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Mainstream, VOL LII No 29, July 12, 2014

Emergence of Mini Actors and Decline of the Left in Kerala

Monday 14 July 2014

by K. Haridas

Kerala might have been among those States of the country where Modi and his brand of politics were discussed least favourably. As a State that has until this point of time denied even an Assembly seat, leave alone any luck with the Lok Sabha, to the BJP, it was quite natural to be so.

A Left camp, with unprecedented dissensions among the ranks and sympathisers, was fighting it out in the most prominent of the traditional bastions of the communist movement in the country.1 When the altercation with one of the longtime members of the Left Front, the RSP, over the denial of any seat to it to contest culminated in further truncation of the Front, it was only a repetition of 2009. Much like the RSP now, the major faction of the Janata Dal that was at the receiving end that time had also walked away to the United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress. The only point where the story differs is that unlike the present situation, where the RSP was able to contest the Quilon seat as a constituent of the UDF and inflict defeat on the lone Polit-Bureau member of the CPM who was in the race in the whole State, the UDF had not in 2009 allocated any seat to the Janata Dal faction though it was enrolled as a constituent of the Front. Whether the withdrawal of some of the constituent parties from the LDF over the years is the result of what a section of political observers describe as the authoritarian tendencies of the CPM or of the greed of the constituent parties for pelf and power as the CPM claims, it is hard to rebut the argument that that for all practical purposes, the LDF of Kerala has been reduced to a mere combination of the CPI and CPM.

The Congress’ decision to appoint V.M. Sudheeran as the State chief of the party prior to the elections was undoubtedly an exercise undertaken as part of image-building. As the disrepute brought in by the allegations in the solar scam had not left many leaders untouched, the Congress’ central leadership was found to rope in Sudheeran known for his forthright views on public issues at the risk of antagonising those among the leadership uneasy about his popularity among the masses. The gamble seems to have paid off well for the party as it has been able to garner eight seats for itself and an additional four for its allies in a total of twenty. The decision of V.S. Achuthanandan to fall in line with the CPM’s official polity—that the murder of T.P. Chandrasekharan was the result of personal rivalry of a party member—has in the final analysis been proved mutually beneficial. The CPM has been able to win back many votes which an obstinate Achuthanandan would have, by his occasional anti-party comments, weaned away from it. On the other hand, he is no more prone to any allegations of having contributed to the party’s poor, if not pathetic, performance in the elections now. To put it in other words, Achuthanandan’s change of stance has helped the party save its face whereas for him it has ensured no more disciplinary actions by the Central Committee.

It has already been noted all over the country that the polling percentage has been an all-time high in 2014. It is also being recalled that at the national level the previous highest percentage of polling was recorded in 1984 in the wake of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. In the case of Kerala, however, the highest ever turnout was recorded in 1989 (79.25 per cent) and the previous highest was almost the same in 1977 (79.22 per cent). Probably various factors like the Bofors scandal, agitation against corruption at the higher echelons of power, the evolution of the National Front-Left Front unity under the leadership of V.P. Singh and, most importantly, the real possibility of a government at the Centre with the involvement of the Left for the first time in history became instrumental in creating such a high turnout in 1989. However, just as in 1977, when the anti-Emergency wave was supposed to have resulted in a huge turnout, the forecasts of an ant-incumbency wave were proved wrong in 1989 as well. It was the Congress-led Front that romped home on both the occasions with the CPM and its allies drawing nil in 1977 and managing to win only three of the twenty Lok Sabha seats of the State in 1989. The point being made here is that the best efforts of the CPM party machinery also contributes in large measure towards ensuring a very high voter turnout by leaving no stone unturned in ensuring that all party votes are cast, but those efforts have been found insufficient for victory many a time in the past. It may be noted that peaking at 79.25 per cent in 1989, the polling percentage actually declined in subsequent Lok Sabha elections in Kerala. In fact the figures, as available on the Election Commission’s website, are 73.29, 71.13, 70.65, 70.19, 71.43, 73.35, for the years 1991, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2009 respectively.2 In the just concluded election (2014), the percentage stood at 74.02 against the national average of 66.40. It may also be noted here that of the 140 Assembly constituencies that make the 20 Lok Sabha seats, 17 registered a polling percentage of above 80, and 39 of them between 75 and 80. The days of 1980 when the percentage was as low as 62.14 seem to be over at least for the time being. Some descendants of the Marxist-Leninist party that actively advoca-ted poll boycott during those days are now active participants in the game, though without any tangible success.3

The percentage of electorate that has exercised the ‘NOTA’ (None Of The Above) option also needs a close look. It is estimated to be only 1.2. When the response from the side of the highly literate electorate of Kerala to this newly introduced facility for negative voting is at such a low level, the conclusion could either be that the people are happy with the choice they make or that it is a process of selecting the lesser evil that takes place in the polling booth. In a State where for decades the undivided Communist Party to begin with and subsequently the CPM has propagated the idea that the participation in elections and the formation of Ministry at the State level etc. are measures aimed at serving the long-term aim of revolution, one might wonder whether it is a sort of resignation to the ‘fate’ of existing structures of power that results in enhanced polling percentages. It is a well-known fact that ever since the neo-liberal agenda began to be pushed through, the Left has not even on an experimental basis tried an alter-native model of development. Instead what figured prominently in the discourses was the need to utilise the opportunities thrown open by globalisation. Such an approach per se might not have been faulty.

However, by now it has become clear that the unilateral stress on the ‘utilising’ aspect was indicative of the lack of will to formulate and implement alternate strategies of development. The dividing line between the Left and Right then seemed to have been obliterated. The results of the present election, in which the LDF could secure only eight seats and 40.1 percentage of votes against the 12 seats and 42 percentage of the UDF, only reaffirms this viewpoint.4 When the choice apparently is between two groups with the same agenda by and large, it is to be expected that the charges increasingly being levelled against the Left in recent times with higher levels of acceptability among the public than in the past like attitudes of arrogance, intolerance towards criticisms, hesitation to come clean on allegations of physical assaults on political opponents etc. become the determining factors of the outcome of electoral contests. When the forces of radical democracy are either absent or are no match to the dominant electoral combinations, a Left that is perceived to be serving the interests of the power-elite and exhibits anti-democratic tendencies can only pave the way for the success of the status quoists or the far Right. The way the LDF has failed in its role even as a parliamentary Opposition is a topic on which its leadership will have to ponder a lot. The present State leadership of the Congress—that has matured in the field of politics by fighting the Left in the sixties and seventies—has acquired for itself certain tactical ways of dealing with the Opposition through their experience and the response of the Left to them—that never grew beyond the counter-strategies employed against the leaders of the Congress with autocratic and repressive tendencies of a different time and era—was found wanting in all respects.

A look at the percentage of votes polled by the two Fronts reveal that compared to the 2009 Lok Sabha election, both of them have suffered a decline. The UDF has been the bigger loser with a slump of about 0.6 per cent as compared to the 0.2 per cent of the Left.5 The main gainer is obviously the BJP whose vote-share has jumped to 10.53 from 6.2 and that of the NDA to 10.83 from 6.5. The votes polled for the BJP presently compares closely with its vote level of 2004. As the BJP was in power at the Centre for about six years continuously those days, its acceptability as an alternative to the Congress was perhaps on the rise. The opinion poll surveys that predicted another term for the Vajpayee regime also seems to have gone a long way in increasing its vote-share. There is another theory doing the rounds that the BJP, the underdog that it is in the polarised scenario of Kerala, indulges in vote-transfer to other dominant parties as part of some quid pro quo deals and that it is in elections where such transfers don’t materialise that the party secures votes conforming to its actual potential. The veracity of this allegation—that has been raised even by party insiders—is difficult to establish. Whatever that may be, after 2004 a series of in-fights in the State unit of the party coupled with the lack of fortune at the national level resulted in a stagnation of sorts for the BJP from which it is showing signs of recovery now. There are nine constituencies spread across the State where it has polled more than 10 per cent of the votes and in the Trivandrum constituency, where its candidate relegated the LDF candidate to the third slot, it garnered more than thirtytwo per cent votes. There are now four Assembly constituencies where the BJP has finished first and in the normal course the party seems set to open its account in the State Assembly in 2016. It remains to be seen now how resilient the secular and democratic forces will prove to be in halting the forward march of the Sangh Parivar.

That signs of religious revivalism have made their distinct marks not only on the cultural aspects of life but on artistic expressions as well is known to any observer of the State. Suffice it to mention here only that along with the prosperity ushered in by the Gulf money, there has been a proliferation of the places of worship of all the major communities and a spurt in religious celebrations. Religion, that was not fashionable in the heydays of the social reform movements, has been brought back with a vengeance. Even under such conditions, Kerala has so far kept up its tradition of keeping the advocates of politics-religion mix at bay. To say so is not to deny the fact that the religious establishments, in particular that of the mino-rities, have often tried to interfere in politics and even carried out electoral propaganda but to underline the fact that a refined sensibility that treats such practices abhorrent continues to retain the upper hand in the public domain. The concerted moves by the Sangh-associated organisations to rope in the depressed castes into their fold constitute perhaps the final part of a grand strategy planned for a State with an apparent potential for religious polarisation. The knowledge that the demographic structure of Kerala, wherein the religious minorities constitute around forty per cent of the popu-lation, might upset the calculations of electoral gains with models of polarisation tried out successfully in States like UP is bound to compel the Sangh strategists to design novel methods in this regard for the State.

Given below in tabular form are the percentages of votes polled by the three mainstream political alignments in the Statein the last three Lok Sabha elections6

The first point observed here is the resurgence of the BJP as discussed above. In 2004, a break- away faction of the Kerala Congress, a regional party, had aligned with the BJP. It is the 1.7 percentage of votes polled in its favour that took the NDA vote-share to 12.1. In 2009 and in 2014 also the BJP managed to win some allies like a faction of the RSP but none of them had any significant influence among the voters.

Secondly, it is seen that the LDF vote-share is showing a successive decline unlike that of the UDF in whose case it is an up-and-down phenomenon. The repeated decline in the Left votes is indicative of the loss of its committed voters in the traditional strongholds of the CPM. The considerable reduction in the victory margins of the CPM candidate in the Kasargode constituency and the party’s second time defeat in a row at Vatakara, albeit with a reduced margin, are but most visible manifestations in this regard. Some observers have even pointed towards the voter-choice switching over from the LDF to the BJP. There is no data available to assess the level of popularity of the Left among the voters of the younger generation. However, narratives by many journalists and the nature of discussions on the social media point towards a general aversion towards the tone and tenor of the CPM leadership in the State. If the Left is not in a position to reverse this trend among the youth, the declining trend in the vote-share also might prove to be irreversible.

It may be argued that the vote-share for the Lok Sabha polls cannot be treated as a true barometer to measure the sympathy towards the Left as many voters might have opted for the UDF as a better bet against the ascension of the BJP at the Centre and that the true criterion of the Left strength is the result in the Assembly election. While conceding the theoretical possibility of different options for Parliament and the Assembly, it has to be noted that in the Assembly election held in 2011 (that is, between the Lok Sabha polls of 2009 and 2014) the vote-share of the LDF was 41.2 percentage. It can be seen that this figure is less than that at the 2009 Lok Sabha figure by 0.7 per cent and that the successive decline mentioned earlier remains valid.

Moreover, most of the post-poll analysis of the 2011 Assembly elections had attributed the impressive performance of the LDF to the popularity of V.S. Achutanandan whom a large section of the electorate wanted as the CM for a second term. At a time when the repeated images on the visual media go a long way in the familiarisation of politicians, the extent to which the popularity of particular leaders can influence the fortunes of their parties has increased manifold. It is no surprise therefore that one of the many problems the Left faces in the State is the dearth of popular leaders and the people turning to other parties for inspiration. As the period of globalised economic policies was treated as one where the opportunities would be ‘utilised’ for industria-lisation with state-power rather than one for building up people’s resistance against the oppressive policies of the ruling classes, the Left has missed the historic opportunity to groom a row of youth leaders that would have been much more inspiring and effective.

The third important observation relates to the last column of the table which shows the percentage vote-share of independents and others. From 3.4 per cent in 2004 this has increased to 7.1 per cent in 2014 and of course is inclusive of the 1.2 per cent that opted for NOTA. Further, leave around one per cent to independents without any party affiliation and we see that about 4.9 per cent has voted for the small parties. Prominent among these small parties are the SDPI (Social Democratic Party of India), WPI (Welfare Party of India) and the late entrant AAP (Aam Aadmi Party). With vote-shares of 1.5 per cent and 1.4 per cent respectively, the SDPI and AAP top the list that also includes the BSP, SUCI, RMP (breakaway group from the CPM) etc..

Even though its communal nature has often been invoked to discredit it, the SDPI—it is a prominent Muslim outfit and is even described by its opponents as a creation of the votaries of Islamist politics—is seen amidst the agitations of the dispossessed and displaced in various parts of the State. In almost all constituencies, this party has made a notable presence and, what is more, it secured above 74,000 votes in the two constituencies of the Muslim majority district of Malappuram. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP), whose leader Abdul Nasser Madani continues to languish in jail fighting against serious ailments and also against a series of fresh charges often described as ridiculous by human rights activists, did not contest this election. It is not clear to what extent the PDP’s call for conscience vote has helped the SDPI. Madani’s prolonged incarceration has ensured that the politics of the depressed castes and the minorities that was gaining momentum under his leadership compelling both the UDF and LDF to seek his support in many previous elections, has been brought to a grinding halt. The political space beyond the three dominant formations—the UDF, the LDF and the NDA—is gradually thus being occupied by the forces that are active participants in the struggles for survival of the victims of the neo-liberal agenda and of course are ready to enter the tough terrain of electoral politics.

It is true that parties like the SDPI might not be rated high on the conventional scales of secularism and social change, but in the absence of other forces to take the plunge, political space seems to be open to them so long as they are firmly rooted in the struggles for justice. The five per cent that voted for the small parties outside the mainstream also includes sections of people who are weary of corruption and malgovernance, as revealed by the share of AAP votes. A mere five per cent vote-share in a single election may be dismissed as insignificant. One has to note, however, that Kerala is a State where even a difference of one per cent or even less in vote-share has determined the winner. More importantly, the interests that shape this political space are crucial and genuine. It is beyond doubt that the eco-friendly, people-friendly and life-sustaining mode of develop-ment and honest, transparent and accountable governance are among them. The expansion of this political space is what perhaps history awaits and any force that successfully takes up the challenge might emerge at its centre-stage.

The electorate of Kerala has been sending warning signals to the Left and one is not sure if either of the two Communist Parties is ready to give a try to reinvent itself. Kerala’s Comm-unist Party units are among those with the longest experience of both struggle and rule under a bourgeois parliamentary system and those experiences in the State might prove to be valuable in the struggle to carry forward the cause of socialism not only in Kerala but in other States as well. Surely a point seems to have been reached in history where the mere repetitions of the methodologies of the bygone decades have to give way to innovative appli-cations. Of course that is too complex a topic to be contained in this discussion. Nevertheless, it has to be mentioned here that the method followed so far in which the questions concerning the basic transformation of society were put off to the days after the revolution and confining to what is permissible under the existing power system has proved to be counterproductive in that the Left became an institutionalised force and hence an appendage of the ruling classes.

When the Ministry of the undivided Communist Party to begin with and later that of the Left Democratic Front were formed in the State, their functioning was based on the strategy of ‘Rule and Struggle’, by which was meant at least equal importance to the twin aspects, namely, providing to the masses whatever relief is possible within the existing framework on the one hand and building up the struggle of the oppressed guided by the politics of radical change on the other. It would perhaps be fruitful now to examine the factors that led to the excessive stress on the aspect of ‘Rule’ in later years by either neglecting or rendering merely ritualistic the aspect of ‘Struggle’.7 Now that the parliamentary system has attained wide acceptability as evidenced by the higher turnouts in the elections, the time seems to be suitable for a renewed application of the strategy of ‘Rule and Struggle’ with a renewed emphasis on the process of constant democratisation of the organs of power and decision-making.

The merits or otherwise of the argument that the goal of socialism need not be put off to a distant future but can be conceived as something for which struggle within and without the organs of power with mass mobilisations can commence in the present will have to be seriously examined by any progressive force that sincerely hopes to become relevant or reinvent itself.

Notes and references

1. In the first ever Assembly elections to the State Assembly in 1957 (the State was formed in 1956) the undivided Communist Party won 55 seats out of the total of 114 and with the help of some independents who had won with the party’s support, the first Communist Ministry was formed with E.M.S. Namboodiripad as the Chief Minister. It was only the second occasion then in the whole world that a Communist Party was assuming power through the ballot.

2. The turnout in the Assembly elections has also followed almost a similar pattern. The maximum was 80.53 per cent in 1987 when the LDF without any faction of the Christian or Muslim dominated parties as a constituent was able to secure an absolute majority. The polling percentages in the years 1991, 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011 were 73.43, 71.26, 72.57, 72.25 and 75.12 respectively.

3. The CPI (ML), CPI (ML) (Red Flag), and the CPI (ML) (Liberation) are the usual contestants. None of these groups so far has been able to secure even 0.25 per cent of the polled votes.

4, 5, 6. Source of the figures—Lok Sabha results—Kerala from

7. Indian Communism—Opposition, Collaboration and Institutionalisation by Ross Mallick (OUP, Delhi,1994) gives an account of the way the priority to sustain the West Bengal Government led to compromises which eventually resulted in the institutionalisation of the communist movement. Uninterrupted rule in Bengal also stifled indirectly the struggles and growth of the movement in other parts of the country as extra caution was exercised everywhere to prove the party’s adherence to legal measures so as not to attract any action against the State Government from the Centre.

The author is a veteran journalist and keen observer of developments in Kerala.

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