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Kerala: Intra-Party Differences

The politburo's acceptance of V S Achutanandan's candidature in the forthcoming assembly elections has been attributed to the latter's popularity among the rank and file. But this is too easy an explanation. VS was sidelined because he chose to question some of his party's more uneasy compromises. That the party leadership refuses to answer these is ironically another instance of its ideological blindness.


Intra-Party Differences

The politburo’s acceptance of V S Achutanandan’s candidature inthe forthcoming assembly elections has been attributed to thelatter’s popularity among the rank and file. But this is too easy anexplanation. VS was sidelined because he chose to question someof his party’s more uneasy compromises. That the party leadershiprefuses to answer these is ironically another instance of its

ideological blindness.


he explosive situation that almost threatened to split the Kerala unit of the CPM now seems to have cooled down with a change of mind on the part of the politburo: veteran Marxist politician, V S Achutanandan (VS), will now contest as a candidate in the forthcoming assembly polls. The leadership is seeking to explain away its earlier decision of not fielding both, i e, VS and Pinarai Vijayan, secretary of the state CPM and leader of the “official group”, as being prompted by the choice these leaders made of staying away from the electoral contest. Whatever the truth may be, party activists and sympathisers who took to the streets in protest against the denial of ticket to VS appear to have been propelled into action by media reports that he had been dubbed “anti-developmentalist” and “anti-minorities” by the official group.

The sympathisers of VS whose numbers have swelled in recent years could not take any “injustice” meted out to him in silence, no matter that the politburo itself was behind this “unjust” verdict. For them he symbolises the ideal leader who has articulated peoples’ concerns relentlessly and has refused to be cowed down by the mighty. On a range of issues – from sex scandals and the flesh trade, forest encroachment and sandal theft, sale of river water and appropriation of natural water by multinational companies, environmental issues rising out of the indiscriminate use of chemicals like endosulphar and controversial projects such as the National Express Highway and the “smart city” proposed at Cochin, as well as loans from Asian Development Bank – VS has been perceived to be with the meek and the voiceless and has taken on the rich and the powerful. On numerous occasions he has raised his voice against his own party men. That the party machinery could not neglect the space that VS has carved out for himself in the hearts of the people was evident from the request put forward by a majority of district committees for including VS in the list of candidates. The fact that VS wielded immense mass appeal perhaps led the politburo and the state committee to rescind its earlier decision. In an election where the CPM-led LDF is expected to register a comfortable win, the party did not want another “historical blunder” to be committed and for that reason perhaps the objections of the party’s state secretariat that was loaded heavily in favour of Pinarai Vijayan were overruled. Open protests and lobbying for and against candidates are not unheard of in Kerala where they constitute an important facet of “right wing” politics. But the current scenario is somewhat unprecedented in the history of the communist movement.


V S Achutanandan’s politics is rooted in the historic Punnapra-Vayalar agitation. Till the end of the 1990s, he had an altogether different image. He was alleged to be a “Stalinist” in organisational matters with extraordinary skills at finishing off his opponents within the party. On the other hand, it could be pointed out that he did not promote or maintain relations with any cabal and that all his battles within the party were based on politically correct lines on various occasions. The fact that many of his friends in the past are his enemies today can be cited to justify this argument. What, however, is relevant to the present context are the political issues involved, the extent how these issues are articulated, group rivalries and the seriousness with which the CPM as a party develops or eschews the ideological content ingrained in these rivalries.

The origin of the present crisis dates back to the late 1990s, to the LDF tenure that lasted from 1996 to 2001, to be precise.

In 1996, even though the LDF secured a comfortable majority in the state assembly, VS lost at Mararikkulam, apparently owing to the machinations of his rivals in the CPM. Thus humbled, he threw his weight behind E K Nayanar and supported him against the late Susheela Gopalan, in the state committee meeting held to decide the chief minister. This was surprising since in the group rivalries of that period, VS and Nayanar were known to be leaders of different warring factions in the party. However, what VS intended to achieve by this masterstroke was the subduing of the CITU group to which Susheela was said to owe allegiance. After Nayanar became CM and the LDF ruled uninterruptedly for five years, the equations within the groups too saw a change. So much so that by the time the last state conference of the party was held at Malappuram in 2005, the CITU group and VS were united against the official group led by Pinarai Vijayan.

The tenure of the LDF was known for the implementation of the “people’s plan”, a programme aimed at decentralisation of power. Even though the programme was hailed as revolutionary, in later years it became a controversial issue with allegations of foreign funding and imperialist interests behind it. The controversy became public mainly through the articles in a publication called Patam, edited by M N Vijayan, who was also ironically then editor of Desabhimani, a weekly and the cultural mouthpiece of the CPM. He had started Patam in 2000, after resigning as president of the progressive art and literary forum, the CPM cultural organisation. This resignation, which with hindsight can be read as the first manifestation of the crisis that was soon to take on its present proportions, was prompted by M N Vijayan’s disagreements with M A Baby, then cultural in-charge of the party. The cultural programme ‘Manaveeyam’ of the LDF government was organised under Baby’s guidance. In addition to the extravagance of the programmes and the elitist audience whose sensibilities were ostensibly catered to in these programmes, the fact that the “people’s art and culture” now seemed to be giving way to bourgeois concepts under the influence of neoliberalism mattered much to Vijayan. Writers from his camp started venting their anger at a section of the state leadership including Baby and Thomas Isaac, an active proponent of the people’s plan programme. The CPM maintained a studied silence even in the face of provocative articles that appeared in Patam, even as Isaac was approaching the courts with defamation suits. The high

Economic and Political Weekly April 1, 2006

reputation that Vijayan enjoyed among the writers and the literate and the unique arguments with which he had defended the CPM on certain occasions when public opinion was set against it seem to have weighed with the party leadership. Things reached the boiling point when M P Parameswaran, who was actively involved in the people’s plan programme advanced the “theory of the fourth world”. Loyalists of Vijayan were quick to point out that a theory that had been opposed by the late ideologue of the party, E M S Namboodiripad, was now being resurrected after his death. The interview given by P Govinda Pillai, the noted intellectual of the CPM to one Malayalam magazine that contained many remarks against EMS added fuel to the fire. Vijayan and his followers saw all these developments as part of a conspiracy to bury ideology once for all. As the controversy mounted, the uneasy relation between the party and Vijayan gave way to overt moves by the party officialdom against him.

It was at this juncture that V S Achutanandan began his independent crusade against the “gang of four” in the party that allegedly was taking the party down a revisionist path. An ex-journalist who had worked in the former socialist countries and was a “co-traveller” of the left assisted him. The CPM leadership responded by rejecting the theory of the “fourth world” andexpelled Parameswaran from the party. P Govinda Pillai was also removed from the state committee. These formal disciplinary steps, without going into the heart of the matter could in no way put an end to the confusion. Contrary to the familiar position of the communist parties, ideological struggle has to continue until all manifestations of deviation are thoroughly wiped out from the realm of theory and praxis; the CPM instead opted to close the matter hastily with only a few expulsions. As a result what should have been a seriously deliberated discussion on ideology was curtailed to a few guidelines on accepting foreign funds. No wonder group rivalries came to be perceived as personal clashes and crucial ideological questions were relegated to the backburner.

Logic of Emotions

It is interesting to note that a few months ago when the relationship of CPM vis-à-vis the new party formed by the estranged Congress leader K Karunakaran and his son was still undecided, one state leader said the matter would be decided taking into account the emotions of the party rank and file.

Again, the recent change of decision regarding the candidature of V S Achutanandan was also attributed to the emotions of the rank and file. It is all right to advance the view that democratic method of functioning would include the considerations evinced by the ordinary member; however, the key question here is how easily a wedge is generated between so-called emotions and the party’s perception. If political and ideological questions concerning the issues involved are discussed and decisions taken on that basis, this dichotomy would perhaps have been non-existent. In the present case, when VS has been allowed to contest taking into account “people’s feelings”, it is never explained whether he articulated a separate political approach than the official group. Even if he did, the reluctance to develop this debate for needs of ideological clarity is left unexplained.

Ever since the implementation of partial land reforms, the CPM’s struggles have been at the macro level and not at the micro. This factor coupled with the growing nexus between sections of the leadership at all levels and the establishment has effectively sealed the need for militant struggles, once the hallmark of the CPM. This is more than evident from the fact that in many local issues of relevance in the age of globalisation the party was a reluctant latecomer to the struggles initiated by the “new social movements”. Apparently, it is this laxity that V S Achutanandan tried to replace by leading from the front with or without much assistance from his own party. He became critically vocal against the neo-rich classes and the mafia gangs whose presence has drastically altered the socio-political scenario of the state. As the ambit of these classes and groups encompasses many political leaders and the CPM is no exception, VS’ clash with the mighty in his own party was of little wonder.

The critique of foreign funding and loans from international institutions become meaningful only if viewed with an alternative economic perspective. None of the groups engaged in the ongoing tussle seems to have delved deeply into the political economy of Kerala and its future directions. Such an analysis will surely have to grapple with the limitations of the land reform measures implemented in the state by the various left governments. Even without touching this aspect, if any movement has to be of relevance to the people, there is the need for a return to the basics. Achutanandan’s popularity stems from the fact that in his campaigns he has touched on this issue. Without a clear break from classical “evils”, such a struggle is impossible to be initiated and led. This is an ideological matter. Showing reluctance to take on this question and reducing everything to the levels of personal popularity and emotions amount to “deideologising”, which too is strangely ideological.



Economic and Political Weekly April 1, 2006

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