Dhanpur (Tripura): “Manik Sarkar is a good man. He has brought peace to the state in the last 20 years. It is thanks to him that we can walk outside our houses after sundown," said 60-year-old Abul Kalam, a farmer in Dhanpur constituency in Sepahijala district of Tripura.
This is exactly the sentiment that has inspired the legend of Sarkar, who has not only represented this constituency since 1998 but is also attempting a record fifth term as Tripura chief minister belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM.
The title of the least well-off chief minister in the country has no doubt contributed to the grassroots connect. In his election affidavit this year, Sarkar has declared cash in hand as Rs1,520 and a bank balance of Rs2,410.
It is more than likely that the aura of Sarkar will prevail in Dhanpur, but tough questions are being asked of his party across the rest of the state. It is not just anti-incumbency, the electoral phrase that is rapidly gaining currency as several incumbent regimes brace for re-election this year.
“He (Manik Sarkar) may be a good chief minister but he is surrounded by an administrative set-up which is full of corruption. Education and employment continue to be the biggest issues here. For basic health services we have to go to Agartala. There is also no difference between the government and the party anymore. How many years can people give to one party?" asked Shankar Saha, a 45-year-old resident of Dhanpur who runs a mobile recharge store.
This is exactly the sentiment the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the principal challenger to Sarkar and the CPM, is banking on.
Dhanpur in West Tripura is 65km from the state capital of Agartala. A single-lane metalled road lined with rubber plantations and paddy fields, which are also the main sources of income, connects the constituency with the capital city. Dhanpur also shares its border with Bangladesh.
The constituency has a high proportion of Muslims—they account for 8.8% of the population of West Tripura.
Interestingly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the BJP’s campaign at an election rally in the town of Sonamura, adjacent to the chief minister’s constituency.
Just like Kalam, the traditional voter base of the CPM give credit to the party and Sarkar for ending insurgency.
“There is peace here because of Manik Sarkar. Along with that his government has brought over 30 schemes which give economic support to people. There is no other state government which has done that for their people," said Baseem Saha, a resident of Kathalia in Dhanpur constituency.
The CM’s constituency has approximately 40,000 voters. In the 2013 assembly elections, it had one of the highest turnouts across the state.
While Sarkar largely continues to be popular, voters, inspired by growing aspirations, are beginning to question the pace of development.
In Dhanpur village, which has a tribal population of 17%, 70-year old Laxmi Patti Tipura echoes the demand for better infrastructure but continues to support the party.
“My family has been voting for hammer and sickle (CPM election symbol) for years. There is no access to piped water and proper road connectivity here," she said.
Analysts said it is his connect with the people that makes Sarkar so popular.
“One of the most important things is that he is well-connected among the people. He enjoys a good rapport with the party ground workers. The government has also successfully extended benefits to their supporters (through schemes) and they are now dependent on them as well," said Satyadeo Poddar, professor in the department of political science at Tripura University.