| "Unlike bourgeois parties we don't succumb to pressures and protest dramas. You in the media do not know a damn about our party."|
- CPI(M) Kerala state Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan railing at journalists at a press conference in Thiruvananthapuram.
As it turned out, it was Vijayan who failed to feel the pulse of his own party and lakhs of its irate cadres. In an action unprecedented in a party known for its iron discipline and hard heeled hierarchy, the Politburo of the CPI(M) last week upturned its own decision, taken barely ten days earlier, not to field the Leader of the Opposition V. S. Achuthanandan for the coming assembly elections in the state.
On March 12, at a meeting in New Delhi, the Politburo had decided that Achuthanandan and inner party rival in the state, Vijayan, will not contest the polls. The Politburo, which has been struggling since early 1990s to quell the factionalism in the state unit, thought it ideal to keep both the rivals out of the fray. As a compromise, the party zeroed in on Paloli Muhammed Kutty, a CPI(M) Central Secretariat member and LDF convener, as its next chief ministerial candidate.
In the past, such decisions were accepted without a murmur by the ranks. Not this time. Achuthanandan's exclusion sparked off angry protests across the state. Furious cadres marched to the state and district party head offices. Effigies of Vijayan were burnt in cities and in villages and pamphlets and posters came out against the "corrupt and callous" state leadership. "Vijayan and his gang deliberately blocked Achuthanandan becoming the chief minister fearing he would not tolerate its corruption and its slide towards rightist neo-liberalism" said M.N. Vijayan, a pro-Achuthanandan intellectual and a former editor of the party daily, Deshabhimani. Several others, including Naxalites, came out in defence of Achuthanandan who is seen as a "pure" communist (a diehard Stalinist to many), as against Vijayan, who is seen as pro-reform and liberal. "The present revolt is not for an individual. But for the ideals he stands for. It is unprecedented in the CPI(M)," says Sukumar Azhikode, former chairman of the National Book Trust.
The much feared and respected Politburo was taken aback by the public outburst and feared Achuthanandan's absence would severely dent its electoral chances. Politburo members, including General Secretary Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury flew down to Thiruvananthapuram to convince the state leadership about the change of mind. Although there were angry protests against the Politburo's "blatant violation of organisational principles" in the state committee and secretariat attended by a record six Politburo members, the Politburo in the end had its way. Vijayan kept away from the press conference where Karat announced the change in decision. "The Politburo reconsidered the decision because of the opinions expressed by some within the party and reactions and confusion created among some sections of the people," said Karat. Barely a month ago, the Politburo had overturned the state committee's and secretariat's decision to break all links with the Democratic Indira Congress led by former Congress leader K. Karunakaran who has since returned to the United Democratic Front (UDF).
Besides fears that Achuthanandan followers may sabotage the official candidate's prospects, the Politburo decision was dictated by two other factors. It feared a backlash by Ezhavas, an OBC community to which Achuthanandan belongs. For though the community forms the party backbone, CPI(M) has never made an Ezhava a chief minister. Earlier, two prominent Ezhavas, K.R. Gouri and Susheela Gopalan, were projected as possible chief ministers only to be sidelined after the elections. The party leadership, however, rubbishes this saying it was Achuthanandan himself who had played a key role in foiling Gouri's and Gopalan's chances and that Achuthanandan's rival Vijayan also is an Ezhava. "We never see these great comrades as Ezhavas but Communists," says M.M. Lawrence, a leader attached to Vijayan. The fear of a Hindu backlash against a Muslim chief ministerial candidate, Muhammed Kutty, may also have helped Achuthanandan's cause.
One thing stood out starkly last week: the steady decline of the once-unquestioned authority and power of the leadership on the party ranks and workers. The refusal of the ranks to go by state leadership's decision or the Politburo's frequent flip-flops are indicative of this weakening hold. "Neither the leadership nor even the ideology are seen infallible now," says J. Prabhash, who teaches political science in Kerala University. "Earlier, Politburo had titans with high moral and political authority who had long years of struggles and principled life behind them. But now those who have no tradition of political struggles or even contact with the masses walk in to Politburo straight from campuses merely with their textbook knowledge of ideology," he says.
Achuthanandan's return may brighten LDF's prospects. But for the CPI(M), it's a mixed bag. The party may face problems during the campaign in the form of internal sabotage. Should the party overcome that and manage to win, these problems will continue to dog the party-and the government.