In the increasingly high-decibel debates on the quality of leadership on offer among the main political formations, the achievements of a modest leader in a relatively remote part of India, Manik Sarkar, the chief minister of Tripura since 1998, might have gone unnoticed. With his overwhelming victory in the 2013 elections (50 of the Assembly's 60 seats, more than half the vote share and nearly 92 per cent turnout - the highest in India), he is likely to emerge as one of the longest-serving chief ministers of India.
The story is remarkable not just because the electoral fortunes of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), have flagged in the party's other two bastions (Kerala and West Bengal), but even more given the grip of the ethnic divide (between tribals and Bengali immigrants) and a vicious insurgency that gripped the state for many years. Tripura's literacy rate now rivals - and, by some estimates, exceeds - Kerala's and, despite the state's isolation and the virtual absence of industry, it has clocked reasonable economic gains based on a significant agricultural innovation: a shift to a lucrative cash crop, rubber. The insurgency has virtually ceased, a testimony to the sensitive handling of the concerns of the tribal population - which offers instructive lessons to states like Chhattisgarh.
Manik Sarkar is an anomaly in Indian politics. Austere and by all accounts scrupulously honest, his probity and humility are rare, representing the best of the old - and vanishing - Left. His success raises the question: why has the CPI(M) done so poorly if inequality is increasing, poverty is widespread and scams are everywhere? What does it say about the party's leadership that, despite being given such "hospitable" structural conditions, it has been doing so dismally?
Mr Sarkar does not come from a metropolitan background, whether the old imperious capital of Calcutta or its replacement, New Delhi. The dominance of the leadership of the communist movement by upper-caste males (epitomised by the bhadralok in Bengal) goes a long way towards explaining why they - as much as India's Right - never quite grasped the importance of caste. The "working class" rhetoric notwithstanding, the male-monopolised politburo focused primarily on the overwhelmingly male-dominated organised sector unions, especially in the privileged public sector, largely ignoring the vast unorganised sector, which has little bargaining power. And when it finally did induct a woman in the politburo, it was not someone from the working classes but yet another member of the upper-caste privileged elite parlaying networks and nepotism.
The upper-caste leadership bias of the CPI(M) was particularly manifest in the party's three-decade rule in West Bengal, which offered it an unprecedented opportunity to make the state a showcase. Instead, the leadership spent far more effort in decrying everyone else's economic policies, while neglecting obvious universal public goods such as primary education and sanitation.
This also explains why the CPI(M) has been inherently conservative, radical in rhetoric but reactionary in practice. This is most obvious in its utter lack of understanding of the one most powerful force of historical change, technology. In the early 1980s, when attempts were made to introduce computers in public sector banks, the Left unions in Bengal strenuously opposed it. The net result was that the state fell behind in information technology, allowing other states to seize the lead, and it has never really recovered from that self-inflicted wound.
In principle, Bengal could have put in serious research efforts to leverage the many admirable features of the jute fibre - in which it has a unique comparative advantage - and develop it as a green natural alternative to chemical fibres. It could even have drawn on expertise from fraternal Cuba, which developed an admirable biotechnology sector entirely through its own efforts. Instead, it obsessed about Haldia Petrochemicals, frittering away its natural endowments and making the state more dependent on the very global markets that it decried. Similarly, it ignored the developments in the global shipping industry and the technological revolution brought about by container shipping and continued to spend thousands of crores of rupees to dredge the Hooghly to keep a port going when it was clear it was not going anywhere.
While rightfully passionate over attempts by political parties to play the religious card, the CPI(M) patronised Muslims. It was, therefore, hardly surprising, except to itself and its bedfellows, that even as India's communists were obsessed with the United States' role in West Asia and the Islamic world, the Sachar Committee found that in the party's own backyard in West Bengal, the status of India's Muslims was among the worst.
But perhaps the Left's worst long-term strategic error has been its vehement opposition to changing labour laws. This has meant that India's manufacturing sector has been severely constrained and an increasingly large fraction has been outsourced to the unorganised sector. Not only has this reduced opportunities for labour, but it has also sharply curtailed the size of the organised sector, thereby reducing the size of the very proletarian forces that have been the heart of any vibrant communist movement, and simultaneously gifting labour-intensive manufacturing to China.
Ideologically, the CPI(M) is opposed to capitalism and the private sector. Agree or disagree, if this was a principled position, rather than simply "cheap talk", it should have done the hard work to improve the performance of state-owned enterprises, which, had they performed well, would have been the best counter to the expansion of capitalist forces. But, if anything, its cluelessness regarding technological change and its placing the interests of its unions above everything else ensured that state-owned enterprises in any state that the CPI(M) has controlled have atrophied, an extraordinary reverse-Midas touch. There is no better advertisement for capitalism than a West Bengal state-owned enterprise, irrevocably corroded by decades of mismanagement.
Even in social sectors, such as education, short-term calculations of controlling the state apparatus for the interest of its cadres and partisan supporters ensured that students gradually exited - whether at the primary school level or in higher education, where the decline of the University of Calcutta and the outmigration of Bengal's best and brightest are causally related.
Perhaps the most salient difference between the leadership of Manik Sarkar and that of the politburo is that members of the latter, led by its general secretary, have put their ideological grandstanding above the more basic tasks of governing. In part, the leadership in the politburo has itself come from relatively elite backgrounds, which can wax eloquent about globalisation, US imperialism, neoliberalism and multiple other "isms", while being clueless about the basics of governance. What passes as principles is so deeply rooted in ideology that it blithely undermines the national interest without the slightest qualm. Its stance on the US-India nuclear deal could indeed be defended as principled, but it is betrayed by the party's studied silence on the China-Pakistan nuclear relationship.
India needs a strong Left, just as it needs a strong centre as well as a strong Right, which compete on ideas and policies. But as long as the CPI(M)'s central leadership comes from a social elite that is as self-serving as any other elite, and the Manik Sarkars are confined to faraway places such as Tripura, this is unlikely to happen.
The writer is director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania