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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 44 New Delhi October 24, 2015

Kerala and Beyond

Saturday 24 October 2015, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

Kerala has a remarkable capacity of being the harbinger of significant developments in Indian politics. In 1957, a new element in Indian democracy—the Communists in office—appeared for the fist time in Kerala; and less than two years later, was seen the most massive anti-Communist crusade ever organised under the aegis of the Congress with the label of “Liberation Struggle”. The 1965 elections registered the CPM as the most organised political entity in Kerala thereby establishing its claim of being a significant force in all-India politics. In 1967, Kerala set up what appeared at the time to be most cohesive United Front Ministry in the country—only to disintegrate two years later underlining the CPM’s incapacity to adjust itself to the compulsions of the United Front strategy, a sorry performance which was repeated more blatantly in West Bengal a few months later.

Last week’s mid-term poll results from Kerala have once again established Kerala’s claim to be the pace-setter on the national political scene. From more than one angle, the Kerala election results sharply brought out the features of the inescapable reality that has engulfed Indian politics since the split in the Congress. The spectacular success of the Congress in Kerala despite its patent organisational weakness as well as the striking setback suffered by the CPM despite its acknowledged organisational strength underline the significance of the impact of Smt Indira Gandhi’s promise of radical political direction on the mass opinion in one of the most politically-conscious States in the country. In this respect, not only the bank nationalisation but the latest derecognition of the Princes paid handsome dividends.

Another factor which has considerably helped the regeneration of the Congress in Kerala has been the positive role of the Youth Congress, which had spearheaded the attack on the Syndicate politics long before the fight was taken up at the all-India level last year. In this electoral battle, the drive, wisdom and the unequivocally radical political stand of this younger section lifted the tempo of the Congress campaign, making up for the lag in the sphere of party organisation. In fact, the Kerala example can be emulated with profit by Indira Congress units in other States, such as West Bengal where the party organisation is still in the grip of the die-hard old guards.

For, it is not only their youthful enthusiasm and radical posture but their ready fraternisation with like-minded forces with progressive outlook that helped to forge the understanding between the Indira Congress and the CPI-led Front in Kerala. It may be recalled here that the move initiated by Sri Bahuguna with the blessings of Sri Jagjivan Ram favoured the Congress fighting the election battle without any understanding with the CPI-led front: this move, which reflected the wishes of the discredited Kerala leaders like Sri Stephen and Sri Shankar, was thwarted in the main by the firm stand of the younger section whose preference for understanding with the other democratic forces facilitated Smt Gandhi and her supporters in the Congress Parliamentary Board to sanction the agreement with the CPI-led front.

The election results have completely vindicated this stand, for it is doubtful if the Congress could have bagged more than a dozen seats if it had preferred to go it alone. The spirit of accommo-dation shown towards the Congress on the part of the CPI-led front—costing thereby the alienation of the Kerala Congress—is a measure of the sagacity of the Front leadership in working out the correct strategy of the United Front; it is to be noted that both the Congress and the Front issued programmes which have many things in common. (The CPM, on the other hand, made a new record this time in going before the electorate without a programme.)

Sri Namboodiripad’s instant review of the election results rightly ascribed the fall in the number of CPM seats to the fallacies of the British system of election which is followed in this country: he echoed the viewpoint of the entire democratic opinion when he reiterated the demand for proportional representation with a single transferable vote. One is, however, reminded of the apparent contradiction in the stand of the CPM, many of whose leaders both in Kerala and West Bengal did not hesitate till yesterday to denounce the Congress as having been “rejected by the people” just because of its poor return of seats despite a fairly good percentage of votes at the last General Election. Yardsticks are not supposed to be changed to suit some immediate convenience on the part of any responsible political leadeship.

By the same criterion, it would be wrong to underestimate the strength of the CPM. Its solid base and well-oiled party organisation have been its strong points; its politics however has been its shortcoming. The inability of the party to understand the significance of the Congress split in the matter of influencing mass opinion together with its mistaken understanding of the concept of the United Front—leading to bitter hostility towards allies and like-minded elements—have not only cost it heavily in terms of seats won but also in the matter of forecasting the results even at the last stages of the election campaign, when Sri Namboodiripad and other leading figures in the CPM continued to prophesy an outright majority for the party. While its traditional base has not eroded, the CPM has not been able to expand its influence to a significant degree, as was claimed by it during the last one year.

The most disconcerting aspect of the CPM’s election campaign was its pronouncedly anti-Muslim bias—because of its electoral antagonism towards the Muslim League—which led it to wink at the Jana Sangh activities, just as its hostility towards the Indira Congress for having allied with the CPI, led it to seek areas of agreement with the Syndicate. The putting up of known party members as “Independents” so that they could count on votes from the Syndicate, the Swatantra and the Jana Sangh, who cannot support official CPM candidates, is an extra-ordinary acrobatic feat, proclaiming a lack of principle unworthy of an accredited party of the Left.

While nobody in the Left and democratic camp in their senses can afford to gloat over the setback suffered by the CPM, it is time for the party’s leadership to do a bit of dispassionate introspection so that this well-knit political contingent could play its rightful role in unity and understanding with other Left and democratic parties in a period of unprecedented mass radicalisation. The broad Left opinion in the country expects the CPM leadership to realise that the remedy for a sectarian reverse is not found in an extra dose of adventurism of the Ranadive type but in a change of gear to a strategy of a broader and sounder united front.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the Kerala poll has been the record-breaking zero score of the Triumvirate of Reaction—the Syndicate, the Swatantra and the Jana Sangh. Among these three, the discomfiture of the Syndicate has reached the point of crisis. After the spectacular series of reverses suffered in the byelections early in the year, the debacle in Kerala has been a shattering blow for the Syndicate. The myth of Sri Kamaraj’s capacity to rebuild the Syndicate has been exploded in the battlefields of Kerala, despite the unwritten understanding that he claimed to have pulled off with the CPM leadership. The Kerala electoral campaign saw a whole galaxy of the Syndicate stars working overtime—from Sri Morarji Desai to Sri Asoka Mehta, with Sri Nijalin-gappa providing a comic picture of political irrelevance.

The impact of the Syndicate crisis is being felt all over the country; and in the coming weeks there is every reason to believe that large-scale migration from the Syndicate camp may take place not only in Kerala but in other States as well. The most important point to note is the total devaluation of the Syndicate as a party of any consequence; while a good chunk would perhaps climb on to Smt Gandhi’s winning bandwagon, the Jana Sangh leadership hopes to rope in a sizeable number of the Syndicate following in the northern States. In UP, it will not be surprising if Sri C.B. Gupta plays a Patnaik to save his own flock. Sri Virendra Patel in Mysore may terminate his Syndicate loyalty with the impending retirement of Sri Nijalingappa; and there is no reason why Sri Hitendra Desai should continue to suffer Morarjibhai’s overlordship.

Inside the Congress, Smt Gandhi’s position has become almost unchallenged. The eclipse of the Syndicate as a political force in less than a year of the Congress spilt leaves hers as virtually the only Congress; incidentally, the protracted Symbol case before the Election Commission loses its relevance.

Although officially denied, it is generally accepted that Kerala provided, what Sri Achutha Menon had said weeks before the poll (in the pages of this journal), the dress rehearsal for the next General Election. Even in the complex canvas of West Bengal politics the contours of the Kerala strategy cannot be missed for long, although it will depend to a large measure on the Left parties drawing the correct lessons from the Kerala experience. There are signs even in the camp of the intractable SSP—witness its postures in UP—that outright anti-Indiraism may not remain an undeviating article of faith.

At the same time, one cannot help noticing striking variations in approaches and attitudes inside the Left in different parts of the country. For both Indira Congress and the Left it is not going to be an easy journey from electoral understanding to parliamentary alliances and then on to Ministerial coalitions. The forging of a United Front is a matter of skilful checks and balances demanding mature political judgement.

Smt Gandhi’s position in relation to her closest colleagues, particularly the Congress President, has become unassailable. It was she who was the architect of the electoral strategy followed in Kerala and it was Sri Jagjivan Ram who was known to have had given his reluctant consent to it.

For sometime past, there has been corridor talks in New Delhi about silent moves for a rapprochement between the two Congresses, in which Sri Kamaraj on the one side and Sri Jagjivan Ram on the other were mentioned. The calculation was that after some frustrating experience at the polls whether in Kerala or at a mid-term contest, the peacemakers would appear suggesting an earnest get-together, with the Jana Sangh being jettisoned by the Syndicate and the Communists discarded by the Indicate: in the bargain, while Sri Morarji Desai would be compelled to retire. Smt Gandhi may be prsuaded to step down.

All these have turned out to be pipedreams after Kerala, where the Syndicate’s credibility as a political force has been reduced practically to nil and the Indira Congress has got its prestige enhanced as the foremost political organisation in in the country, promising a radical programme for the future. In such a situation the talks of rapprochement between the two Congresses could only mean the death warrant for Gappa and his group, and the unconditional surrender of the Syndicate ranks. The talk of Smt Gandhi’s removal in such a context can possibly have no basis in reality.

Rather this is the moment for Smt Gandhi herself to strike hard. The argument against an early General Election—persistently fostered by a number of Congress stalwarts including Sri Jagjivan Ram—that such an all-out campaign cannot be undertaken with a poorly run organisational machine, has been effectively countered by the experience of Kerala, where mass mobilisation was brought about on the strength of policy-popularisation rather than on a streamlined party machine. When the adversary is on the run, it is wise to pursue it to the finish. In the case of Smt Gandhi this is the moment for going in for the more larger confrontation of a General Election advanced by a year. This, by all indications, can never prove to be a Wilsonian folly; it can only be the guarantee of a resounding victory. 

(‘Political Notebook’, Mainstream, September 26, 1970)