The media and social media are abuzz about the no-frills style of Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar and Delhi’s to-be-CM Arvind Kejriwal, both very unusual politicians in today’s India.
But India has not seen a chief minister like Nripen Chakraborty whose spartan lifestyle and frugal habits were the subject of legend.
Nitin Gokhale remembers the late Tripura chief minister who should be a role model for all of India’s luxury-loving politicians.
The year: 1986. The month: July. The place: Tripura’s capital Agartala.
I was then working with the Guwahati-based daily newspaper, The Sentinel and had come to Tripura for a couple of stories. It was blazing hot and because of the monsoon, extremely humid too in Agartala.
There used to be one reasonably clean and ‘standard’ hotel in the state capital then. Most visiting journalists stayed and operated from this hotel.
A day after I had reached Agartala, a senior journalist then with a leading magazine (both the journo and the magazine will remain unnamed) arrived and duly reached the same hotel. Much to his shock, there were no AC rooms in the hotel.
He fretted and railed against this ‘shortcoming’ in Tripura and was boiling over with anger when he reached Chief Minister Nripen Chakraborty’s office.
Coincidentally, I was also in the CM’s office the next day when the senior journo came to interview Nripen-da as Chakraborty was universally known.
As a young media practitioner then, I was fascinated by the ‘encounter’ that followed between the chief minister and his interviewer.
The senior journalist was obviously used to being treated as a ‘star’. His demeanour suggested he was almost doing a favour by interviewing the chief minister of a small, remote state like Tripura.
Nripen-da was his usual self: Quiet, firm and clear about his priorities and policies for the state.
As the interview neared its end and the atmosphere became slightly informal, the senior media practitioner, adopting a more patronising tone, said: “Chief minister saheb, your capital needs improvement. There’s not a single hotel with AC rooms here. Not good for tourism or the image of the state you know.”
Nripen-da smiled mildly and then asked a counter-question: “Do you see an air conditioner here, in this room? Neither me nor my people need these luxuries!” and dismissed the suggestion.
That was Nripen-da. Simplicity personified.
I do not know if the senior media personality ever went back to Tripura.
Today Agartala has excellent facilities with ‘propah’ hotels, but the current chief minister of Tripura, Manik Sarkar, is a down to earth politician with the usual trappings of power missing in his day to day life.
At a time when many of us are going ga-ga over Arvind Kejriwal & Co setting examples of austerity, it is important to recall Nripen-da and Manik Sarkar from the North-East who did not preach, but practiced simple living.
After that first meeting, one had at least half a dozen occasions to meet and observe Nripen-da from close quarters.
As chief minister for 10 years (1978 to 1988), he lived in the official bungalow, but it was shared by other Communist Party of India-Marxist functionaries. Of course, it helped that Nripen-da was a bachelor.
His bedroom and office was spartan like the man himself. There was no air conditioning either. He washed his own clothes and was an extremely frugal eater.
As my Agartala-based friend and fellow journalist Sanjib Deb recalls: “Nripen-da’s breakfast consisted of murri (puffed-rice) and tea. Once I went to meet him early morning. As he came out of the bedroom, Nripen-da ordered a bowl full of murri for me as well.”
“He loved his tea. I remember he always took three spoons of sugar in a tall glass in which he drank his endless supply of tea.”
“‘Sugar gives you the required stamina to last through the day,’ he would explain if someone remarked on the excess sugar he consumed,” Sanjib remembers.
A die-hard Communist, Nripen-da had fled to Tripura in the late 1940s after the police came looking for him in West Bengal. He built the Communist movement in Tripura, working with Dasarath Deb, a local leader.
In 1988, when the Left Front lost the state assembly election in Tripura, Nripen-da left the chief minister’s official residence in a cycle rickshaw, carrying with him the same tin trunk with which he had entered the bungalow a decade earlier!
A graduate from Dhaka University and a master of economics from Calcutta University, he became a member of the undivided Communist Party of India in the 1930s.
He worked at times as a labourer in jute mills, sometimes as a sub-editor at the Ananda Bazar Patrika newspaper, but till the very end Nripen Chakraborty remained an ardent Marxist.
He passed away in 2004, months short of his 100th birthday.
Nitin Gokhale, one of India’s best-known journalists, is Strategic Affairs Editor, NDTV. Nitin spent 23 years living in and reporting on the North-East..