RARELY have elections to the 20 parliamentary seats from Kerala been of such importance as this round to the two main Left parties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPI(M), and the Communist Party of India (CPI), partners in the opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) in the State. Yet, irrespective of the outcome of the April 10 vote, both parties seem to be facing one of the most uncertain periods in their history in a region that was among the first to democratically elect a communist government.
That government, elected in 1957, lasted for only 28 months. The eagerness with which it set out to deal with vested interests in land and education during that brief period gave rise to dogged opposition from feudal and communally powerful sections of Kerala society, leading to its controversial dismissal by the Nehru government in 1959.
Since that time, and, especially after the nationwide split of the Communist Party in 1964, Kerala has been the cradle of aggressive, bipolar coalition politics, with the CPI(M) leading one front, and the CPI, now its partner, sharing power also in a Congress-led Front earlier, for about a decade from 1969.
The CPI emerged from the split as the weaker fraction in terms of mass support though it too had an array of good leaders then, including C. Achutha Menon, who became Chief Minister twice in a coalition that included the Congress party.
Either of the communist parties have thus been in power in Kerala—initially for 28 months from 1957, then almost continuously from 1967 to late 1981 and, thereafter, generally, every alternate five years.
These parties can, therefore, legitimately claim credit for several accomplishments in the State, including: one of the most far-reaching anti-feudal land reforms in South Asia; improving the condition of peasants, tenants and workers dramatically; promoting secular education and bringing in radical changes in education and public health; helping spread literacy; developing an efficient public distribution system; fighting caste and religious oppression consistently; bringing in a welfare orientation in State-government policies that no other administration could thereafter ignore; and, lately, in the mid-1990s, launching one of the biggest mass movements for the decentralisation of power and resources. The first-generation leaders of this home-grown strand of communism were all deeply immersed in the movements and organisations that helped Kerala achieve a fair deal of democratisation and political equality. A large majority of the population benefited from such Left programmes and policies and they became quite a substantial vote bank for the communists.
Yet, Left rule in Kerala was interrupted almost religiously every five years by an equally strong coalition led by the Congress. Kerala, therefore, never could become a wholesome laboratory of class struggle, unlike perhaps West Bengal, where communist rule continued uninterrupted for over three decades.
This created a peculiar situation for the Left in Kerala.
The bipolar nature of coalition politics became firmly established by the early 1980s, with (mostly) “Left progressive forces” led by the CPI(M) on one side and “pro-capitalist, reactionary” forces led by the Congress(I) on the other, each with its own fairly committed mass base. From then on, election verdicts, often decided on small margins, began to be clinched ultimately by a small group of voters who had no affiliation to either of the fronts.
The two communist parties were, therefore, always caught in a conflict between the compulsions of intervening in parliamentary politics and winning elections and of advancing the interests of peasants, agriculture labourers, workers and the rural poor whose material conditions they were sworn to improve.
In brief, over the years, the former got precedence in the priorities of the two parties and this resulted, in a sense, in the stagnation of the Left movement in Kerala today.
The CPI(M)-led LDF, for example, has not won a single major election in Kerala after the Assembly elections in 2006. The LDF’s victory even in 2006 was built almost entirely on the faults of the then ruling Congress(I)-led coalition rather than on its own merits. Thereafter, the Lok Sabha elections in 2009, the local body elections in 2010, the Assembly elections in 2011 and two important byelections to the Assembly (in Piravom and Neyyattinkara) that followed—all proved to be major setbacks for the LDF.
It is interesting to review what, in public perception, are some of the major reasons for the LDF’s election debacles from 2009: (a) the bitter factional feud within the CPI(M) and individualistic adventures of some of its leaders; (b) the related issues of allegations of corruption in the CPI(M) and the government, and about the arrogant, autocratic style of functioning of a number of party leaders; (c) irrational electoral alliances with communal parties, even those led by people with alleged terrorist links; (d) estrangement of coalition partners for a variety of decisions taken by the CPI(M) leadership, some rather inexplicably, on the eve of elections; (e) alienation of some communities on issues of government policy in self-financing education; and (f) the CPI(M)’s bizarre and continuing indulgence in political violence and murder for trivial gains and its compulsion to defend them even at extreme costs.
The repeated electoral setbacks that the CPI(M) and the LDF have been facing, however, do not mean that there is a dramatic fall in their vote share. For example, in the Lok Sabha elections in 2009, despite winning only four of the 20 seats, the LDF secured 41.89 per cent of the votes as compared to 47.73 per cent won by the UDF. In the 2011 Assembly elections, it won 44.94 per cent of the votes, when the UDF, which replaced it in government, got 45.83 per cent of the votes.
Within the LDF, the CPI(M)’s vote share in the elections in 2009 and 2011 was 30.48 per cent and 28.18 per cent respectively, and that of the CPI was only 7.44 per cent and 8.72 per cent respectively.
But both the CPI(M) and the CPI ought to be worried about some of the symptoms of a deeper problem in the Left movement: waning public interest in the agitations organised by it; the kind of political issues that are sought to be projected by it; the absence of dynamic social movements for worthy causes that were once the hallmark of the Left’s strategy to broaden its electoral base; and increasing instances of failure to read the people’s mind, especially before elections, or respond properly to the contemporary needs of different segments of people.
The preoccupation, especially of the CPI(M), with inner-party and inner-coalition politics and feuds, among other reasons, has also led to a sense of estrangement between the party’s interests and that of its core constituency, which includes the majority of the rural poor. Party-led agitations today are bereft of the dynamism of the past and are frequently criticised for lack of involvement, credibility and relevance. Its leaders do not get the kind of all-round respect and affection that their predecessors used to command in the State.
Thanks to its long association with communism, Kerala is today one of the most politicised States in India. Politicisation and mobilisation of the landless and the underprivileged sections are often considered the most durable gifts of the communist movement in the State. But the Left parties cannot any longer continue to harp on their past achievements alone, however remarkable they may be, and expect even those sections of society that have truly benefited from them to continue to support them.
Now, a literate, educated, more affluent Kerala has seen priorities changing and fresh problems and social conflicts arising, curiously, among them, the inevitable byproducts of communist reforms of the past that triggered such a transformation. But, before it turns to address this new milieu—to win additional sympathisers and sustain its traditional support—the Left has to address the persistent taunts of Congress leaders who have been claiming that while they believe in “creating wealth first in order to distribute it”, the Left parties believe in “merely distributing poverty and unemployment”.
In fact, finding a solution to the development paradox of Kerala—of persistent economic backwardness coexisting with the remarkable achievements in key areas of human development—has so far remained a vexed issue for both the fronts that have ruled the State.
The Congress has been claiming that its mantra of privatisation and liberalisation is the key, and perhaps has brought some tangible benefits to a growing, prospering and electorally powerful middle class. In contrast, with troubles of their own making distorting their visage, the Left parties find themselves being praised less and less for their dogged commitment all these years for “equitable distribution” and “welfare measures” but blamed squarely for having no credible alternative strategy to boost production and economic development.
Of late, the Congress has started flaunting the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s left-leaning welfare programmes aimed at generating rural employment, alleviating poverty, ensuring food security and so on and simultaneously targeting the very underprivileged sections in Kerala that the Left had so far rather exclusively tried to serve.
With their capacity to take up new programmes or struggles limited by a number of factors (including such me-too tricks by political rivals and a certain loss of credibility of their own making), and the potential for expansion of their mass base increasingly limited, the two Left parties, now out of power in Kerala, have been finding it all to be a worrisome interlude. A good performance in the Lok Sabha elections will help lift their spirits.
Nonetheless, the way out for the Left in Kerala is surely to reinvent itself. But first it has to find a way to keep its ideological moorings intact, in these difficult, rather confusing times.