Upon my return from a driving trip around Europe, the front page anchor of the Indian Express caught my eye. It showed Communication and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in a warm handshake with the Communist Chief Minister of Tripura, Manik Sarkar, at the inauguration of an Internet Gateway in Agartala.
Even more striking was the treatment the newspaper gave to the headline which encapsulated raw facts: Tripura has an astounding record in the incidence of crime, civilians killed, security personnel killed, kidnappings, encounters, rebels killed. The figure on every count is ZERO.
When a former director general of police in Tripura, B.L. Vohra, a year ago gave me similar figures for the previous year, I rubbed my eyes with disbelief. I had never imagined a senior police officer, conservative to the core, in such ecstatic praise of a communist chief minister.
So, last April, I turned up in Agartala. Lo and behold, I found myself seated in the presence of the present Director General of Police, K. Nagaraj, endorsing all the figures I see on page one of the newspaper.
Of course, at the top of the page, across six columns, are stories related to the Vyapam scam, but I found the Tripura story heartwarming. This, for a variety of reasons, including the unstated petrifaction at Europe grappling with communism in Greece, then possibly Pablo Iglesias's Leftism in Spain and similar streaks in all of Latin Europe.
India had its first communist government in Kerala in 1957 snuffed out by Indira Gandhi.
For some three decades, Jyoti Basu, a communist to boot, ruled West Bengal until his successors fatally mishandled the land issue.
All of that later. Let me, for my immediate purposes, try and explain the Tripura phenomenon, from my notebook.
The state has been ploughing its furrow diligently with some quite extraordinary results on the human development scale and which no one discusses. Has the state with a population of four mllion not been in focus because it is small? Only Sikkim and Goa are smaller. Or has the media thus far been squeamish about applauding a state which for 32 of the past 37 years has been under Left Front rule?
It was for this reason the page one display was striking. I had seen nothing positive about the new Greek political preference in European newspapers. The contrast was refreshing.
Some of its records are amazing. Tripura's 96 percent literacy makes it the country's most literate state. Literacy rate in Gujarat is 83 percent. Kerala was once the leader but its human development record in recent years has been slipping.
Life expectancy of 71 years for men and 73 for women in Tripura too is a record. In Gujarat, it is 64 and 66. Tripura's Bengali population ruins the absence of gender bias among tribals. Even so, it is 961 as against 918 in Gujarat.
The great genius the leadership has demonstrated is in grasping an essential truth: like politics, good governance too is essentially the art of the possible. Instead of beating its breast and flailing its arm around, the regime picked up all the central and state schemes, put its head down, called in the officials, party cadres, involved the three-tier Panchayati Raj system and gave a sense of real participation to the elected Autonomous District Councils which cover two-thirds of the state and all the tribal areas of Tripura.
This is the key. The basic conflict in the state, one which exploded as the fiercest insurgency in the northeast, was on the tribal-non tribal faultline.
Under the Maharajas, who figure in mythology, Tripura was overwhelmingly tribal. But after the creation of East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), Hindu Bengalis from contiguous territories that were once managed by the Maharaja migrated to Tripura. The tribals (a total of 19 tribes) became a minority in the state. The 70:30 ratio in favour of the tribals was exactly inverted. Today 70 percent of the population is Bengali.
The Congress, its eye always on the main chance, fell back on the simple divide and rule strategy, pocketing the Bengali vote bank. If ever there was a shortfall, there was always a tribe to be played against the other.
A great tribal, communist leader, Dashrath Deb, saw the future. He launched Jana Shiksha Abhiyan or campaign for education among tribals in 1945 forcing the Maharaja to recognize 500 primary schools, which mushroomed and today saturate the state - a school every kilometre.
It was from this wide base that the tribals gravitated towards communism while the Bengalis were turning towards the Congress. While the Congress was content with sectarian divine, a leader like Nripen Chakraborty accurately gauged the difficult social reality: without tribal support all Bengali agenda would be circumscribed. Likewise, tribals would not advance without Bengali help. The call went out: tribal-non tribal unity was the absolute imperative.
The idea flared up, across the state for two reasons. Tribals, who had taken to communism in the 40s and 50s, grasped the idea instantly. In driblets, Bengalis too came into the fold. So, while the Left slowly expanded its platform of unity, the Congress persisted with its Bengali focus, not without electoral gains. True, the Left Front has 50 seats in a house of 60, but the 36 percent of the opposition vote share must be largely credited to the Congress.
What keeps the electorate, indeed the population, persistently in the Left's thrall is the universally accepted incorruptibility of the leadership. Congress legislator Gopal Roy shook his head in agreement: "Personal incorruptibility cannot be denied."
The first Left Front Chief Minister Nripen Chakraborty (1978-88) entered and left the official residence with the same two tin trunks - full of clothes, books and a shaving kit. Grocery purchases for the chief minister's household were made on a ration card. Modern capitalism would probably consider him an outcast because he never had a bank account.
His disciple, Manik Sarkar, chief minister for 17 years without a break, is equally austere. His wife, a school teacher, goes to work on a rickshaw.
In efficient implementation of central schemes, the state has no parallels -- clinics, schools, anganwadi, infant and mother care, electricity distribution and, above all, building roads, connecting the remotest areas.
Heaven knows what feedback Prime Minister Narendra Modi has on his Swatch Bharat or Clean India mission. But if he were to send his officers to some of the more remote parts of Tripura, they would rub their eyes with wonder at what has been achieved in such a short period.
The road from Agartala winds around Longtarai hill range to Ambassa, about 80 km away. A measure of the administration's reach is Kumardhan Para, at a forbidding height.
A few years ago, folks at the village walked 18 km to reach grocery stores in Ambassa. Today the Kumardhan peak has been conquered; a motorable road has been laid right up to the village centre. Little wonder Milind Ramteke, the Collector of Ambassa (Dhallai), and his Block Development Officer Amitabh Chakma are local heroes, in village after village.
The problems of Tripura, in a sense, begin now. The King of Bhutan floated the idea of Gross National Happiness. That, roughly, has been Tripura's trajectory. It is now on an efficient welfare plateau. What next? It has an inimitable school network. But very little by way of college and technical education. There are no openings for the educated youth. The state, surrounded on three sides by Bangladesh, looks admiringly at Shaikh Haseena. Indo-Bangla friendship will give it access to Chittagong port, 70 km away.
The regime is not paranoid, but it is "aware" that the Church networks affect both college and post-college job scene. A middle class so created is inherently anti "Left", says a CPI-M leader. Moreover, further penetration by the Church would provide an opening to Hindutva forces to enter the scene with a countervailing sectarian agenda.