Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar in conversation with Governance Now
Ajay Singh | August 9, 2013
Maybe a little clichéd, but the expression sums up Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar – a gentleman among chief ministers and the chief minister among gentlemen. Among the political class, he is the dhoti-clad soft-spoken chief executive of a state. But officials who have worked with Sarkar maintain that behind the veneer of his ‘bhadralok’ demeanour lies a steely resolve fortified by his training as a “pragmatic Marxist”. Not bound by orthodoxy when he dealt with the insurgency in the state, he ultimately stamped it out. Similarly, he was not guided by the doctrinaire Marxist approach when it came to evolving a model of growth for his own state. Perhaps that seems to be the reason why Manik Sarkar is the most charismatic Marxist chief minister after the legendary Jyoti Basu. But unlike Basu, under whose stewardship West Bengal lagged behind and who left a rather dubious legacy, Sarkar is determined to take Tripura on a growth path which is not averse to capital. He is equally determined to tailor his growth model according to the larger interests of people. In a freewheeling interview with Ajay Singh and Trithesh Nandan, Sarkar talks about his state and his future plans. Edited excerpts:
In February 2013, you won the fourth consecutive assembly elections in Tripura. What is your secret of winning elections?
There is no secret. The only thing we do is that we are not keeping any secrets from the people. Even during the election campaign, (and while preparing the) election manifesto, we tried our level best to implement those commitments in a proper way. The common people of the state should not be deceived. Whatever we have promised them have been fulfilled. We might have failed in the delivery of some programmes. In that case, we immediately go back to the people and explain to them why we are not in a position to complete this work entirely. We need their help, cooperation and support. Our government told them that if we move together hand in hand, then we can overcome the problem.
However, some work can only be done by the government of India. It can’t be done by us. They are not taking that much of interest. In that case, we have to approach the people and ask them to take to the streets. The people should raise demands. Together we can put pressure on the government of India. This is the method of working of our government.
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Your state was also hit by insurgency. However, you dealt with it effectively and at the same time continued taking initiatives for good governance. How did you strike the balance between the two?
The problem of insurgency has ideological, political and social angles. We have been addressing all these. We do not depend on security forces alone. That is our last priority. We have been countering them ideologically, debunking them. We tell people that these are all hollow things.
How did you debunk them?
We mobilised masses. We successfully called their bluff by pointing out their irrelevance and sinister implication of their ideology. We exposed the hollowness of their thinking. We told the insurgents unequivocally that their demands would not be met. Our state was one of the most backward states in the country at one point of time. Now there has been a sea change. At the same time, we started giving special attention to areas beset by conflicts and provided roads, power, drinking water, sanitation, schools, hospitals, market places, irrigation, etc, to the people in those areas.
Though we have been doing this all over the state, the tribal pockets are focused mainly for development initiatives. The essential and underlying message was to wean away tribals from the divisive ideology of the insurgents. With these initiatives, we successfully knocked insurgents out. In fact, the insurgents turned the tribals hostile when they created hurdled in these initiatives.
The spurt in abductions, killings and extortion exposed the criminal character of insurgency. They tried in vain to create a wedge between the tribals and non-tribals.
On the other hand, we successfully strengthened the gram panchayats and village committees in conflict areas and empowered them to draw their own plans for development. This enhanced people’s confidence in the government and enabled us to uproot insurgency from the soil of Tripura.
However, there are still remnants of insurgency trying to rear its head with the help of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) which is nurturing them in Bangaladesh. But we have factored this into our initiative and raised an elite force, Tripura State Rifles (TSR), which is specially trained to fight insurgents. We got support from the centre in terms of deployment of forces and for setting up a BSF camp in the state.
The central government has also accepted our proposal to fence the international border. All this has created a congenial atmosphere in the state. Let me assure you that we have uprooted all camps of insurgents in Tripura.
We have heard of some unorthodox security measures initiated by the state police and tacitly endorsed by you to go after insurgents. For instance, attacking their camps by going across Bangladesh border. Is that correct?
No. I am not aware of it. You ask the police whether they have done it. I do not have any knowledge.
So you are saying that the security forces did not go across the border to destroy camps?
No. I am not aware of any such move. In fact, Indian army and central forces were also involved in battling insurgents. There may be some unconventional measures adopted by these forces, of which I am not aware. But our brief to the security forces was unambiguous: that there should be no harassment caused to the common people. We won over people’s support to isolate and combat insurgents. Without people’s support and relying on security forces alone, we could not have won the battle.
But there was pressure on you to arm your party cadre to counter insurgents. How did you resist that?
No, that is a wrong strategy. In a democratic government that can’t be done. One party can’t arm its cadre and supporters. My only instruction (to the cadre) is, you have to make people aware on the political and ideological front.
They have to tell the people that the extremists have been pursuing a wrong strategy. Arming a party cadre would be a suicidal strategy.
How is your governance model different from the ones applied in other Left-ruled states in the past?
There can’t be a common model. Every state has its own special characteristics. We have our own social problems and equations. Every state has its own capability, own efforts. So, Tripura can’t be equated with West Bengal, which can’t be equated with Kerala. But we are learning lessons from their experiences. We have learned from their mistakes too. That is the way we have been working.
Can you tell us certain initiatives that turned your state around?
Democracy and fabric of secularism should be maintained and then developmental activities (follow). We have been adopting this strategy since long.
Compared to other states, your state seems to have progressed very well on the human development index (HDI). How did you attain that?
Our programmes are very focused and have clear objectives. We regularly review the progress, take feedback from the ground and refashion them according to people’s need. For instance, in the agriculture sector we tailored certain programmes suited to specific regions.
Tripura is known for the traditional agriculture practice of jhum (a low-yield methodology involving slash-and-burn technique, which involves cutting and burning of forests or woodlands to create fields). How did you convince people, particularly tribals, to give it up in favour of modern technologies?
We have changed it in a big way. Jhum cultivation has been basically a way of life for our tribals. But you can’t stop them only by an administrative order. It will send a wrong message to the people. Gradually, we are persuading them and have now begun to get a positive response.
The system of jhum cultivation is quite different from the modern system of agriculture. When they sow (as part of jhum), they only produce small things on a hectare of land. But when they adopt modern system of cultivation, the yields go high.
This comparative study is convincing them. We are providing them irrigation facility, seeds, power, etc. We have set up a sub-committee to oversee this transition.
Given that your party is capital-averse, how do you propose to initiate industrial development in the state?
We are not against capital. We are against capitalism.
So have you decided to invite industrialists to invest in your state?
Industry can’t come all of a sudden. There are prerequisites: agriculture must be strengthened, people’s purchasing power must improve and a reliable infrastructure must be put in place. During the initial days of my government, we did not try to invite and impress upon the investors to come to the state. We restored peace first, strengthened democracy, created a congenial atmosphere and ensured that developmental activities continued. As a result, things have changed now.
We have been developing rail connectivity (though broad gauge will still take some time). Road connectivity has reached till Agartala, the state capital. Airline infrastructure is there in place (and) we are soon going to be a power-surplus state.
After the discovery of large reserves of gas in Tripura, there are moves to develop the state as an energy hub. Will that give fillip to your objectives?
Yes. We are sitting on huge gas reserves. We are also developing tele-density. The atmosphere is changing to our advantage. Investors are gathering information about the state. Recently, one of the investors from Dubai met me in Delhi. The first question I asked him was: how did you come to know about our state? He told me that he had come to know that some development had been taking place here. I asked him not to discuss this while in Delhi and instead visit Agartala first. “See and talk to people before taking a decision,” I told him.
In order to link Tripura to ports, there was a move to develop a corridor up to Chittagong. How far has this project progressed?
If we get access to Chittagong port, the entire scenario in the Northeast will change dramatically. It will open a new vista and dramatically enhance our trade potentials with the Southeast Asian countries. However, there are some issues involved. Like the Teesta water settlement row and some land disputes also. These issues need to be sorted out diplomatically and we are keeping our fingers crossed. Let’s hope the project gets implemented sooner than later.
How much benefit do you get from the fact that the PM represents the Northeast in parliament?
No doubt the PM is conscious of this fact and takes interest in NE affairs. I can give you an example. On July 19, I met Oscar Fernandes, the surface transport minister, on the issue of Tripura’s only national highway and he was briefed about the issues that I intended to raise. The PM had already told him about those. The PM seems to have all the good intentions about the Northeast.
But intention does not pay alone. It has to be translated into action. What is your feeling after meeting the prime minister?
Right. In terms of implementation, it’s the same old story. I told the PM that he had promised in 2005 that Tripura’s only highway (336 km) would be converted into a four-lane one, but nothing had moved on that.
There is an impression that Tripura would figure the lowest if we had an index on corruption in the states. In an atmosphere where corruption appears endemic in governance, how did you manage to purge the system of this malaise?
Actually, corruption percolates from the top. If decision-makers at the top are upright, all others will fall in line. We have been observing our officials. We have also asked the people to be watchful and alert us on the slightest of doubt.
Our ministers and officials are always on the move. Even the top level ones, including the chief secretary. The political leadership has been instructed to not interfere in the work of officials. People’s benefit is their guiding principle in most matters.
We have come across a unique feature in Tripura where opulence is absent. There are no big hotels in Agartala. Did it not come in the
way of development? Or is it a deliberate policy?
Now we don’t have any choices left – we have to construct four- and five-star hotels because investors are coming here. And they don’t want to live a spartan life like we do. We are asking private parties to build hotels. The government is not involved in this and is not putting any money in the construction of hotels.
Is that with some amount of diffidence or pain that you would be doing it? Do you have to do this because of investors?
Tourism is a very important sector for our state. That’s why there is a need for hotels. We are not grudging this. Japan is doing work in our state. We are trying to work with Japan mutually on this issue as well.
So, in the coming years, there will be industrial development in your state?
Sure. Road connectivity is there. It is going to be further developed. Air connectivity is further improved. Telecommunication is improving and so is the power supply. There is a peaceful situation here and finally location of the state (is an advantage). Our linkage has been established with the Chittagong port in Bangladesh. We have also abundant natural assets. We are second biggest rubber-growing state. We grow fruits, like pineapple. We are the fifth largest state in terms of tea production. Sixty percent of incense sticks in the country are made up of Tripura bamboo.
On the scale of economic and social indices, your state seems to have done far better than those developed states which promise to be role models for the rest of the country. But still your achievements are unsung. Is it because your state is too small to register on the nation’s political consciousness?
It may be one of the causes. Yes, it is a small state with just two parliamentary seats. But I don’t like to be a role model. I should have just the confidence of the people and a relationship with them. Actually, now people are showing interest in my state. We have done very well in MNREGS and other social programmes. As of now, Tripura is known in Delhi. We have a very good team of officers who are on central deputation and have earned a good image on account of their efficiency. But we do not beat our own trumpet.
You can see a high level of agriculture growth, literacy rate and irrigation. Our internal assessment says that the literacy level has touched 94 percent. However, in the latest census, it was around 88 percent.
But Tripura’s per capital income is still below the national average...
It is more than Rs 56,000, which is a little less than the national figure. Earlier, this gap was huge. We started in 1998. It was Rs 24,000 then. Now it has gone up to '56,000.
At first glance, your state appears to have substantially reduced beggary and improved hygiene. Given the state’s stellar performance in social indices and in agriculture, did it help you as a trained Marxist to transform into a good administrator?
Our party is always pro-poor. Vivekananda said, help the people. He also said, “Why are you searching God? He is in you.” We help the poorest of the poor.
We want to do a lot many things. We want to make our state a model state, which means no starvation, no beggars, no illiterate person, clean water, power supply, good connectivity and proper healthcare.
Will you be able to achieve all this?
I think if the government of India helps us, it is not impossible. I am not developing a Communist state in Tripura. We are doing all this within the framework of the constitution.
I met prime minister Manmohan Singh during this trip (July 15-21) to Delhi after a gap of two years. I told him that things were not moving and asked, “Where shall I go? This is the last post. I can’t go outside India.”
How was the response? I have heard from other chief ministers that the response is lukewarm?
Yes. Lukewarm. I don’t want to be blunt but there is a pro-corporate government (at the centre). They are not bothered about the common people.
All of sudden, you have hiked the price of gas. Who will be helped? It will only help the Ambanis. Because of that power tariff will be hiked, price of fertiliser will be higher, agriculture will be seriously hampered. Who is going to be affected? The common people. What kind of a vision is that? The central government behaves in a pro-rich manner. It is completely in favour of corporate houses.
What is foreign direct investment (FDI)? The government has opened the door: come and loot us. Now there is a competition between the BJP and Congress. That’s why we are saying the BJP cannot be the real alternative to the Congress. They are alike. The alternative is a democratic, secular, pro-people approach, whichever party takes it. The pro-people programme must be there. If there is no such programme, you can’t develop the country. But if you develop without these agenda (secular and democratic), the development will not last long.
Another example is the food bill. It is not going to help people broadly. It’s going to help a few people but not all.
Do you see a mass movement in the offing? If you look at the ground, there is lot of simmering.
It is bound to come. People will find ways to overcome the problem for their own survivability. They will chart their own destiny. The political parties’ responsibility is to show them the path. In fact, during the British rule, people were in slumber for a long time. Then they rose from below and uprooted them and brought change. We have to wait (for another such uprising).
But how long people will have to wait?
Put a kettle of water on an oven. Will it start boiling immediately? You have to wait till the temperature reaches 100 degrees Celsius. It is a scientific way of judging things. In politics, you can’t see everything from outside. What is going to happen, nobody knows. (But) people can’t be suppressed for long.
Do you think your state offers an alternative model?
Of course, our state offers an alternative model. It might be in a smaller way. The Congress is not accepted in our state. They tried their best. What didn’t they do to unseat us? Despite all these things, people voted for us. We formed our government not with 60 percent voting pattern, but with 94 percent voting.
What about the repatriation of Reang tribals? There was a heated discussion between you and the Mizoram CM during the Northeastern Council meeting in Delhi.
This situation is created by the Mizoram government. Reang asked for the set-up of an autonomy district council in Mizoram. I told the PM that it is his party ruling in Mizoram. Why are they not taking back Reang tribals from Tripura? They have been in our state for the past 16 years.
But Mizoram state officials accuse Tripura of creating problems in this matter.
Reang refugees are very happy with the Tripura government. But Mizoram officials don’t like to take them back. In the recent NEC meeting, I asked the prime minister, home minister Sushilkumar Shinde and even Mizoram CM Lalthanhawla to solve the problem. This is not our problem. It is a problem created by your government (the Congress government in Mizoram). Even in the last election, they voted for the Congress.
Reang tribals are voters of three assembly segments in Mizoram, and the Congress won in all the three assembly segments.
Even then, Mizoram is not taking them back?
I am surprised why the prime minister is not doing anything. Actually, the problem is Mizo versus Reang (tussle). This is very wrong thing. It is a multi-religion and multi-language state; it should accept all kinds of people. One state should not be there for one sect. This is a very wrong approach.
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