neither given him the national recognition and prestige he deserves, nor elevated him to a position of power which could help him shape the politics and policies of the party. So much so, if a sensitive border state of Tripura, with its ancient, internal tension among the original communities and the settlers, was ruled by the Left for five decades continuously, much of the credit goes to the innate credibility and impeccable credentials of Manik Sarkar.
That is why, his recent, rather forthright public declaration, on February 2, in an unexpectedly huge rally in Burdwan, deviating from the party line, took the party, its sympathisers, and political observers by surprise. For a large section of people wary with the current posturing of the CPI (M)’s unimaginative and rigid top leadership, indeed, this came as a pleasant surprise.
First, the backdrop. The CPI(M) in West Bengal has taken a position that both the Trinamool Congress and the BJP are birds of the same feather, that they have to be opposed with equal intensity, and that they are basically parties complementing each other – A team and B Team etc. Hence, the party refuses to make a political distinction between a secular TMC, which is the only strong force in Bengal led by its formidable leader and chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, and a cash-rich, muscle-flexing BJP, whose final and sole card yet again is communal polarisation, hate politics and one-dimensional Hindutva. The CPI(M) has therefore blurred the lines between the two parties.
It has, for instance, refused to pay heed to CPI-ML General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya’s appeal, who, soon after the United Left’s important victories and inroads in the Bihar assembly elections where his party won 12 seats, stated that the Left should consider the BJP as number one political and electoral enemy in Bengal, even while it might have disagreements with the TMC. He said you can’t fight them in the Centre and not fight them in the state in equal measure. “I would clearly state that the TMC and the BJP can’t be put in the same bracket. The BJP should be identified as the principal political enemy in West Bengal,” he said.
Not only Bhattacharya, there is widespread opinion among progressive sections in Bengal, including students and the intelligentsia, that the CPI(M) is making a big mistake by equating the two, in a situation where the repressive state apparatus of the central government has unleashed its fangs with one assault after another on peaceful dissenters and human rights activists, most secular democratic institutions in India have been almost usurped or subverted, the Constitution itself is in danger, and there are relentless mass movements on the ground refusing to accept the totalitarian tactics of the Narendra Modi regime. Several intellectuals and activists held a big meeting in Kolkata recently where they expressed serious concern about the inroads being made by the BJP in Bengal, asking the Left and democratic forces to get their act together before it is too late.
The CPM leadership in Bengal, with octogenarian Biman Bose of the old, ossified era still calling the shots, has rejected the proposal of Bhattacharya. It is well-known that there is an internal line being pushed inside the party with the following doctrine: ‘Aage Ram, Pore Baam, and Ekushe Ram, Chabbishe Baam, – first Ram, then Left, and, in 2021 Ram, in 2026 Left. Political observers in Kolkata believe that this is a suicidal move, considering the party has zero seats in Parliament from West Bengal, while its supporters and cadre voted overwhelmingly for the BJP in the last Lok Sabha elections (the BJP won an unprecedented 18 seats).
“There is a method in this madness. Why CP(M) is on a wilful suicide mission, beats me,” asked a social activist.
The pessimistic pattern is bound to repeat yet again in this assembly polls for the CPI (M). For all you know, the Left vote share might go down, despite the dodgy alliance with the Congress. Last time, the Congress got double the number of seats than the Left in the assembly despite a lower vote percentage because, apparently, the Congress votes did not transfer to the Left. And that is why Manik Sarkar’s call marks a departure from the dominant party line, and expresses resonance with both popular opinion and silent party supporters on the ground.
In a packed rally at the Town Hall ground in Burdwan, Manik Sarkar said, “Don’t even think of bringing the BJP here merely because they did not rule Bengal. You can understand from the experience of Tripura and the entire country. You saw the government’s role against farmers, minorities and others.”
“The BJP is now trying to grab power in West Bengal. They will tell you about your experiences of the governments of the Congress, the Left and Trinamool here in Bengal and request you to see the BJP once… They will convince you with several assurances and request you to vote for them… But don’t ruin the state by inviting that force…Take a train and visit Tripura. You don’t need to talk to CPM leaders but you talk to common people like rickshaw-pullers, grocers… to know the reality. They will surely tell you what a blunder they have committed by voting for the BJP. They are now waiting for the next polls to repair their mistake,” he said. “They had started visiting Tripura in chartered planes in the months ahead of the elections, and they are doing the same thing here in Bengal,” said Sarkar.
He said the BJP lured voters with false promises and did not move one inch after they came to power in Agartala. For instance, government employees were told that a pay commission would be set up for them similar to the one for central government employees. Jobs would be provided for every household. Instead, the jobless are getting employment for just about 50 days or less, the pay commission and jobs for each household remains a pipedream.
Coming from Sarkar, it seems to be a signal to the party to tactically mark a paradigm shift and be wary of the BJP coming anywhere close to power in the assembly polls. They might have done very well in the Lok Sabha elections with 40 per cent vote share, compared to TMC’s 43 per cent (CPI ((M)) and Congress got around 6 per cent each), but assembly polls are a different ball game and voters vote differently in the two polls.
Soon after, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, as if following a lead, was quick to capitalise on Manik Sarkar’s call. Addressing a rally two days later in Kolkata she said, Manik babu is saying go to Tripura and see what the BJP has done there… The BJP is trying to replicate the Tripura-model in Bengal… The BJP did not give jobs it had promised to the people of Tripura. On the contrary, it has oppressed the people of the state.”
There are reports that front organizations of the CPM like the All India Kisan Sabha are planning to use the video of the speech by Manik Sarkar across the villages of Bengal because the speech in Bengali has struck a deep chord with the cadre and supporters and because it takes on the BJP frontally.
Indeed, his impeccable credentials makes Sarkar a highly respected leader within the Left. As chief minister he donated his entire salary to the party, lived on the party dole of Rs 2,000 plus per month, ate puffed rice for tiffin, and reportedly had a bank balance of just about Rs 2,000. He had no car and no property. Panchali Bhattacharya, his wife, is a retired government official; her mode of transport was a rickshaw even while her husband was the chief minister. Both are shining examples of dogged, honest and stoic communists.
Besides, Sarkar’s highly acclaimed government was the first to abolish the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). He did the impossible by uniting the tribals (Adivasis) and Bengalis, stopped all forms of communal polarisation, restored law and order in a sensitive border state infested with violent insurgency, and ushered in both women’s empowerment and tribal rights.
Meanwhile, party General Secretary Sitaram Yechury visited Kolkata on February 12 and held a press conference. While he condemned the state government for the lath charge on students, a big chunk of his presentation went in attacking the BJP, its repressive apparatus and crony capitalism, while backing the farmers’ struggle. He backed the alliance with the Congress saying that the Left is a “rising force” in Bengal. He denied having any talks with Dipanakar Bhattacharya, and asserted that aligning with the TMC will only help the BJP because the anti-incumbency votes therefore will go to them. He said that his party is also saying the same thing –that the BJP should be defeated at all costs.
In its essence, his speech seemed to be a subtle narrative in solidarity with the speech of Manik Sarkar at Burdwan. While TMC is criticised, the major thrust was the attack on BJP. In more ways than one, it perhaps reflects a tacit shift in line, perhaps, due to public pressure, and the simmering tension within the party, still struggling to find the ground beneath its feet in a state where it ruled unilaterally for more than three decades.
(The author is a senior journalist, media commentator and academic and presently Executive Editor Hardnews )