Kozhikode/Thiruvananthapuram: Till a few months ago, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) was reconciled to the inevitable. Not only was history against it, the general drift in governance, bitter infighting and demoralization among the cadres only reinforced sentiments that the Left Democratic Front (LDF) was headed for a defeat in the assembly elections in Kerala. Rival political formations have swapped power in every election since 1977.
All this, however, altered dramatically after the CPM leadership surprised everyone by dropping incumbent chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan, who had earlier been expelled from the party politburo, from the list of candidates and then dramatically reversing its decision.
Not only did this flip-flop galvanize cadres, but, as some analysts point out, also marked a watershed for the CPM. For the first time, the party sidelined ideology and allowed an individual’s personality to drive its poll strategy: retain political power at whatever cost. As a result, its campaign is now focused entirely around “VS” as the 88-year-old chief minister is popularly referred to; even better is the fact that this seems to be gaining traction and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) has a fight on its hands.
Old timers recall that even the original party ideologue, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, was never allowed to dominate the electoral scene and had to subscribe to the party diktat. It is, therefore, being perceived as yet another round of structural change effected by the 47-year-old party as it becomes more integrated with the democratic process of the country. It is particularly striking since it was the same party that had forced former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu to reject the offer from the United Front to take over as prime minister in 1996.
Regardless of whether they win or lose, this election will etch a new phase in the CPM’s political engagement. A focus on power means that the party will have to play down its ideology and embrace a more centrist stance, which ironically brings it closer to its political rival, the Congress.
“This is an election in which the CPM took the stand that victory in electoral politics is more important than the party. They became a slave to the understanding that without power no party can survive,” said a party sympathizer, who did not want to identify himself due to the position he holds.
As a result, there is more at stake in the election on 13 April. If indeed the LDF does win, it will create history—it will be the first time that a regime has won a second consecutive term in 34 years. On the other hand, even if they lose, the CPM would have put in place a new template for governance that would have ramifications for the political strategy of the party nationally and, presumably, define a new role for it in the next general election due in 2014.
The CPM in Kerala is a divided house, with one section siding with state party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan and the other with Achuthanandan. Their bitter rivalry has consumed the party and impaired governance in the state. However, Achuthanandan’s very public campaign against corruption—something that is a topic of national debate in the country and inspiring extensive coverage in sections of the electronic media, particularly in Kerala—and a squeaky clean image has given him the edge in the internal rivalry.
Even cadres opposed to the chief minister candidly concede that without Achuthanandan the party would have suffered a landslide defeat; akin to the defeat suffered in the 2009 general election, when the LDF won only four seats of the 20 from the state. This was followed by a sweep of the civic polls by the UDF in October last year. Through all this, there was, on the face of it, no loss of appeal for Achuthanandan, never mind the public admonition of his leadership by the party high command and subsequent expulsion from the politburo.
Analysts see an underlying trend. “In the name of ideology, the CPM leaders could not find a feasible way to overcome the challenges in the electoral process. So what’s happening now could be a churning process to integrate into the democratic process more effectively,” said Bhasurendra Babu, a Thiruvananthapuram-based political analyst.
The CPM, which in the beginning was hesitant to enter parliamentary politics, later softened its stance and accepted power sharing with “equal minded” parties at the state level and, in 2004, it went ahead and backed the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to keep the “communal” Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) out of power at the Centre.
However, the new trend would make the “organizational relevance of the party a matter of past”, said the same person quoted earlier. “The entire electioneering of the CPM has come down to one person. The CPM conceded to a situation in which the Kerala organization is submerged in the VS factor. It might help the party to grow in power politics. But it will have to pay a heavy price—the CPM will not be a party as it existed a decade ago and the centralized democracy will not work.”
The sudden rise in Achuthanandan’s popularity seems to have taken the Congress and its allies by surprise.
“But we are much ahead of them now,” said Vayalar Ravi, Union minister and a senior Congress leader. The UDF leadership hopes that the Christian and Muslim communities, which have been antagonized by the educational policies of the LDF government, and governance would blunt Achuthanandan’s apparent popularity and also mitigate the political fallout of charges of corruption levelled at the national level against the UPA.
Political observers believe the state’s electronic media—there are 21 television channels and 17 more are in the pipeline—has played a significant role in generating the buzz around Achuthanandan.
“Kerala’s election is increasingly fought inside the television channel newsrooms. Every household has got television sets and people irrespective of age and gender listen to the numerous political discourses taking place on these channels,” said N.P. Chekkutty, executive editor of Thejas newspaper.
According to Chekkutty, the debates have politicized the newly emerged middle class and a large section of youth.
Sayyid Muhammed Shakir, president, Ithidadu Shubbanul Mujahideen and principal, Madeenathul Uloom Arabic College, in Malappuram district, pointed out that the television channels project emotional issues and sensationalize them.
“As we don’t have visionary leaders who can take the people off this stream and put them back on the right track, electronic media call the shots,” he said.
Role of religion
Given the polarization of the polity and the tight electoral race, fringe groups, especially those associated with religious denominations, play a key role in electoral politics.
Leaders from various sects in the Christian community, different caste groups from the Hindu community and the Muslim community publicly demanded seats, and were partially appeased by both the UDF and the LDF.
John Thadathil, vicar-general of Changanassery diocese, blamed the political parties for initiating such a trend. “It was the political parties which started this practice, giving representation to communities in order to woo voters. Now the situation has come to a stage (where) various groups are forced to seek their share in order to survive and also to protect their interests.”
However, P.K. Pokker, director, Language Institute, Kerala, pointed out that the state has a history of balancing the communal equations and sharing resources among different groups. “But it usually does not reflect in the voting pattern of any community. This factor does not determine who will rule the state. Since it is not a classless society, it is natural for them to seek their share.”