Vijayan’s dictatorial ways have not gone down well in the party.

 

New Delhi: An overwhelmingly positive response from local and national pre-poll surveys in favour of the ruling Left Democratic Front notwithstanding, Kerala may be heading for a political churning like that witnessed post the Communist Party of India split in 1964.

While a second consecutive term for CPM strongman Pinarayi Vijayan will come as a saving grace for the party at the national level, it is unlikely to strengthen the party at the grassroots level in the state.

Many fear that a consecutive term for the party may give rise to “comrade raj”, reminiscent of the days when party units dictated terms which led to the fall of the first communist government in 1959 and to a very large extent in 1969. Critics also point to what happened in West Bengal in the 34 years of party rule.

Times are changing and what happened in West Bengal may not happen in Kerala. But for the past two decades or so, CPM itself has been undergoing a change in Kerala. And Pinarayi Vijayan is mainly responsible for that transformation. Vijayan as the longest serving secretary of the Kerala CPM—17 years from 1998 to 2015—had practically put down any challenges to his leadership from arch rival nonagenarian V.S. Achuthanandan and asserted his authority when the latter became Chief Minister in 2006. It is a known fact that as party secretary Vijayan had the last say in matters of governance when CPM was in power from 2006 to 2011. Achuthanandan was literally a captive Chief Minister. Forget ministers, even his personal staff were handpicked by the party secretary.

It is important to note that no such restrictions were imposed by the party on Vijayan in the last five years. There was not a murmur of protest in the party state secretariat against any of the decisions taken by Vijayan.

It is an open secret within the party that in the 2011 Assembly elections, a section within the CPM “overworked” to see Achuthanandan didn’t get a second term. In that election, the UDF emerged victorious by a just two-seat margin. Lest we forget, in 1996, when Achuthanandan was slated to become the Chief Minister in the event of an LDF victory, the veteran lost in his backyard Mararikulam in central Alappuzha district, a communist bastion, by 1,965 votes. In those 17 years, Vijayan not only changed the face of CPM in Kerala, but also adopted a style of functioning mostly not in tune with communist ideology. At the end of his tenure, CPM had grown from a political party into a conglomerate.

Today, CPM in Kerala is a multi-crore establishment with prime properties in every district that resembles a real estate business on a large scale. Today, the party controls thousands of cooperative societies, super-speciality hospitals, amusement parks and big construction companies such as the Uralungal Labour Contract Cooperative Society.

The party has the backing of many Gulf-based Malayali billionaires whose deep connections with the top party leadership have come under public scrutiny in recent times. Industrialists with shady past and present get elected to the state Assembly under party patronage.

In the initial days after Vijayan took over the reins in 2016, many in the party and outside thought that he was functioning more like a party secretary rather than the Chief Minister of a state. As they say, he was yet to walk the distance from AKG Centre (party headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram) to the state Secretariat. Despite criticism, he continued to do so till such time he took command when the state came under devastating floods in 2018. Now as he leads the LDF to re-election, if pollsters are to be believed, Vijayan’s control over the party and the government is total.

Vijayan’s dictatorial ways have not gone down well in the party either. Not every party member is happy the way smiling Pinarayi hoardings are put up at every nook and corner of the state, something so far seen only in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. There is simmering discontent within the party, mostly revolving around the question of growing personality cult, especially in its stronghold in Kannur from where the possibility of a challenge to Vijayan’s leadership can emerge in the future.

But the biggest challenge Vijayan and the CPM are likely to face in the event of a re-election is a fractured Opposition, the Congress-led United Democratic Front and the rise of BJP, which was not there in the past. It is easy to wish the Hindutva party away by eulogising “Kerala’s secular mind”, but in the larger national context, the party is here to stay, partially thanks to the major political blunder committed by Pinarayi Vijayan in Sabarimala.

Over the past four decades or so, the main opposition Congress has been used to getting power every five years. It is known that Congress party, rank and file, cannot sustain for long without the fruits of power. As it is, the party is facing disintegration nationwide and Kerala is going to be perhaps its last edifice in the South which is now crumbling. Interestingly, CPM is also in the same boat.

There is no guarantee that the Indian Union Muslim League, which has stood with the Congress in the state through thick and thin for more than four decades, will stick with the United Democratic Front in the event of LDF’s return to power. In case IUML emerges as the larger party in the UDF, the other major party is Congress, a Muslim can naturally stake claim to be the Chief Minister or Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly.

It would be interesting how Pinarayi Vijayan and CPM react to a Muslim at the helm of UDF. Kerala has had only one Muslim Chief Minister in the past, the late C.H. Mohammed Koya from 12 October 1979 to 1 December 1979.

As it is, CPM along with BJP, which is widening its base in the state slowly, has unleashed a sort of “Islamophobia” by telling the people that IUML is set to take over UDF. It was an unpardonable error on the part of certain CPM leaders, including the Chief Minister, to sow the seeds of suspicion in the minds of other minority communities, especially the Christians. The damage has been done, with the BJP now daring to raise the issue of “love jihad” in a state like Kerala. The Muslim community in Kerala had voted en masse for Congress in the last general elections, hoping that Rahul Gandhi would outdo Narendra Modi. That Congress could not come back to power at the Centre has only added to the insecurity of Muslims in Kerala, as elsewhere in the country.

However “double breasted” (as party cadre claim) Pinarayi Vijayan may be, he needs the support of the entire state in thwarting the “divisive” designs of the BJP. It is pertinent to remember that Congress and the UDF stood beside Pinarayi in his fight against CAA for which CPM is now taking full credit.

That will not be the case next time if there is no Congress in the state. It is good to realise that the growth of BJP in the state will not only be at the cost of Congress, but also of CPM. A major chunk of communist party cadre and sympathisers is chaste Hindus.

It cuts both ways. Pinarayi should know.