Agartala/Dhanpur: Sukumar Debnath, 44, is an electrical engineer by training who runs a grocery store in Dhanpur, west Tripura. It isn’t out of choice that he earns a living from a trade that’s so far removed from his degree; it’s because he couldn’t find a job as an engineer.
Debnath reels off unemployment numbers—650,000 people in the state of 3.7 million are unemployed and around 100,000 of them, like him, are too old to find a job, he says.
“I tried for jobs as late as 2007, but now I am no longer eligible for most of the jobs,” he says. “This shop I run only fends for my dal-chawal (lentils-rice); if I had got a job at the right time, my income would have been five times what I earn right now. This government has done nothing for us.”
If his engineering degree couldn’t get him a job, the fact that he is a voter in the Dhanpur assembly constituency that belongs to Manik Sarkar, chief minister of India’s only remaining Left-ruled state, didn’t help him either.
Debnath can perhaps draw some comfort that he isn’t alone and can at least depend on his store for a living. Joblessness is an endemic problem in Tripura, where the Left Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, is seeking a record fifth consecutive term in the 14 February elections to the 60-member assembly.
According to data compiled by the National Sample Survey Office, the worker population ratio (per 1,000 persons) in the age group of 15-59 years for Tripura is 466 as against the national average of 544. The worker population ratio is defined as the number employed per 1,000 people.
Yet, if popular perception is anything to go by, the Left is set to return to power in the election. In the event that this indeed does pan out, it would have little to do with the lack of anti-incumbency and more to do with the so-called TINA (there is no alternative) factor.
The Congress party, the principal opposition in Tripura, virtually gave up the fight even before the state readied for elections.
The lack of connect between the Congress and the people is visible across the state just as the passionate cadres of the Left stand out ahead of voting in a state it has ruled without a break since 1993.
Campaigns in contrast
In the village of Gabordi in west Tripura, men and women sporting red caps rustle up 70 people to attend a rally addressed by the sitting legislator and district-level party functionaries. The attendance may be small, but such meetings take place at regular intervals in almost every village and the Left’s message appears to go home. The message is that the Left Front has preserved peace in an often volatile region and is speeding up development.
In contrast, nearly 25km away in Sonamura village, another crowd has turned up at the venue of a Congress meeting, not to greet the party candidate, but to see a helicopter testing landing conditions before transporting the campaigners.
Voters and experts are convinced that the lack of a credible opposition, together with the government’s success in curbing tribal extremism, should see the Left Front win in a state where it has tapped central government funds and programmes to deliver services, adroitly crediting itself for this.
Tripura, India’s third smallest state, is the only one ruled by the Left in the country after it lost control of Kerala and West Bengal. In West Bengal, the CPM-led Left Front’s 34-year rule ended in 2011 when it lost power to Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.
“The situation in Tripura is different from that of West Bengal. The CPM lost ground in Bengal because there Mamata Banerjee was seen with an image of a saviour; people thought there was a hope in it. In Tripura, no such face in the opposition is present,” says Satyabrata Chakraborty, a former journalist based in Agartala who has written extensively on politics and conflicts in the North-East.
Rows of red flags with the hammer and sickle sign flutter along the roads that lead to the Jugal Krishna Nagar village in north Tripura. Here, Mangal Debbarman, a farmer who has a family of six, claims to get 85 days of work in a year under the centre’s rural jobs scheme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
“We have got work under REGA (the colloquial term for MGNREGA in rural Tripura). We got a public toilet under the sanitation campaign and the roof of my house was constructed under the Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY)—it’s all because of the Communist government,” says Debbarman.
He is under the impression these three schemes are the Left Front state government’s handiwork. In most villages around Agartala, voters feel the strength of the Left Front government lies in the implementation of MGNREGA, IAY, Forest Rights Act (FRA) and the Total Sanitation Campaign. Like Debbarman, most believe that these programmes have been initiated by the state government.
Experts say the Congress has failed to create awareness about the benefits flowing to the state from centrally funded programmes launched by the United Progressive Alliance government.
“This has happened because the Congress leaders are a failure as an opposition. They failed to put up issues against the CPM government in all the elections,” says Chakraborty, the former journalist.
The Left Front government has focused on the tribal population, with its manifesto focusing extensively on tribal rights, including better implementation of FRA and improving the basic infrastructure of tribal areas.
“Their philosophy of working for the poor has helped them gain popular support for so many years,” says Surendra Debbarma, a 60-year-old farmer from the tribal village of Gamchakobra in Mohanpur constituency of Ratan Lal Nath, leader of opposition from the Congress in the state assembly.
The Congress party is focusing on increasing its current tally of 10 out of the 60 assembly seats. The party, like in previous elections, is fighting in alliance with the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra—a hill-based party led by insurgent-turned-politician and legislator Bijoy Hrangkhawl.
One-third of seats in the Tripura state assembly is reserved for the scheduled tribes; the Congress doesn’t have a single one of them in the outgoing assembly. The CPM has 19 out of the 20 seats and the lone remaining seat was won by Hrangkhawl in the last elections.
“We are trying to be at par with the CPM. So far as the organization is concerned, the CPM is way ahead of us and there is no doubt about it,” says Sudip Roy Barman, state Congress president, who is contesting the Agartala seat. “However, whatever our problem has been, we have identified it and took some positive steps for it.”
Another Congress leader was more candid. “The top leaders from Congress who have visited have stationed themselves in Agartala and even if they have travelled, they have used helicopters everywhere. We don’t have the connect (with the people) and nothing is being done about it,” says the politician, who did not want to be identified.
The employment factor
If there is one issue that could threaten the Left Front’s bid for a fifth term in power, it is employment, or rather the lack of it. The Congress has sought to make this an electoral issue by offering an unemployment dole to the jobless.
In elections to the Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh assemblies last year, the Congress and the Samajwadi Party emerged the winners by promising an unemployment dole. They also had strong organizational support on the ground to back their campaign.
The CPM, which has desisted from matching the Congress’s offer of a dole, has blamed unemployment on the centre. In its manifesto too, the party argues that the “anti-people policies” of the centre had reduced the scope for creating jobs for the unemployed young.
The manifesto says that development of infrastructure has led to an “environment of industrialization”, which, coupled with agricultural growth, would generate jobs.
That’s poor consolation for Haripad Pal, 46, who has a master’s degree in commerce and also belongs to the chief minister’s constituency. He applied regularly for jobs for 15 years before reconciling himself to giving home tuition.
“There are no industries here,” says Pal. “There is a limit to how much jobs the education and public works department alone can generate in the state.”