Achuthanandan factor

Print edition : April 08, 2011

The UDF's hopes of an easy victory are lost as the ruling CPI(M) decides to field V.S. Achuthanandan to lead the campaign.

in Thiruvananthapuram

V.S. Achuthanandan. His stock rose after his political crusades.-K. GOPINATHAN

IT would have been peculiar for a political party, which was unsure of winning a crucial election, to drop from its list of candidates the only leader who could, perhaps, turn things in its favour, that too when it was about to launch its election campaign.

But at the end of its five-year rule in Kerala, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), marred by factional feuds within itself and the coalition government it leads, created a deja vu election-eve atmosphere with its initial decision not to field the popular Chief Minister, V.S. Achuthanandan, in the April 13 Assembly elections.

The decision was not made public, but word spread quickly, and sporadic protests, like the ones witnessed five years ago under similar circumstances, broke out in several parts of the State. Black flags were raised and posters in support of Achuthanandan and against the CPI(M)'s State and central leaders appeared at many places.

The CPI(M) State secretariat, which met in Thiruvananthapuram on March 16, had decided that Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, a Polit Bureau member, would lead the Left Democratic Front's (LDF) campaign instead of Achuthanandan. State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, who is facing a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry into the SNC-Lavalin case, reportedly opted out of the fray. Just a week before the announcement, Achuthanandan had told the media that he would be willing to contest in the elections if the party asked him to do so. (He was removed from the Polit Bureau in 2009 on disciplinary grounds.) The Chief Minister had released the LDF's election manifesto a few days earlier, and until the last moment, outside the party, he had remained the most popular choice for leading the campaign in what everyone expected would be a difficult election for the LDF.

A similar decision by the CPI(M) in 2006 to deny the party ticket to Achuthanandan towards the end of the term of the United Democratic Front (UDF) government had led to unprecedented protests, forcing the party to reconsider the decision at the behest of the Polit Bureau. From then on, Achuthanandan became a hero for the crowds that gathered to hear him wherever he went.

Significantly, the campaigns that Achuthanandan had undertaken as an opposition leader then, with only a group of doting supporters around him, had stood apart from the official programmes of the CPI(M), in terms of media attention and people's participation. They included his high-profile crusades against a sex mafia in the State; illegal encroachment of government land, including forest land, especially in Idukki district; a kidney racket; pesticide pollution; illegal river sand mining; and overexploitation of water. He won a lot of admirers for his firm stand against top UDF leaders who were allegedly involved in sex-for-money rackets or corruption scandals.

With the party subsequently being forced to allow him to contest in 2006, his stature grew and people flocked to the campaign meetings addressed by him. He led the LDF to power in May 2006 with a 98-seat (out of a total 140 seats) victory in the Assembly elections.

But from the early days of the LDF rule, questions arose as to whether the new government would be able to meet the high expectations of the people, which were no doubt generated by Achuthanandan's lone crusades. The campaigns undertaken by Achuthanandan as opposition leader served as a key mobilisation strategy around him personally but, significantly, perhaps not around his party. And often they seemed out of sync with the CPI(M) State unit's own official campaigns. It, therefore, appeared that there was always a distinction between the promises made by Achuthanandan, the opposition leader, and those made by his party that led the opposition. Thus, the seeds of the troubles of the Achuthanandan government seem to have been sown much earlier.

The manner in which Achuthanandan literally forced his way to head the new government in 2006 had firmed up the resolve of the State party, dominated by his rivals, to ensure that he had very few members of his choice in the new Cabinet. Moreover, the party also decided it would be Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and not Achuthanandan who would hold the powerful Home and Vigilance portfolios, normally the prerogative of Chief Ministers.

In reply to a question, Achuthanandan had told Frontline a day before he was sworn in in 2006: But I am the Chief Minister and nobody can prevent the implementation of the things that I intend to do. However, in the five years that followed, as the party tightened its grip on the government, except on rare occasions, there was little that the crusading leader could do to justify the people's expectations about his government that he himself had nurtured.

Several promises such as bringing the culprits involved in sex/corruption scandals to book, reclaiming government land from encroachers, stopping anti-people development programmes, and so on remained unfulfilled or were sought to be fulfilled with much fanfare but only to be abandoned in the face of opposition, including from within his own party and the government.

Very soon it became second nature for the people of Kerala to analyse every statement that the Chief Minister made, often in frustration, and the barbs against his own Ministers or party leaders, even when they were seemingly targeted at the opposition or the lottery or land mafias or other vested interests. Even routine matters of governance acquired the nature of a duel between the Chief Minister and some of his party colleagues. The attempts made by various Ministers and their departments to give publicity to the genuine development initiatives and the slew of welfare measures initiated by them were drowned in the melee.

BATTLE WITHIN

The alarming inner-party rivalry got worse after Pinarayi Vijayan himself became a target of accusations for his alleged involvement in a corruption case. It concerned a 1997 agreement signed by him (when he was the Electricity Minister in the LDF government led by E.K. Nayanar) with SNC-Lavalin, a Canadian company, for the renovation of three hydroelectric projects in Idukki district, a deal initiated originally by the UDF government in 1995-96. Although the CPI(M) central committee itself took the position that Pinarayi Vijayan was not involved in any corrupt practice whatsoever and that the party will fight the case politically and legally, the veiled suggestions made by the Chief Minister often indicated a different picture.

Congress leader Oommen Chandy.-H. VIBHU

Over the months, rightly or wrongly, as the taint of corruption and other misdeeds fell on some of his other party colleagues, Achuthanandan's down-to-earth comments upholding morality in public life became an immensely popular facet of Kerala politics and were always lapped up by the media. His detractors were also not amused by the Chief Minister's morally upright views on controversial issues on which the party or its members had taken contrary positions for example, on accepting loans from international lenders such as the Asian Development Bank, evicting illegal encroachers in Munnar, or dealing with the lottery mafia in the State. The lack of team spirit among the members of the Cabinet was also in evidence and often the undercurrents of the intense rivalry within the CPI(M) seemed to influence many of their actions.

At one point, Pinarayi Vijayan himself sought to depict the media focus on this struggle as an attempt to create a division within the CPI(M) by portraying some people as super humans, the real representatives, the fountainhead of all good qualities.... And, on the other side, to consecrate others as the epitome of all deeds that are ugly and bad in this world.

It soon became clear that the problems were of their own making and that both sides were to blame for prolonging them. It paralysed governance and seriously dented the image of the party and the government. As months passed, in people's perception, every time the Chief Minister asserted his views and polished his image as a clean, austere and pro-people leader, it seemed to have an unnerving impact on his own party colleagues rather than on some of the discredited politicians in the opposition.

The party's central leadership intervened twice with the threat of disciplinary action. In 2008, it suspended both Pinarayi Vijayan and Achuthanandan from the Polit Bureau for three months. From then on, while Vijayan was careful not to cross the line of party discipline, Achuthanandan gave no indication of keeping it all within the party if it meant going against his own stated views on crucial issues. Last year, therefore, the CPI(M) central committee decided to drop Achuthanandan from the Polit Bureau in view of the violations of the organisational principle and discipline.

In the Lok Sabha elections held in May 2009, the Congress-led UDF stole a march over the ruling front, winning 16 of 20 seats. The CPI(M) lost 10 of the 14 seats it contested, in an election which saw the UDF take full advantage of the infighting within the ruling front and the clutch of strange election-eve decisions that came in its wake from the CPI(M) leadership.

In the elections to the local bodies in October 2010, the UDF won 509 of the 804 grama panchayats, 92 of the 148 block panchayats, eight of the 14 district panchayats, 25 of the 37 municipalities and two of the five corporations an unambiguous verdict and clearly an indication of what awaited the LDF in the 2011 Assembly elections.

An uncomfortable truce ensued and there were signs of some last-minute political and administrative measures to salvage whatever goodwill was left among the voters for the LDF. But, they were perhaps too little and too late, it was felt.

Within four years of his rise to power, people's enthusiasm for Achuthanandan had waned, despite a slew of welfare measures and development initiatives and, arguably, providing better governance compared with the previous UDF's.

Many of Achuthanandan's original supporters, who had left the party or were forced to leave it, were getting increasingly frustrated with the Chief Minister for not doing anything to further the causes he had espoused. Some thought Achuthanandan would eventually leave the party, rather than being shackled by his detractors. Others became openly critical of their former hero for his lack of commitment to the core issues of the 2006 campaign.

SETBACK FOR UDF

A smug and seemingly united UDF, expanded recently with the inclusion of some former LDF partners, therefore, appeared set for an easy victory in the Assembly elections. Opposition leader Oommen Chandy even launched Kerala Mochana Yaatra, a campaign heralding the return of UDF rule. But the election scene changed dramatically with fresh disclosures on the ice cream parlour sex scandal case involving the Muslim League general secretary P.K. Kunhalikkutty; the conviction and sentencing of R. Balakrishna Pillai, another prominent opposition politician, by the Supreme Court in a 25-year-old corruption case; and the reopening of the Karappara Kuriayarkutty project corruption case in which another former UDF Minister, T.M. Jacob, had earlier been an accused ( Frontline, March 11, 2011).

What was politically significant in all this was the tenacious role played by Achuthanandan over the years in trying to expose the culprits in these cases and bringing them to book.

Finally, in a coincidental stroke of luck for the LDF, an anti-corruption court in Kerala sanctioned further inquiry into the controversial palmolein import case, on the basis of a petition filed by the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau seeking the court's concurrence on its claim that there were sufficient additional reasons to investigate the case further, including the suspicion that Oommen Chandy, then the Finance Minister, too, may have been aware of the details of the import deal that had caused a huge loss to the State exchequer. It seemed like a perfect political trap laid out for Oommen Chandy, whom everybody believed would be the next Chief Minister if the UDF won the election. Simultaneously, it was announced that the State Congress president, Ramesh Chennithala, would contest the elections, perhaps, as an alternative contender for the top post.

Within a month, the political context in Kerala underwent a transformation and the election-eve commotion that followed surely put the opposition on the defensive. More significantly, it revived the issue of morality in public life and brought back Achuthanandan, who had come to symbolise it for a lot of people, once again into political reckoning.

This perhaps made the UDF leaders realise their strategic mistake of sparing the Chief Minister and targeting only his opponents in the party. From then on, at every opportunity, they pounced on the Chief Minister's clean image with a series of allegations of corruption, not against him, but against his son, Arun Kumar, a government employee. More than a dozen such contentions, given in writing by the opposition, were later referred to the Lok Ayukta by the Chief Minister.

Very few partymen came to the defence of Achuthanandan. Instead, just as the Chief Minister's stock seemed to be rising again because of the events of the past weeks and the LDF's prospects along with it, the CPI(M) State secretariat meeting on March 16 decided to deny Achuthanandan the party ticket.

Two days later, however, amidst reports that the central leadership had intervened decisively in Achuthanandan's favour, Pinarayi Vijayan calmly walked into a crowded press conference in Thiruvananthapuram and began reading out the official candidates' list. Among other names, he read out impassively: Malampuzha: V.S. Achuthanandan.

Later, Pinarayi Vijayan tried to explain the complicated candidate selection process of the CPI(M) and that what had happened was only a reflection of the usual selection process of which Achuthanandan was also an integral part.

To a question whether Achuthanandan would lead the LDF campaign, Vijayan said: What kind of a question is this? V.S. is our party's undisputed leader. There is no need for this kind of portrayal of V.S. as something separate from the party. He is a part of this party. And this is a decision that came as part of [the selection processes of] the party. There is no need for any concern or doubts about it.

Certainly, the opposition can no longer anticipate an easy victory.

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