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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 11, March 7, 2015

Unpopular Leadership-style Hurts Kerala’s CPI-M. Would BJP Benefit?

Monday 9 March 2015, by T J S George

IMPRESSIONS

Kerala could well become another Bengal for the Communist Party of India-Marxist. The party’s State Secretary, Pinarayi Vijayan, demitted office last week after a 17-year reign. The party lost ground during that period, though the initial years were promising. In the 2004 Lok Sabha election, the first after he had fully settled down to the job, Kerala’s Left Front won 18 of 20 seats. In 2009, with his style of functioning a talking point, the result was four out of 20. In 2014, the last election on his watch, the score was six.

The period also saw divisions, splits and open fighting within the party as never before. Some local units rebelled, some leaders quit, some quit and bargained their way back, some formed parallel parties and some got murdered. Violent clashes between the CPI-M followers and followers of other parties became common. PV stood firm as a rock, stressing his party’s correctness on disputed issues and accusing others of trying to tarnish his and the party’s image. He asserted his power to enforce discipline.

One man declined to accept what he called the Secretary’s dictatorial style. V. S. Achuthanandan was not just another leader. Twenty years senior to PV, VS is a mass leader whose easy ways and support to popular causes have turned him into a darling of the common man. PV saw this popularity as blocking his own (PV’s) chances of becoming the Chief Minister and carried on a sustained campaign to devalue VS. In the 2011 Assembly election he went so far as to deny VS a ticket. The public uproar was such that the strong man was forced to retreat and let VS run. But party-level vilification of VS continued.

At last week’s party conference VS was publicly belittled. He sat alone most of the time. No one except Sitaram Yechury greeted him. In his four-hour speech, PV attacked him by name; it’s not trivial words that must be used against VS, he said. A resolution was passed by the party’s State Secretariat accusing VS of deteriorating to an anti-party mentality. As the attacks rose to a crescendo, VS left the meeting and did not return. The gathering was stunned. General Secretary Prakash Karat formally phoned VS and asked him to return. VS replied that when a resolution was on record describing him as anti-party, he should not be at the party’s session.

Earlier VS had sent a report to the central leadership saying that the official report was meant only to justify the State Secretary’s leadership and dwelling at length on the murder of T.P Chandrasekharan, a CPI-M leader who had left and organised a rival party, attracting, to the surprise of all, considerable following in certain areas. He was waylaid one night and attacked with long knives, splitting his head and body into multiple pieces.

”Even when our Government was in power,” said VS who was the Chief Minister then, “there were intelligence reports about a conspiracy to kill Chandrasekharan... Along with seven hired killers, three CPI-M leaders were also sentenced to life imprisonment. We keep on saying that the party had no role in the murder. At the same time the party Secretary keeps justifying the kingpin of the conspiracy.” VS also said that the party lost ground in elections because traditional allies in the LDF were alienated by the Secretary’s arrogance while deals were struck with dubious leaders like Abdul Nasar Madani.

The charges and countercharges have a direct bearing on the party’s credibility and influence among the people. The PV style of confrontationism may not be visible now because his successor, K. Balakrishnan is a smiling leader. But KB is a product of PV, and PV is certain to be active behind the scenes pursuing his goal of chief ministership. The elimination of VS was a necessary preparatory step to achieve that aim. To some extent that may now be within reach. But the loss of ground already confronting the CPI-M and PV’s continuing authoritarian style that makes all but his close allies uncomfortable cannnot be brushed aside. Political Kerala has lost its optimism about the CPI-M. It will get worse for the party if VS is not around to win votes for it. The Congress making the people more angry with more mistakes is PV’s and the CPI-M’s best hope. But much of that anger may benefit the BJP next time. What the PV era proves is that in the CPI-M, too, individuals prosper at the expense of their party.