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Dealing with disunity

Print edition : Jun 15, 2007 T+T-
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CHIEF MINISTER V.S. Achuthanandan and CPI(M) State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan on May 31.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

Will the CPI(M) Polit Bureau's action against its leaders V.S. Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan check factionalism in the party's Kerala unit?

THE indignant question, "Who is manipulating the media to score points over the other?", that two top leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala were lobbing at each other in public for some time has proved to be the final straw that led to their suspension from the Polit Bureau of the party on May 26. The reaction that followed the disciplining of Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan and party State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan by the party's highest executive body was similar to the shock and surprise in the State nearly a year earlier when a section of CPI(M) supporters took to the streets against the party's initial decision not to field Achuthanandan as a candidate in the 2006 Assembly elections. But, perhaps, 84-year-old Achuthanandan had, ever since the death of his more successful former party colleague E.K. Nayanar and especially after the rout of his supporters in the 2005 State party elections, gradually been acquiring for himself an image of a crusader among the people of the State in general, not just among the party cadre.

The agitations marked a surprising turnaround in the political life of Achuthanandan, who until then only had monotonously colourless, uneventful stints as a Polit Bureau member, State secretary of the party, convener of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) coalition and opposition leader. Twice earlier he came close to becoming Chief Minister, failing once because the LDF did not win a majority in the Assembly when he won the election and once because he lost in the Mararikkulam constituency, a CPI(M) stronghold, allegedly as a result of factional rivalry, when the LDF won a majority in the Assembly.

In February 2005, however, Achuthanandan, who has played an important role in the two-decade long factionalism in the State unit of the CPI(M), suffered a major setback at the 18th State conference of the party held in Malappuram, when all the 12 persons he fielded in the election to the party State committee were defeated.

The 545 party delegates endorsed the official panel placed before them by the previous State committee led by Vijayan and rejected the 12 fielded by the Achuthanandan camp in defiance of the party central leadership's call for unity. The conference unanimously re-elected Vijayan for another three-year term as State secretary.

With such a stunning performance, Vijayan and his supporters - who were being personally targeted by their political opponents (including those in the Achuthanandan camp) as being behind the "deviant tendencies" in the party and for some of the "unacceptable" policy decisions of the previous CPI(M)-led government (especially regarding the decentralisation of power in the State), for their "surrender" to the policies of foreign funding agencies; their alleged support to the Fourth World theorists; and for what was described as their affluent lifestyle - emerged as the most powerful force in the party's State unit.

The disunity and factionalism in the party peaked during the run-up to the 2005 State conference, with Vijayan and his supporters seeing in Achuthanandan "a communist leader who was not in tune with the times", and Achuthanandan (who was then the Opposition leader) assuming the mantle of a traditional Marxist leader fighting "the forces corrupting the time-honoured ideals and policies of the party". The Malappuram conference saw debates and personal attacks, the details of which, and of the voting that took place eventually, were leaked to the media in liberal doses, ignoring warnings by the CPI(M) central leadership. The State party under Vijayan eventually pinned the responsibility for the leaks on Achuthanandan's personal assistant, among a few others, and suspended him from the party.

Since Vijayan's spectacular comeback in 2005, a small group of people around Achuthanandan - initially only a set of a few individuals who used their acquaintances within various newspaper and media organisations to generate publicity for Achuthanandan's activities as Opposition leader - also became the target of attention of the majority group under Vijayan. This motley group of people grew into an exclusive public relations network for the Opposition leader, more or less independent of the party. They also began to pick and choose issues relating to women and Dalits and the environment for a series of campaigns that were sure to get instant media attention and win - because no other political leader in recent history had bothered to do it so convincingly - instant popularity for Achuthanandan.

Achuthanandan's position as Opposition leader was tailor-made for this crusader role, the real political potential of which was realised by many only during the Assembly election campaign when Achuthanandan's supporters ensured that his carefully chosen, one-man campaigns almost always stood apart from the official party programmes in terms of media attention and people's participation. These included his high-profile campaigns against the kidney racket; the sex mafia in the State; the illegal encroachers of government land, including forest land, in remote corners, especially in Idukki district; the persons involved in pesticide pollution, in illegal river sand mining and in the overexploitation of water; his firm stand against top politicians in the government who were allegedly involved in sex scandals and his support for the tribal cause; and so on.

For a long time, this gradual transformation of Achuthanandan's image went largely unnoticed by his rivals both within and outside his party. Only on March 24, 2006, soon after it became clear that he would not be an Assembly election candidate and growing crowds of CPI(M) supporters uncharacteristically took to the streets with huge cut-outs of Achuthanandan and slogans against the party decision did the meaning of his new image dawn on political Kerala.

No doubt, Achuthanandan supporters protesting on the streets was a welcome sight for the (then) discredited ruling Congress(I)-led coalition, which was pinning all its hopes for yet another five-year term in office on the long-drawn strife within the CPI(M). The CPI(M) Polit Bureau reversed its controversial decision not to field Achuthanandan, an unprecedented move necessitated by the outpouring of support for him. Achuthanandan's carefully nurtured image as an anti-corruption crusader and as a leader of the masses turned into his party's biggest advantage in the 2006 elections.

The result, as the CPI(M) found during the three-phase campaign, was too good to be true. Supporters from within and outside the party flocked to Achuthanandan's campaign meetings, and LDF candidates vied with one another to be seen with this instant crowd puller.

Thus, thanks to the diligent choice of people's causes to fight for and the media spotlight on the struggles he chose to undertake as Opposition leader, Achuthanandan became the "unique selling point" that any political party would have loved to present before the voters.

No doubt, it won him the chiefministership, at last. It also won for him the enmity of many of his party colleagues and, for his campaign managers and the assortment of journalists in various media organisations who revolved around them, the sobriquet "media syndicate", a term coined by Vijayan himself.

There is no better way of describing what all this did to the majority anti-Achuthanandan camp in the party than through the words of Vijayan himself, who spoke (between the lines too) in detail in a recent interview titled "The Communist Movement and the Media Syndicate" in a party organ, the Desabhimani Weekly (May 13).

Among other interesting observations, Vijayan said in reply to a question: "... There are certain basic things that any political student would know about a party like the CPI(M). One such is the unchanging nature of the party's stance. No one can take a stand that is different from the party's public stance. But here there is a deliberate attempt to create the impression that there are differences. And, as part of it, to portray some people as super humans, the real representatives, the fountainhead of all good qualities... "

He went on to say: "... And, on the other side, to consecrate others as the epitome of all deeds that are ugly and bad in this world. That is deliberate. Behind that is the false hope that they can use the people who are subjected to such praise. But the truth is that no one in the CPI(M) can be used in such a manner. Because CPI(M) is a party that has some special qualities. What is the reason? We take decisions collectively. We discuss and come to a decision. All are required to function based on that (collective) decision. But the deliberate attempt to create the impression that it is not so is what we derisively describe as the `media syndicate'."

Achuthanandan's biggest advantage in the factional war was indeed his image as a "clean, austere and pro-people" leader. But 64-year-old Vijayan often found his equally well-earned position as a tough, ruthless, no-nonsense and efficient party leader was dented by several allegations against him, importantly the one regarding a 1997 deal signed with a Canadian company (SNC Lavlin) for the renovation of three hydroelectric projects in Idukki district when he was Electricity Minister in the previous Nayanar government. (A Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the case is on.)

This is perhaps why the majority in the State party under Vijayan could never really checkmate the political advantage that Achuthanandan garnered through his campaigns. Moreover, the pro-Vijayan camp also did not succeed in convincing traditional party supporters of the need for new policy initiatives by a Left Front government in a rapidly globalising and liberalising world. All that Vijayan eventually did to counter Achuthanandan and his "media syndicate" was to seek a similar group of supporters in the media. The fuss over "media syndicates" became more complicated with allegations being made of "funding by the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency]" and also after a few journal<147,3,7>ist union representatives launched an initiative to join issue with Vijayan.

But Achuthanandan's runaway success had its limits. Among the 12 CPI(M) Ministers in the new Cabinet, he could accommodate only a few of his confidants and he is not in charge of the Home and Vigilance portfolios, which are normally the prerogative of Chief Ministers in the State.

In his first interview to Frontline, the day before he was sworn in, Achuthanandan said: "But I am the Chief Minister and nobody can prevent the implementation of the things that I intended to do." Yet, in the one year he has been in power, until the latest war of words began, there was little sign of Achuthanandan the crusader, anywhere in his government's actions.

But on the eve of the first anniversary of his government, when he finally managed to sign the deal for the Smart City in Kochi with drastically altered "pro-people" provisions as he had promised during the election campaign (Frontline, June 1), he also began a ruthless eviction drive against illegal encroachers on government land, first in Munnar in Idukki district and then in many urban centres. That set the alarm bells ringing because it coincided with an all-too-familiar media focus on Achuthanandan, which must have appeared to his party rivals once again as a ploy to portray "some people alone as super humans" doing hitherto impossible things in government.

Yet no Chief Minister of the State had so far dared to touch the politically sensitive issue of illegal encroachment by big-time businessmen in the State. Nor was there any hope when the LDF government came to power that the Smart City deal (which the United Democratic Front government refused to sign at the last minute because its provisions were opposed by Achuthanandan and other LDF leaders on the eve of the elections) would be revived and its Dubai-based promoters would agree to alter its provisions so as to make it "pro-people".

But the timing of these two actions - for which Achuthanandan was indeed responsible to a large extent - was significant. The government launched them just when the CPI(M) was gearing itself for an organisational election in the State unit ahead of its 19th party Congress in early 2008.

Achuthanandan, who avenged his defeat in the 2005 State party conference by donning the mantle of a lone crusader and yet becoming Chief Minister in 2006, had indeed timed his moves well. Hence, Vijayan's compulsion to declare that the credit for the new government's initiatives belonged not to "Achuthanandan, the individual, but to CPI(M), the party, whose representative is the Chief Minister".

As the demolition drive went on all over the State, Vijayan kept telling the media that it was not at all a one-man show but that the government was doing only what the party, the LDF and the Cabinet wanted it to do. The stress on "collective decision-making" was not lost on any one. Vijayan's statements also coincided with a disciplinary action drive in the district units of the party, which was catching media attention for its single-minded devotion to diminishing the strength of Achuthanandan's supporters in the districts.

In the end, a day before the Polit Bureau meeting, after one of his weekly Cabinet briefings, Achuthanandan told the media: "The problem now is that the people who are deriding the `media syndicate' are themselves now depending on it for support." Asked whether he was referring to Vijayan, the Chief Minister said, mockingly: "What did you understand from what I told you?" And, the same day, Vijayan retorted: "A responsible Polit Bureau member like Achuthanandan should not have raised suspicions about me, another Polit Bureau member. It is a question of common courtesy among comrades." The Chief Minister replied the next day that "the question of courtesy is applicable in the case of Vijayan also".

From the time of the 18th party Congress, the CPI(M) central leadership has banned party leaders "talking in public or outside their party units about inner-party matters" as it tried to solve the "persisting disunity and factional tendencies" in the Kerala unit. The two leaders are being disciplined for violating this ban, a matter the Polit Bureau has now placed before the Central Committee for its consideration when it meets in the latter half of June.

The CPI(M)'s detractors are eagerly waiting to see how the central leadership will eventually deal with the basic problem of factionalism in one of its most powerful State units, as it moves towards organisational elections.

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