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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 28, July 3, 2010

Kerala: Issue of Identity Politics and New Election Strategy of the CPI-M

Saturday 10 July 2010, by N A Karim

Identity politics is the latest ideological issue that is being hotly discussed by political intellectuals particularly in the party precincts of the Communist Party of Kerala-Marxist. This issue was in circulation among a narrow section of Left ideologues specially after the publication of the book Manifesto of the Victims in Malayalam, written a few years ago by Prof K.E.N. Kunjahammad, a staunch supporter of the CPI-M and a much sought after writer and speaker of the party and its front organisations.

The book of Prof Kunjahammad, who is popularly known as KEN, did not make any particular political furore at the time of its publication. A later edition of the book was published by Chinta, a publishing outfit of CPI-M managed by the top ideologues of the party. But a recent article published by Dr P.K. Pokker, another Marxist intellectual, on identity politics brought the issue to the forefront of theoretical discourse first among party workers, and was soon taken up by all and sundry. The issue hotted up mainly because of the change of tack of the party in the mobilisation of political support for the coming elections to the local bodies. The recent experience of the party in the just concluded elections to the civic bodies in West Bengal had sent shock waves among the ranks of the party here. The political stock of the party has been dwindling here also for the same sins committed by the Bengal unit, but not, of course, in the brazenfaced and determined way in which Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee committed them there.

There was a significant difference in the origin and growth of Communist Parties in these two strongholds of the party now. The first generation of party leaders in West Bengal were mostly drawn from the upper class bhadralok, quite a large number of them educated in Oxbridge. On the other hand the party was built up in Kerala by P. Krishna Pillai and others who themselves were workers in factories and whose education didn’t go beyond S.S.L.C. Perhaps one of the very few exceptions was E.M.S. Namboodiripad, who came from a traditional Brahmin feudal family and with a bit of college education, but he identified himself with the poorest of the party. Another surviving leader from that generation is the present Chief Ministers. V.S. Achutha-nandan. They all came from the lower strata of the then society, and their conversion to communism was, as in the case of many in those days, not due to begin with theoretical conviction but through empirical awareness and personal experience.

On the other hand, in the early decades of the last century a large number of young Bengalis, mostly sons and daughters of those who were in the service of the Company and professionals, went to the UK for study in the universities there. In those pink decades they were easily drawn to the study classes organised by Rajani Palme Dutt, the author of the controversial book India Today, who was in charge of the communist movement in India and a few other British colonies. Nikhilda, the founder editor of Mainstream, and Renu, who later became his wife, were in that group of Indian students who attended the study classes of Dutt. Indira Gandhi, who was in an Oxford college then, was said to be an occasional visitor to the classes.

This vast gulf of difference in social, economic, and educational background of the founding leaders of the Communist Parties in Kerala and Bengal gave Left politics in the two States different flavours. That still persists in an easily recognisable manner in the political and later administrative culture of the two States. How-ever, both the units slowly fell prey to neo-liberal temptations of easy, sometimes luxurious, life and its attendant evils like love of pelf and power and corruption. Now for the party, politics has become the art of the possible, not the art that can make the seemingly impossible possible.

FOR the party in Kerala, whose political stock is seemingly at a low ebb, this identity politics issue came handy to give justification for the new electoral alliances and strategy in the election to the local bodies which is just round the corner and the Assembly election later in 2011. The new experiment is the repetition of the one that was tried unsuccessfully in 1987. Apart from the political opportunism it involves, it is theoretically anti-socialist in its approach. In a highly stratified, traditional society of India where people are divided and kept in compart-ments based on castes, sub-castes and religions, some in almost watertight ones people of which are untouched by the developments of the last six decades, the emergence of identity conscious-ness and politics is only natural. Therefore a large section of people are naturally with dual or multiple identities. To keep them at bay in the name of lack of unmixed, pure Marxist political identity is to alienate a huge body of people with revolutionary ideas and fighting spirit from the mainstream of egalitarian politics just to allay the fears of the communities the party is now wooing. This will be suicidal for the party in the long run. How far it will help the party in the coming election is also dubious. But in Bengal the party’s strategy seems to be different. There they are trying to woo back people with different identities promising rectification of socio-economic injustices done to them by acts of commission and omission. The result of the last election to the civic bodies in Bengal clearly shows that in sheer frustration these marginalised sections voted almost en masse for the Trinamul Congress. Added to this was the stand of the Left extremists there with which Mamata had established an emotional rapport.

In India, where organised labour constitutes a miniscule of the vast work force, to insist on pure Marxian identity is to deny socio-economic justice to a vast majority. In 1956 the undivided Communist Party came to power in Kerala to the surprise of the party itself and to the shock and dismay of Right Reaction, mainly with the support of the vast majority of progressive sections of the same identity groups whom the party now decides to keep at arms length. They are the people who stood by the government when the reactionary elements tried to pull down the EMS Ministry in an organised manner with foreign money and, of course, support of the Congress Government at the Centre. And the latter succeeded in the then Cold War days. To forget these lessons and not to be aware of the inherent, strength of the party when it champions the causes of all deprived, marginalised and traditionaly oppressed and exploited sections of the people will indeed be ruinous.

Dr N.A. Karim is a former Professor of English and erstwhile Pro-Vice-Chancellor, University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram.

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