Interview with Pinarayi Vijayan, CPI(M) State secretary.
As the Congress(I) hurtled towards a crisis in Kerala amidst rumours that senior leader K. Karunakaran would not hesitate to lead his faction out of the party, the political position of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), which has 40 members in the Assembly, became a crucial factor in deciding the course of the revolt in the ruling party. CPI(M) State secretary and former Electricity and Cooperation Minister Pinarayi Vijayan spoke to R. Krishnakumar on the issues before his party and the LDF. Excerpts from the interview:
In the CPI(M)'s assessment, why did the United Democratic Front (UDF) candidate lose the byelection in Ernakulam, considered a UDF stronghold? Was it a result of the division in the ruling party?
The election came after nearly two and a half years of UDF rule in Kerala. Throughout this period the government was pursuing blatant anti-people policies. We organised people's struggles against all such policies, whether it be on the issue of the exorbitant fees charged by self-financing professional colleges, or the crisis facing the several major PSEs [public sector enterprises] in the industrial district of Ernakulam. Every family in Kerala saw the recent struggle on the self-financing college issue as one organised on behalf of it. All this had created resentment against the government.
Significantly, this government came to power with the support of every conceivable communal and casteist force in the State. As a result, it also followed a communal appeasement policy. That has now deteriorated into a policy of appeasing the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh]. When [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon visited the country, Muslims in Kerala watched Antony's Minister K.V. Thomas meeting him with gifts. Antony himself made several anti-minority statements. All this created resentment among the Muslim community. Efforts were made to portray Antony as a `Christian Chief Minister in trouble' and win the votes of the Christian community, and a section of the SNDP [Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam] leadership was used to rope in the votes of the Ezhava community. In fact, after the Assembly elections in 2001, we saw the use of communal forces by the Congress(I)-led UDF in Kerala as an important issue to be addressed, and had decided to launch a campaign against it. The result shows that we have succeeded.
Another factor was the usurping of the Ernakulam seat, traditionally a preserve of the `I' group, by the Antony faction using the Chief Minister's influence with the Congress(I) high command. The `I' group's reaction was that it would not therefore consider the candidate as the Congress(I)'s, but only as Antony's candidate. That feeling within the `I' group became strong in the run-up to the election. All this helped us. In fact, the Ernakulam voter became a symbol of the resentment of a large section of people who were unhappy with the policies of the Antony government. It is one of the few UDF strongholds in Kerala. That is what makes the defeat unbearable to Antony.
What is the reason for the sudden affinity of the CPI(M) towards Karunakaran, a person who had been working all through his political life to strengthen the Congress(I) against the CPI(M)?
Consider the Antony government's actions after it came to power. For example, immediately after the inauguration of the government, Antony cut the emoluments of the State government employees. Antony and Karunakaran had just faced an election unitedly and you cannot say that there was much of a difference of opinion between them at that time. But Karunakaran was prepared to state openly that this government policy was wrong. Subsequently, on every issue that we took up on behalf of the people against the government, it can be seen that Karunakaran expressed similar views. The most important in this context was on the issue of the anti-people, anti-worker new economic policies launched by the Congress(I) initially but implemented with more vigour by the BJP. Karunakaran came forward to react against such policies. In contrast, A.K. Antony is the champion of the economic policies of the BJP government. Significantly, Karunakaran also reacted strongly against the communal appeasement policy of the State government, which was building up communal tension throughout Kerala. So, in all such issues involving wrong policies, Karunakaran was ready to react against them. This is the reason.
What will be the CPI(M)'s stand if Karunakaran tries to form an alternative government?
The Antony government has lost its right to rule after the Ernakulam byelection result. Our demand is that it should step down. Karunakaran has taken a public position on this. He has said that as a party worker who has served the people for all these years, he cannot support this government and be a mere onlooker when the government takes such positions on issues affecting the people. But he is also the senior-most leader in the Congress(I). We cannot guess what position such a political leader would take. But if he is willing to take a position, our attitude is to approach it in a positive manner.
Are you saying that the LDF will be willing to be a part of any such government?
As far as the LDF is concerned, one thing is clear. We are not interested in coming to power without the people's mandate. We will not do it. But in tune with emerging scenarios and circumstances, we will take a position. In such a circumstance, we would not be interested in being part of a government.
If a leader like Karunakaran is trying to form a government with the support of parties like the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), will the CPI(M) support it from outside?
You must see the general circumstance that has now developed in Kerala. Religion- or caste-based parties have lost the influence they once had. We have no intention whatsoever to strengthen their influence. We think that the influence they had at one stage should be weakened. So we do not intend to take a position that would encourage religion- or caste-based organisations. Moreover, we find that when it comes to issues like communalism, the position that Karunakaran had been espousing under different circumstances is correct. That is something to be noted. His public statements have all been in the right direction.
What is the CPI(M)'s view of the IUML? In an interview he gave Frontline, Karunakaran has pointed out that the CPI(M) had been in government with the IUML once and cannot say it is `untouchable' now.
The Muslim League does not come into the picture now. Therefore we are not going for an assessment about the League at present. The Muslim League is a party that still stands strongly behind Antony. But there is a common problem here that needs attention. When the government continued to drag its feet in finding a solution to the Marad issue, the LDF took the initiative to convene an all-party meeting in Kozhikode. It had representation from both the LDF and the UDF. The participants were only from political parties. The Muslim League also took part in it.
But the other day, another meeting took place in Kozhikode on the very same issue of Marad under the direction of the Chief Minister. From what we heard, it was a meeting of Hindu and Muslim organisations with a Gandhian leader in the chair. This is what we heard. But in that meeting too the important participant was the Muslim League. How is this possible? Here the Muslim League itself should clarify whether it is a political party or a religious organisation. In a meeting in which all major religious organisations take part, how does the Muslim League alone participate as a political party? The BJP is a party that proclaims that it is a Hindu organisation and that it is there to espouse Hindu sentiments. The Muslim League and the BJP both took part in the meeting. We cannot accept such a situation. If it is a political party, it should take the position of a political party. I am saying this because a problem arose now. We are not analysing the other issue at present.
Of late, Karunakaran and his supporters have been pointing out that at the national level there is a realignment of various democratic forces and that circumstances are developing for the Congress(I) and the CPI(M) to come closer to fight the BJP. But in the faction-ridden State Congress(I), the Antony faction, which has the support of the party high command, is consistently taking an anti-CPI(M) position and both Karunakaran and the LDF have been alleging that Antony is adopting a pro-Hindutva stand. How do you react to this contradiction?
It is Sonia Gandhi who has now taken up the job of protecting Antony. The kind of support that Antony gets is something that goes against all reasonable norms. But it is a problem of their party. It does not concern us. But on the other issue, we have no intention of making an understanding, alliance or adjustment with the Congress(I) at the national level. The problem here is which party is the real enemy of the country. When that question comes, it is the BJP, because it is a political party that is struggling to introduce a fascist system and is controlled by the RSS. The danger that it poses to the country is not insignificant. We are reacting strongly against that danger. That does not mean that we shall be joining hands with the Congress(I) in any way. We have always opposed the wrong policies of the Congress(I).
But Antony's contention is that people are misinterpreting his good intentions and decisions taken in the best interests of the State to allege that he is deliberately following a pro-Hindutva policy.
We all know what those good intentions were. For example, when the West Begal govermnent convened a meeting of Chief Ministers against the saffronisation of education, a major problem facing the country, Antony did not attend the meeting. Representatives of several State governments, including those ruled by the Congress(I), participated in it. Further, Antony criticised the convening of such a meeting and stated in public that the term `saffronisation' should not be used because it would hurt the sentiments of a particular section of society. Here we must note that the AICC(I) too uses the term `saffronisation' in many of its resolutions. `Saffronisation' is used in general to mean the propagation of Sangh Parivar ideology in the education sector. Is it not appeasement of the RSS? What was Antony's attitude to the Sangh Parivar's symbolic venture of the distribution of trishuls [tridents], which would foment communal tension? When most State governments prohibited the programme and some Congress(I) governments even ordered the arrest of [VHP leader] Pravin Togadia, Antony proclaimed that there was no danger in distributing tridents in Kerala. He also allowed Togadia to go scot-free after the latter made highly inflammatory speeches at Marad. Is it not appeasement?
Now the VHP has been allowed to construct a temple right in the heart of the reservoir area of the Idukki arch dam, a national asset. Again, the Antony government took no action against it. Is it not appeasement? Nobody in Kerala is of the view that the perpetrators of the Marad communal carnage, those who supported it or took part in the conspiracy, should be allowed to go scot-free. But under that pretext, nearly 400 families were forced to flee their homes. Is the stand that such people should not return to their homes acceptable in any civilised society? But for months on end, the Antony government took no action to facilitate their rehabilitation. It is here that his appeasement policy becomes so evident, as in so many other issues. Antony does not come through as the leader of a secular party whose thinking is on secular lines. His mind is set on the appeasement of the Sangh Parivar. That is why we are criticising him.