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

The C. Achutha Menon Government: An Effective Template Against Fascism?

Saturday 24 October 2015

October 2015 marks the 45th anniversary of the first Congress-Communist Minstry headed by C. Achutha Menon. In the wake of the communal onslaught on all walks of life, a critical re-assessement of the aforementioned Ministry’s noteworthy achievements, as presented in the following article, offers an effective template against fascism.

by Ajayakumar Kodoth

We are just a year shy of the twentyfifth death anniversary of C. Achutha Menon (1913-1991), one of the most respected and best loved sons of Kerala. This occasions a re-look at the political achievements of free India’s first Communist-Congress Government (1970-77) he headed, and an enquiry into the relevance of initiating changes in the State’s as well as the country’s political orientation to suit the contemporary environment. May I admit at the very outset that a fearless and honest appraisal of the Achutha Menon Ministry will inevitably throw up certain political observations that are likely to raise hackles in certain quarters.

It is a well-known fact that Achutha Menon had a unique personality. Born into a middle-class family, he grew into an exceptional student, lawyer, public servant, political leader, parlia-mentarian, administrator and writer. Today’s youngsters, who view politicians with undis-guised disgust, have a lot to learn from Achutha Menon’s life. He passed his SSLC examination with flying colours, winning the first rank from the then state of Kochi, went on to complete his intermediate and under-graduate courses on merit scholarships, and won the gold medal in Law from the Government Law College, Thiru-vananthapuram. Even as he began his legal career in Thrissur, Achutha Menon came to be known as a respectable public figure. He was a member of the KPCC in the 1930s, and joined the Communist Party in 1941 through his involvement in the “Labour Brotherhood” movement. The 1940s (1942-48) saw him working as the Secretary of the Communist Party of the state of Kochi. Later he became the State Secretary of the Thiru-Kochi state unit of the party. As he rose to become one of the undisputed leaders of the Communist movement in Kerala, he worked in the Central Committee of the undivided Communist Party and the Central Executive Committee as well.

Following the first legislative elections in Kerala in 1957, he became the Minister for Finance in the EMS Cabinet, and later handled the Agriculture and Home portfolios. When the Communist Party split in 1964, he remained firm in the mother organisation, became a member of the CPI Central Secretariat and was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1968. The Ministry, which ruled Kerala in 1967, was a coalition of seven parties, that included both the Communist Parties, and when Chief Minister EMS resigned in October 1969, all the coalition partners—with the sole exception of the CPI-M—unanimously decided to invite Achutha Menon from Delhi, where he was serving as a Rajya Sabha MP, to lead the United Front Ministry in Kerala, and the CPI central leadership endorsed this. Subsequent events proved the correctness of the decision. He took over as the State’s Chief Minister in November that year. After the October 1970 State Legislative elections, he led the Congress-Communist combine till 1977 in a manner that set exemplary standards for the entire country. His Ministry holds a respectable place in history for setting up a model adminis-tration, and making crucial contributions towards modernising the State. The Kerala Model of Development, much hailed for its futuristic programmes, especially in the fields of education and healthcare, took its baby steps under Achutha Menon’s leadership.

As the Chief Minister, who governed Kerala when India was under the grip of the Emergency during 1975-77, Achutha Menon was subjected to harsh criticism, especially in the light of the infamous Rajan incident. Malayalis are not likely to forget certain scornful assessments of his stewardship—“a shameful chapter in the history of modern Kerala”—and sarcastic comments hurled at him—“a mere servant working under K. Karunakaran, the Home Minister”. These epithets fell from the lips of CPI-M leaders who formed the main Opposition during that time. If the first-mentioned judgement was made by the CPI-M Polit-Bureau member, Pinarayi Vijayan, the personal attack was launched by none other than EMS. Whether Achutha Menon, the administrator and his governance, deserve such attacks is a point that needs to be examined.

In 1956, just prior to the birth of Kerala, the undivided Communist Party prepared a com-prehensive blue-print for the overall develop-ment of the State. Such a plan to build a pros-perous Kerala was envisaged and drafted by C. Achutha Menon. In 1957, it became the manifesto of the Communist Party during the first legislative election, and remained a beacon to light the way for the 1957 Ministry as well as all coalition governments with the Communist Party as the partner. The achievements of the Achutha Menon Ministry during 1969-77 stand indebted to this document, the most prominent one being the Land Reform Bill that was brought into effect from January 1, 1970 with the ratification of the President of India. This was the first step towards kick-starting a major revolution in free India; the first step towards giving concrete shape to the battle-cry “Land to the Tiller” raised by peasants’ unions and the Communist Party in Kerala during the 1930s and 1940s. The Communists of today would do well to remember that when Achutha Menon implemented that Bill in Kerala under the leadership of the Indian Communist Party, the State Government had the support of the Indian National Congress. The annals of history record the participation of the Indian National Congress leadership in all the developmental activities set in motion by the Achutha Menon Government from October 1970 to 1977. It was a Congress-Communist partnership that became a model for the entire country. By lending support to the Achutha Menon Government in all its progressive projects, the Congress leadership in Kerala, knowingly or otherwise, was in effect putting its weight behind the policies ratified by the Karachi Resolution, that had showcased the progressive economic policies of the Indian National Congress and been accepted by the famous 1931 AICC meeting.

Achutha Menon was an administrator who had a very clear vision about the overall development of Kerala. All the institutions he established during his time—more than 50 in number and keeping up to international standards—contribute to the fields of science, technology, public health, housing, geology, forest protection, water management, education, social sciences, planning, environment conservation and so on. They are an eloquent testimony to his far-sightedness.

The most important among them are Sri Chitra Thirunal Institute of Medical Sciences, Centre for Development Studies, Keltron, ER & DC (C-DAC of today), Regional Research Labo-ratory, Centre for Earth Science Study, Costford, State Planning Board, Forest Research Institute (Peechi) and Centre for Water Resources. Besides, he appointed eminent men to run these institutions, stalwarts like Dr M.S. Valiathan, Dr K.N. Raj, K.P.P. Nambiar, Laurie Baker and so on. Institutions like the Regional Cancer Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala Agricultural University, Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT), Film Development Corpo-ration, Kerala State Financial Enterprises, Steel Complex Limited, Kerala State Housing Board, Corporation for SCs/STs, Land Development Corporation, State Industrial Enterprises, etc. are also the contributions of this period.

The Peasant Law, the Gratuity Law, etc.— the first of their kind in India—came into effect in Kerala during his tenure. At least one high school and one primary health care centre in every panchayat became a reality. The One Lakh Housing Programme, and chains of industrial estates were conceptualised and established as model projects. Film Awards were instituted in Kerala for the first time and the Chitranjali Studio was set up as a public sector unit. College teachers were brought under the direct payment scheme. With the comm-issioning of the Idukki Hydel Project in 1975, Kerala witnessed a revolutionary change in the field of electricity generation and distribution. Can Kerala ever forget M.N. Govindan Nair who drew up the One Lakh Housing Programme for the landless poor or T.V. Thomas who established the chains of industrial estates as well as the Dinesh Beedi Co-operative movement? That the workers of the Dinesh Beedi Company could be incited by the CPI-M to hold protest demonstrations on the streets against the Achutha Menon Government in the 1970s is another matter altogether.

In short, the Achutha Menon period was an administrative phase that pumped new energy into all aspects of life, and modernised the social and economic sectors in Kerala. This Congress-Communist front was arguably the best government ever witnessed in Kerala or India.

That the Congress-CPI front could win 113 out of 140 Legislative Assembly seats and all the 20 parliamentary seats in Kerala, when Indira Gandhi lost in Rae Bareili in the 1977 general elections in the wake of the Emergency, was a thumping endorsement of the achieve-ments of the Achutha Menon Government. The victory was certainly not because—as several rabid revolutionaries alleged—Malayalis were so insensitive as to tolerate Emergency that was so inimical to the democratic legacy of India. The relentless and indiscriminate attacks mounted by the CPI-M against the Achutha Menon Government also played a crucial role in crystallising public opinion in the latter’s favour. The frequent Naxalite attacks too made all peace-loving people turn against diabolic violence. It was the firm stand taken by Achutha Menon and the CPI leadership of the time that prevented violence from spinning out of control in Kerala as it did in other States, behind the smokescreen of Emergency. While it is indeed true that genuine democracy does not deny freedom even to its smallest citizen, citing the Rajan episode (admittedly inexcusable) in order to write off all the achievements of the Achutha Menon Government is unpardonable. No one who knows Achutha Menon will ever believe that the infamous incident took place with his consent.

If the crisis faced by the CPI-M and the CPI in India today is to be overcome, a thorough overhauling of policies and perspectives is imperative. Our contemporary political environ-ment demands such a critical examination of the attitude adopted by the CPI-M towards the Achutha Menon Government. This is especially relevant when we consider the reactionary nature of the CPI-M attacks of that time.

A Communist Party unspooled a chain of violent attacks and set fire to tractors newly driven into the fields in order to protest against mechanisation that had been introduced as the next step in agricultural reform by a democrati-cally elected government credited with imple-menting land reforms for the first time in India. This must be a rare phenomenon even in the history of Communist Parties in the world! The strike was allegedly to prevent loss of livelihood among peasants! The Achutha Menon Government made history by commissioning the Idukki Hydel Project but the CPI-M opposed it by destroying the electric transformers. The strike against the KSRTC buses ended tragically with three bus passengers being burnt alive in Kannur. There were organised attacks even against the houses that had been constructed under the One Lakh Housing Programme! These instances are enough to show the misguided notions and perspectives that the CPI-M had about the role and responsibility of revolu-tionary movements in completing the processes of democratic revolution in a newly independent nation. Quite evidently, the CPI-M was possessed by the demon of the Calcutta Thesis of 1948. The war of negative politics waged by the CPI-M against the Achutha Menon Government in Kerala provokes a serious question: how can a workers’ movement enter the national mainstream without participating in the post-independence national reconstruction programme initiated by a people, newly released from under the yoke of centuries of colonial exploitation? The fact is that the Indian Communist movement was very vague about the attitude it should adopt towards the Indian nationalist struggle, and the role it should play in the national reconstruction process after the country gained freedom. What these experiences prove is that the Indian Communist movement has failed to grow into a corrective force in our national politics.

An objective assessment of the Achutha Menon era also creates an opportunity for a debate on the need for political reorientation in contem-porary India. In reality, the Achutha Menon Ministry was the culmination of the policy of ‘unity and struggle’ towards the Indian National Congress recommended by the P.C. Joshi-S.A. Dange faction even before the Communist Party split; it was a progressive, democratic and secular administrative set-up that had the power to serve as a model to the entire nation. It was indeed a national tragedy for millions of poor Indians that the Communist Party of India could not adopt a rational approach towards the Indian nationalist movement that, largely led by Mahatma Gandhi, contributed such fundamental values as an anti-colonial world vision, secularism and commitment to parliamentary democracy, so essential for retaining our basic identity.

The CPI was led along this path because of the misguidance or abetment of the Comintern under M.N. Roy’s leadership and later by the British Communist Party. After the split in 1964, the CPI-M became a votary of the Ram- manohar Lohia-brand of anti-Congress politics. The CPI returned to the right track in the 1970s but, confounded by the temporary setback suffered in the wake of the Emergency, came under the spell of negative politics espoused by the CPI-M. The Congress lost power after the Emergency but, on bouncing back shortly thereafter, it over-enthusiastically embraced neo-liberal policies in the 1990s and completely forgot the genuine Congress tradition. The Left Front—that could have served as a corrective force from the time of the first UPA Government—failed to utilise the opportunities that came its way. The result was that Hindu fascism came to power following the 2014 elections! In the contemporary political environment, the Congress party and the CPI-M, CPI movements, as practitioners of Gandhism and Marxism respectively, have equal importance, and should therefore shoulder equal responsibility in opposing fascism.

A re-assessment of the activities of the Achutha Menon Government, led by the Congress and CPI, should serve as a pointer to the Left parties in channelising their struggle to complete the democratic revolution in India. But born out of hostility towards the Congress, having pursued the path of sectarianism, and spawned the Naxalite movement on the way, having weakened the powers of the undivided Communist Party, and received body blows from negative politics it had most recently dabbled in, the CPI-M now stands dumbfounded before the prospect of imminent collapse. Will it, blinded by political cataract, ever see the light of reason? The CPI, being less sectarian in outlook and attitude, may succeed in its efforts, perhaps.

India’s political environment today makes it clear that fascism is not a threat awaiting us in the future. That Hindu fascism has spread is tentacles all over present-day India and is cocking a snook at the fundamental values of our nationalist movement at the political and cultural levels is evident in the appointment of heads to institutions like the National Book Trust, Indian Council for Historical Research and, now, the Pune Film Institute. What is it but a public proclamation of its secret agenda! Kerala and Bengal, as States with the highest levels of political awareness in India, should serve as the most fertile spots for anti-fascist political experiments. If they become a forum for secular, democratic struggles against class chauvinism, it will pave the way for a significant political reorientation at the national level. The right assessment of and insights into the Achutha Menon era will inspire such a political reorientation.

A secular, progressive and democratic administrative system, in the lines of the coalition government of Achutha Menon’s time, should emerge in Kerala again as a role-model for the entire country in order to combat the challenges thrown up by the Sangh Parivar. If that happens, Kerala will be able to make use of creative programmes like people’s planning and rise to the levels of modern, developed countries. Let caste and religious organisations confine their activities to their chosen areas. Should the leaders of such organisations be given the power to play Pandarus again to communal fascism? Progressive, democratic movements should not fail to take note of the fact that the very State which, inspired by social revolutionary movements spearheaded by reformers like Sri Narayana Guru and others, had once made quick strides towards removing orthodoxy and evil traditions, is regressing ten times faster today. Nearly eighty per cent of our self-designated full-time political leaders, who are a burden to the society today, can be demobbed or put to other means of gainful employment. Skilled sections from among pensioners may be reinducted into develop-mental processes. Only very eligible persons, acceptable to the general public, may be elected and made to occupy responsible positions, right from the level of panchayat wards to the State Legislative Assemblies and Parliament. In these times, when even adivasi huts produce children with IIT-potential, do seekers of political alms, with no intellectual asset to their credit, have any relevance?

The enlightened public of Kerala is fully equipped to handle these positive changes. What stands in the way of creating an authentic, secular, democratic and progressive coalition in Kerala, fit enough to serve as a model for India, is selfishness and lack of far-sightedness among the political leadership. It is an indisputable fact that a strong oppositional force to combat fascism is possible only with a Congress-Communist union. Let the political experiment of the Congress-Communist alliance start in Kerala. Its success will eventually lead to the alleviation of the graver distress of over 125 crores that form our entire nation.

Dr Kodoth is a former member, Kerala Public Service Commission. He is the son of K. Madhavan, a distinguished freedom fighter and one among those who founded the Communist Party in Kerala, whose autobiography, On the Banks of the Thejaswini, was published in English by the National Book Trust, India in 2012.