Tightening the reins

Print edition : August 14, 2009
in Thiruvananthapuram

Achuthanandan (foreground), Pinarayi Vijayan and other CPI(M) leaders from Kerala at the Central Committee meeting in New Delhi on June 20.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

ONCE again, the central leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI-M, has acted decisively to try and end the scourge of factionalism in its Kerala unit, but this time without what was seen as even-handedness in the way it handled the crisis last time.

In May 2007, under similar circumstances that saw its image being sullied by divisions within and the governance of the State being paralysed, the ruling CPI(M) had decided to suspend two erring leaders, its State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan and Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan, from the Polit Bureau.

But though the CPI(M) rebuked the two factional leaders thus, it had allowed them to continue in their positions of power, as the leader of the State party and the government respectively.

For a brief while, thereafter, both leaders seemed to be restrained in their actions and public statements despite their mutually hostile positions on practically every other issue within the party. However, in a few months, the party chose to take this as a sign of repentance and revoked the punishment, admitting them back into the Polit Bureau.

But the subsequent actions of the two leaders proved the CPI(M) leadership wrong. Factionalism returned with vigour as the party and the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) coalition it led were getting ready to face the April 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

By then, it was also clear that a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry ordered by the Kerala High Court into the 1995 SNC-Lavalin deal (entered into by the State government with the Canadian company for the renovation and modernisation of three hydroelectric projects in Kerala) had named Vijayan, a Minister in the CPI(M)-led LDF government in power at that time, as one of the accused in the case, for alleged corruption in the contract. In a controversial decision, the Governor of Kerala subsequently granted permission to the CBI to initiate prosecution proceedings against Vijayan, ignoring the advice given by the Cabinet, and with (what was generally believed to be) the silent approval of the Chief Minister.

This action of the Chief Minister, his refusal to be part of the Statewide election rally led by Vijayan soon after the latters name was included in the CBI report, his public comments indicating that Vijayan ought to step down and justifying the Governors action, and his proclivity to hit out at his rival, among several other such actions, have now been judged by the CPI(M) Central Committee as violations of the organisational principle and discipline.

Though the CBI had conducted the inquiry and sought the Governors sanction on the basis of a court directive, the CPI(M) central leadership announced, when the party was preparing to face the Lok Sabha elections, that Vijayan was not involved in any corrupt practice in the SNC-Lavalin deal. It further said that the CBI case was politically motivated and initiated at the behest of the Congress(I).

ACHUTHANANDAN ACKNOWLEDGING THE salutations of the crowd at the public meeting which marked the conclusion of the Nava Kerala Yatra, led by Pinarayi Vijayan, in Thiruvananthapuram on February 25. CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat and Vijayan are seated on his left.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

It was a clear signal to party cadre and leaders to close ranks in support of the State secretary on the eve of an important election, something which the CPI(M) Central Committee has now found was disregarded by Achuthanandan.

On June 23, the CBI Special Court in Kochi issued summons to Vijayan, the seventh accused in the case, and eight others to appear before it on September 24. The nine accused have been charged with offences punishable under Sections 120-B (criminal conspiracy) and 420 (cheating) of the Indian Penal Code and several provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act.

Among other things, the CBIs charge sheet alleged that Vijayan, the State Electricity Minister from May 1996 to October 1998, along with the other accused, had hatched a criminal conspiracy to award the supply contract for the renovation and modernisation of the three hydroelectric projects in Idukki district to SNC-Lavalin for an exorbitant fee. The CBI said that the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) had entered into the memorandum of understanding (MoU) without inviting tenders, thereby violating all rules and regulations. The charge-sheets further claimed that the State Electricity Board had signed the supply contract with SNC-Lavalin in 1997 without the approval of the State government, but on the basis of a decision arrived at by a high-level delegation headed by Vijayan that had visited Canada. It also said that the important consideration for awarding the supply contract to SNC-Lavalin (which was not an original equipment manufacturer), without inviting global tenders, was an offer from SNC-Lavalin to provide a grant of Rs.98.3 crore for establishing a cancer hospital at Thalassery in Kannur, Vijayans home district in northern Kerala.

The charge-sheet alleged that Vijayan, in collusion with some officials and others, had fraudulently and with dishonest intention entered into a non-binding MoU for establishing the hospital, instead of signing a legally binding agreement in the form of a memorandum of agreement (MoA) for the grant arranged by SNC-Lavalin. Subsequently, the company spent only about Rs.12 crore for the construction of the hospital. The absence of a binding agreement had facilitated M/S Lavalin to back out from its commitments. It had caused a wrongful loss of 86.25 crore to the government exchequer, the charge-sheet alleged.

However, the press communique issued by the CPI(M) Central Committee announcing the removal of Achuthanandan from the partys Polit Bureau reiterated that Vijayan was not involved in any corrupt practice whatsoever and that the party was determined to stand behind him and fight the case politically and legally.

This decision of its Central Committee has put the CPI(M) in a piquant spot in Kerala: a popular Chief Minister with a history of uncompromising battles against corruption was seen as being punished by the ruling party for not supporting its State secretary, a tough, no-nonsense and efficient party leader but one who had been hemmed in by his political rivals for long for his alleged involvement in a corrupt deal.

With the allegations yet to be proved and the case yet to be heard by the CBI Special Court, the party has announced its determination to stand behind its secretary and fight the case legally and politically.

Ardent supporters of the party, among them State Planning Board Vice-Chairman Prabhat Patnaik, have said that the partys stand on the SNC-Lavalin deal carried little credibility. Some others like Justice (Retd.) V.R. Krishna Iyer, a member of the first Communist Ministry in Kerala, have been writing newspaper articles critical of the party decision. Krishna Iyer, in his own inimitable style, wrote that this picture of the pachydermic Polit Bureau remaining intact, the Chief Minister kept out of the Polit Bureau, but kept in power, and the party secretary formally victorious, looks grotesque, and argued that such decisions would only lead to a Left political calamity in the State. The leaders of the opposition Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) cannot hide their glee and are eagerly waiting for an inner-party war to unfold in the CPI(M).

But to judge from the press statement issued after the CPI(M) Central Committees crucial July 12 meeting in New Delhi and the statements reportedly made by party general secretary Prakash Karat at the three regional conventions of party functionaries held in Kerala subsequently, things surely looked bleak for Achuthanandan within the State unit, where he and his supporters were already being isolated and constantly provoked by their colleagues.

Even though Karats warnings were targeted at Vijayan and his supporters too, what Kerala saw after the recent chastisement in the party was a resurgent Vijayan who had steadily managed to rally a majority in the State party under him, and a bitter Achuthanandan, who had risen to chief ministership on a wave of popularity buoyed by anti-corruption rhetoric but was increasingly lonely within his own party even as he sought to become more acceptable to the people at large.

Indeed, factionalism is not a new phenomenon in the State unit of the CPI(M) and the party had started indirectly admitting its existence since the early 1990s. But a serious situation arose in the State CPI(M) on the eve of the 2006 Assembly elections when a section of party supporters took to the streets protesting against the State leaderships (initial) decision not to field Achuthanandan as a party candidate.

As the Opposition Leader in the Assembly, Achuthanandan had by then acquired the image of a crusader among the people, having led a series of campaigns espousing public causes that no other political leader had bothered to take up so convincingly in recent memory.

Indeed, he had come close to becoming the Chief Minister twice earlier, but had failed, once because the LDF did not win a majority in the Assembly when he won the election and, a second time, because he lost in the Mararikkulam constituency, a CPI(M) stronghold, when the LDF came to power.

His supporters, therefore, saw the decision to deny him the ticket as an attempt by his party rivals to deny him a chance to become Chief Minister at last, despite his rising individual popularity among the people at large, gained through carefully calibrated campaigns against mafias, land-grabbers, illegal sand miners, environment polluters and, importantly, corrupt politicians.

The 86-year-old leader is no stranger to the two-decade-long factionalism in the party; his role in the ouster or sidelining of several prominent party leaders earlier has long been a subject of intense speculation in the State. In fact, it was in the 1998 State conference of the CPI(M) held in Palakkad, soon after Achuthanandans defeat at Mararikkulam, that factionalism became so prominent in a party election. Several top leaders were then replaced in the State Committee by a younger crop that had Achuthanadans support. A senior party leader, Chadayan Govindan, was made the State secretary, but on his untimely death a few months later, Vijayan, whom Achuthanandan had then supported, was made the head of the State party.

However, by the time of the partys State conference in Malappuram in Februray 2005, Vijayan and Achuthanandan had become bitter rivals, the latter, as the Opposition leader, already assuming the role of a traditionalist leader fighting the forces corrupting the time-honoured ideals and policies of the party and the former and his supporters increasingly seeing their elder colleague as but a leader who was not in tune with the times.

It was at the Malappuram conference, therefore, that Achuthanandan faced the first of a series of embarrassing setbacks within the party, when all the 12 candidates fielded by his camp in defiance of the party central leaderships call for unity were defeated in the State committee election. The 545 party delegates endorsed the official panel placed before them by the outgoing State Committee led by Vijayan and rejected those fielded by the Achuthanandan camp. The conference also unanimously re-elected Vijayan State secretary.

From then on, Vijayan and his supporters became the most powerful force within the State party, while outside, Achuthanandans individual public interest campaigns began to catch Keralas imagination and stand apart from the official programmes organised by the CPI(M) in terms of spectator enthusiasm and media attention.

Thus the battle lines were finally drawn. On one side was Vijayan and his supporters, closing their grip on the State CPI(M) even as they were being targeted by opponents as those responsible for several controversial policy decisions of the then LDF government, including the way decentralisation was implemented, for many of the deviant tendencies in the party, for their alleged surrender to the policies of foreign funding agencies and their support to the Fourth World theorists and, not the least, for their affluent lifestyle and haughty behaviour. (The SNC-Lavalin case later dwarfed all these allegations.) On the other side was Achuthanandan, with dwindling support within the party but with doting followers and a motley group of advisers, among them former partymen, forming an exclusive, highly efficient public relations network, more or less independent of the party. They began to pick and choose issues, events and locations for their leader and his campaigns and to gain for him instant popularity outside the party as a clean, austere and pro-people leader.

Achuthanandan promptly began adorning himself with the larger-than-life image that his supporters had weaved for him, the significance of which became evident only when his detractors chose to deny him the party ticket in the 2006 Assembly elections.

Perhaps for the first time in the partys history, growing crowds of CPI(M) supporters took to the streets, even in front of the State party headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram, in support of Achuthanandan and literally forced the Polit Bureau to reverse its controversial decision. It is now well known that it was the State CPI(M) that then rode to power on the popularity gained by Achuthanandan, instead of the other way around, and, as a consequence, the CPI(M) was forced eventually to offer him the chief ministership, much to the chagrin of his detractors.

That was a critical moment in the factional war within the State CPI(M): there he was, an individual leader who defied the collective will of the State party and acquired an image that cast many of his party colleagues in poor light, and still forced the party to grant him the chief ministership, even though the majority was against even making him a party candidate.

But, notwithstanding the electoral benefits that he brought to the party or the correctness and popularity of his decisions, the independent rise of Achuthanadan had serious organisational implications for a party like the CPI(M), which swore on democratic centralism, inner-party discipline, collective decision-making and the subordination of the individual to the will of the collective.

It became clear soon that the Chief Minister was set to walk into a grand trap, rather of his own making, while his party rivals acted as gleeful facilitators. For, once he became the leader of the government his only options were to submit to the will of the party and brave the risk of unpopularity among his core supporters, or to chart his own path defying the State party in his capacity as Chief Minister and brave the wrath of the party and the risk of disciplinary action.

It was no surprise, therefore, that Achuthanandans dream run ended the day he became Chief Minister. There were 12 CPI(M) Ministers in Achuthanandans Cabinet and except for a few all belonged to the rival camp in the party. The party denied him the powerful Home and Vigilance portfolios, normally the prerogative of Chief Ministers, at the outset itself. On many occasions, Achuthanandan found himself at loggerheads with his Ministers, who invariably had the support of the State party. Gradually, the party managed to remove all his close confidants from his inner circle, from the Chief Ministers office as well as his official residence. The State party also launched a disciplinary action drive in the lower units with the single-minded goal of sidelining Achuthanandans supporters at every level.

Many of his public statements on policy issues, based on commitments he had made to the people while he was the populist Opposition leader, invited the wrath of his party or his ministerial colleagues. The action that he launched on the eve of the first anniversary of his government to evict illegal encroachers of government land ground to a halt as soon as it began because of opposition from within and outside the party. The deal for a Smart City in Kochi he signed with fresh pro-people provisions, as he had promised the electorate, failed to materialise even after three years.

The government, which had come to power on a huge mandate, achieved very little in the first three years. Almost all the issues raised by Achuthanandan when he was the popular Opposition leader remained unaddressed after he became the Chief Minister. In the Lok Sabha elections, therefore, the verdict of the people was resoundingly against the ruling LDF. The CPI(M)-led LDF, which won 18 of the total 20 Lok Sabha seats in 2004, could barely manage four Parliament seats in 2009. The CPI(M) itself lost 10 of the 14 seats it contested, among them many of its northern fortresses.

All through this jamboree, however, a frustrated Achuthanandan would miss no opportunity to take potshots at his rival, especially about the tenacious Lavalin case. Indeed, from the very early years of the controversy, as part of his strategy to checkmate Vijayan within the party, Achuthanandan had silently raised the bogey of Vijayans alleged involvement in the deal. It is perhaps this factor that had intensified the latest bout of factionalism in the Kerala unit of the CPI(M), pushed it to a point of no return and emaciated a government that the people of Kerala had brought to power so enthusiastically with a 98 (out of 140)-seat victory in 2006.

It is going to be a tense interlude in the State party from now on, with Karat giving a serious warning against indiscipline and reminding both the leaders and their supporters of their duty to safeguard unity in the party. The Central Committee has also called for a rectification campaign. For his part, the Chief Minister knows his future lies not in hasty actions, as some of his supporters are reported to be urging him to consider, but in waiting until the court takes up hearing on the Lavalin case, or longer, until the party comes face to face with yet another election. After all, it is at times when the CPI(M) seeks the verdict of the people that Achuthanandan becomes all powerful as its Unique Selling Point. Vijayan and his supporters know, on the other hand, that their chance is right now, in between elections.

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