Within the Left Front in Kerala, two sparring communist parties

Within the Left Front in Kerala, two sparring communist parties

Written by
Vishnu Varma

Updated: June 21, 2018 3:19:49 pm

Within the Left Front, two sparring communist parties Sixteen years after the split, the CPI and CPM came together to form the LDF in 1980 and have contested elections together in Kerala since then. (Illustration by Vishnu PP)

It was during the Indo-China war of 1962 that deep roots of rancor started gaining strength within the Communist Party of India (CPI), which had by then established itself as the main Opposition to the Indian National Congress. With the Chinese-Soviet split playing out on the global stage, the war between India and China provoked serious differences between the conservative and radical sections of the party. While one branch put its weight behind then-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and had declared its sympathy for the brand of communism propagated by the Soviets, the other branch believed ‘real’ communism came from large-scale peasant and worker struggles which are more in alignment with what the Chinese preached. That’s how, despite numerous attempts at patching up differences between both camps, in April 1964, during a meeting of the national council of the CPI, 32 leaders walked out, seven of them from Kerala, expressing their displeasure with the line taken by the leadership. These leaders went on to form the CPI(Marxist) in Kolkata later that year, cutting a vertical split in the CPI and ratcheting a large share of the workers of the party.

Also Read | Part-I: How the Left is using the Right to stay alive in it’s last bastion of Kerala

Five decades on, it is clear, as it also was within a few years of that split, that the CPI(M) ultimately became the central benefactor of the Left-aligned masses in the country, particularly in its bastions of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. While the CPI was able to retain a long line of illustrious leadership, it became a pale shadow of its former self as it lay bereft of its cadre base which shifted allegiance to the CPM. Perhaps, the worst repercussions of the split in the party was felt in Kerala where leaders like EMS Namboodiripad and AK Gopalan moved to the new party taking along with them large sections of the labour and agrarian class. For Namboodiripad, who worked tirelessly to tell the people in his home state Kerala that his endeavour to split the party was with the right intentions, the elections that followed vindicated him. The newly-formed CPM emerged as the giant killer with 40 seats while the CPI could only hold on to three seats in a hung Assembly. The animosity between the two parties remained for the next decade as well, with the CPI even choosing to ally with the Congress to stay in power. It’s decision to support the measures of then-prime minister Indira Gandhi during the Emergency resulted in massive backlash. Even as the CPI enjoyed the fruits of power with its new friend in the Congress, the CPM, on the other hand, worked extensively at the grassroots, mobilising the proletariat and leading large-scale movements for the poor and ostracised. Finally, in 1979-80, realising it’s folly of having supported the Emergency, the CPI decided to bury its hatchet with the CPM, leading to the historic formation of the Left Democratic Front (LDF), a pan-Kerala coalition of like-minded Left parties.

Also Read | Part-II: The rebel within: Fears that CPM has become an electoral machine not focussed on workers

Since 1980, in election after election, the CPI has played second fiddle to the CPM in Kerala, well aware of its vulnerabilities and its absence of a mass cadre. But of late, especially since 2016 after the LDF stormed back to power winning 91 out of 140 seats, there have been several signs of the CPI asserting itself within the coalition. It’s confidence may be partly attributed to it winning 19 seats out of the 27 it contested on, it’s second-highest tally in history. In many ways, the new-found assertion within the CPI leadership has erupted in the form of ideological clashes with the CPM, even straying to the extent of leaders of both parties threatening to contest alone. While the rivalry is not new, party insiders say its intensity definitely is.

Also Read | Part-III: In Kerala’s Left heartland, the party brings life, or death

“CPI leaders want to tell the people that they are the original communists of the state who stand for development,” says Sreejith, a DYFI leader in Vadakara. “The problems that they create for us are not small,” he indicated to the tussle between the two parties especially at the grassroot level.

Within the Left Front, two sparring communist parties The CPM area committee office in Vadakara in Kozhikode district

The dissensions between the two Left parties were seen to be stark especially in Vayalar, a village in coastal Alappuzha district that witnessed the first uprising of workers, supported by the communists, against the establishment in 1946. The village is a part of the Cherthala Assembly constituency held by CPI’s P Thilothaman who is also food and civil supplies minister in the LDf government led by Pinarayi Vijayan.

K Chidambaram, the CPM local secretary, doesn’t hide his aversion of the CPI minister who he claims hasn’t done much for the region.

“There’s a lot of anger against him in this area because as a minister or MLA, his contributions to the constituency are scarce. Actually, we didn’t even want him to contest. He’s always been opposed to our party,” Chidambaram pointed out.

Hailing from a family in which his grandfather and grand-uncle were part of the Vayalar-Punnapra uprising, Chidambaram says his initiation into the CPM was only natural. “In those days, the party gave the workers the strength to fight for their rights and the strength to be organised. What Bengal or Tripura doesn’t have in terms of progressive land reforms, Kerala has achieved. That’s because of the nature of the communist movement. Today, labourer earnings have gone up and issues of their permanency are solved,” he said.

However, he says, the present times are seeing a belligerent right-wing in the form of the BJP-RSS that needs to be taken head-on. “BJP is not organised here, but it’s creating a headache for us. They are trying to fish in troubled waters,” he said.

Chidambaram, the CPM LC secretary in Vayalar, stresses that Communist unity is important to take on the BJP and RSS.

At such a juncture, it is important for Left unity to be maintained, he feels. “In a situation where the BJP is rising, CPI-CPM have to stand together. Now, we are making compromises for coalition dharma. They (CPI) are not making efforts,” he bluntly put it.

In a small state like Kerala with voters in most constituencies not exceeding a lakh, the victory margins in tough contests always go down to the wire, often between 1000-10,000 votes. In such cases, both the UDF and LDF camps are aware that they need to pick up as many allies as possible which would get them over the top. It was in this context that the CPM started showing signs of warming up to Kerala Congress (M), a regional party that exerts influence over the Christian community in central Kerala, a region where the Left is not strong organisationally. Quite ironically, it was the same party that the Left vigorously opposed between 2011-16, hauling allegations of corruption and bribery against party chief and former finance KM Mani. While the CPM officially rejected reports of bringing Mani into the LDF fold, it was evident that there were back-channel talks of such an endeavour. But it was the CPI that poured water over the CPM’s hopes with its state secretary Kanam Rajendran firmly opposing any such move. Before the idea could ever gain currency, the second-largest party in the LDF stamped it out, indirectly warning the CPM that it cannot think of unilateral decision-making.

“Mani is a symbol of corruption against whom we fought several battles on the streets. In fact, this government is a result of the relentless struggle we led against corruption and particularly against Mani. The CPI’s stand has always been that if there is any alliance with Mani, there will be an erosion of faith among people who voted for us,” said Valsaraj, the Thrissur district secretary of the CPI.

Another instance of the CPI-CPM tensions coming to the fore was when allegations of encroachment of backwaters and violation of land rules came to surround NCP minister Thomas Chandy, an ally of the LDF. When the CPM dithered on whether Chandy should resign from the cabinet, the CPI took a moral stand, telling its ministers to boycott a cabinet meeting, piling more pressure on its senior partner to throw Chandy out. Pinarayi was jolted, telling reporters later, “It shouldn’t have happened, it’s an unusual step.” The CPI’s voice in those days, many felt, was louder than even the Congress, which was the main opposition party in the state. Ultimately, the CPI had its way and Chandy was shown the door by the LDF.

And yet, perhaps the fiercest confrontation between leaders and workers of the two Left parties took place in the hill station of Munnar where the revenue department, led by the CPI, had undertaken a massive eviction drive to clear encroachers. The two parties bitterly sparred over a high-level meeting called by the chief minister to resolve the issue and then later over a strike convened by the CPM against the eviction drive. The root of the issue, many say, is the CPI’s displeasure over the CPM’s moves to seep into its labour unions among the plantation workers, who form the core of the electorate in Munnar.

“In places like Kannur, CPI’s allowances clearly depend on the CPM. But in districts like Kollam, the CPI is bargaining hard with the CPM for every seat. I think there’s a feeling among the present leadership of Kanam Rajendran-Binoy Viswam that there’s no need to submit to the CPM or be dependent on them,” PP Mohanan, a former CPM leader said.

Kanam Rajendran, the CPI state secretary, has authoritatively made public statements much to the chagrin of the CPM.

The landslide victory in the recently-held Chengannur bye-election has the LDF buoyed about its chances in the Lok Sabha election, just a year away. With the Congress mired in internal dissensions, the LDF hopes to wean away a large segment of the state’s 20 seats, enough to present a credible Left block in Parliament. But for that, Left unity needs to be preserved first.

“These (CPI and CPM) are two different parties so differences of opinion are bound to happen. You can see how the CPI’s stand on Mani was so good. So such differences will only help the LDF. These issues can be easily sorted through talks,” CPI Thiruvananthapuram district secretary Anil expresses hope.

Valsaraj struck a note of caution all the same. “Who can fight alone and win? Nobody can. So we can’t talk about a CPI-less LDF. Without a united front, nobody can win.”

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