In a season of scams, Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar's white kurta shines as bright as his legendary honesty. He is India's only chief minister who doesn't own a home, a car or a bank balance worth the mention. His SBI bank account had a balance of Rs 6,500 on September 17. He donates his salary, Rs 12,500, to the CPI(M) party fund and gets a monthly 'wage' of Rs 5,000 in return. When asked how he runs his household on the paltry sum, and where he will put up if he has to vacate the chief minister's house, he says, "My wife's pension can sustain us both. My expenses are small-a packet of snuff and a Charminar cigarette a day. About a home, we'll see." He eats rasmalai and cashewnuts for breakfast, as the music system in his bedroom plays Bhimsen Joshi, his favourite vocalist.
At 10 a.m. sharp, he hops into the official vehicle, which is out of bounds for even his wife, Panchali Bhattacharya, a former employee of the Central Social Welfare Board. Bhattacharya, 61, who retired last year, is often seen traversing Agartala in a rickshaw, without security. "She has never interfered in his official work, except once, and that too indirectly. Seven years ago, the Chief Minister decided to go on morning walks on the streets of Agartala. His security officers went into a tizzy and requested Panchali didi to persuade her husband to give up the idea. She then bought him a treadmill," says a close aide. Sarkar acknowledges the story but says the treadmill is not a substitute for a walk.
The ruling Left Front's strategy for the February 2013 Assembly polls revolves around this slogan of honesty, as personified by its chief minister. The question is: Will this honour-able man be able to defend India's last Communist bastion? The 63-year-old comrade refuses to accept Tripura is the Left's final frontier. "We'll return in West Bengal and Kerala. Remember, we got 41 per cent votes in West Bengal in the last polls," says Tripura's longest-serving chief minister.
In power since 1998, Sarkar realises he has a tough battle on hand this time against a resurgent Congress led by its new state President Sudip Roy Barman, the 48-year-old son of former chief minister Samir Roy Barman. He is taking on Sarkar on the biggest grouse against the Left Front-lack of jobs. "Over 40,000 posts are lying vacant in the state. No primary teacher has been appointed in 14 years of his rule," says Sudip, who finds an unlikely ally in Sarkar's wife. "Unemployment is Tripura's biggest problem. But it is not only our problem, it's India's," she says.
Sarkar blames the Centre for not evolving a policy to generate jobs in the largely rural state, though he also claims that over 20,000 people got jobs in the last five years. He rubbishes Opposition claims of corruption by his ministerial colleagues, and of his reluctance and failure to tackle them. "Please name the ministers with evidence. I promise immediate action. Some of them may have underperformed. Question their efficiency, not their honesty," says the Chief Minister over a cup of green tea in his Agartala office.
Sudip says this honesty is a carefully cultivated legend. "Where does he get money to buy the hundreds of white kurta-pyjama sets he owns? Ora spectacle frame that is worth Rs 60,000? How can he afford sandals worth Rs 6,000? Why doesn't he act against the corrupt ministers? It's all a ploy. First, he encourages them to indulge in corruption, then blackmails them with the threat of legal action, thus pre-empting any challenge to his leadership," he says.
Says a Tripura University professor who did not want to be named: "He may be an honest person, but Sarkar is a ruthless politician. If he feels threatened by anyone, their wings are clipped. Yet, the Congress has little chance to dethrone him, thanks to its internal rivalries."
The Chief Minister defends himself: "Where is the power? It's with the Centre. Small states like Tripura suffer. We have to fight for everything that is rightfully ours."
Before he signs off, he has a clarification to make. "My spectacles cost Rs 1,800. My sandals are also cheap. I love to look neat, but that doesn't mean I buy expensive stuff, says the cricket-crazy Chief Minister, who was a good batsman in college. A fan of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Mohammad Azharuddin, his current favourite is India's latest cricketing heart-throb: Virat Kohli. He has no fear of being run out.
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