T he northern Kerala district of Kannur has remained a bastion of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) ever since the party was formed in 1964. Historically, the district has had a strong “Communist connection” right from the period before Independence. The Kerala unit of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) was formed at a meeting in the district’s Pinarayi village, from which the current Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, hails. The militant liberation struggles in the 1940s in the district’s regions such as Kayyur, Karivellur and Morazha had attracted national and global attention evoking responses from top leaders of the national freedom movement such as Mahatma Gandhi. Over the last decade, the fortunes of the CPI(M) have undergone wild fluctuations at the national level and in States such as West Bengal and Tripura, which were strongholds of the party for 30 consecutive years and more. But the party unit in Kannur has consolidated itself and grown steadily. Thus, when the delegates of the CPI(M) from across the country, as well as a handful of international units, assembled at Kannur for the 23rd congress of the party between April 6 and 10, spirits were high.
Sitaram Yechury, who got re-elected as party general secretary for a third consecutive term on the final day of the congress, made a pointed reference to the historical and contemporary Leftist spirit of the district, right at the beginning of the conference. “Religiously oriented people often go on ‘theertha yatras' seeking blessings at different shrines. A revolutionary ‘theertha yatra’ can never be complete without paying homage to the heroic Kayyur and Karivellur martyrs and drawing inspiration from the strength of revolutionary movement and traditions here at Kannur,” he said. As the conference came to a close on the evening of April 10 with a massive public gathering attended by lakhs of people and a march of over 20,000 “Red Volunteers”, the overwhelming view among the delegates and the rank and file of the party was that the Kannur congress was indeed inspiring. The refrain of leaders like Sitaram Yechury, Brinda Karat and Hannan Mollah, as well as grassroots workers, was that it had turned out to be a “congress of determination”.
Chandran, a party supporter at Thottada, a suburb of Kannur town, explained the “determination” factor to Frontline . “It is the determination to fight against all regressive social, political and cultural trends predominantly represented in India by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-led Sangh Parivar, its political arm the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Narendra Modi government at the Centre and the BJP governments in many States. It is also the determination to fight resolutely against vacillations of the grand old party of the country, the Congress.” Chandran chose his words in Malayalam with the aplomb of a seasoned political theoretician, but this is nothing extraordinary in Kannur. One gets to see people like him in almost every village and town.
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As is the wont at all congresses of the CPI(M), two major documents, the political resolution and the political-organisational report, were discussed over five days leading to the adoption of the documents. They delineated a broad outline of the future course of action of the party at various levels, including organisational steps, mass agitations highlighting issues affecting different sections of the population, and political and electoral tactics. The discussions at Kannur focussed on key issues such as the threat of Hindutva communalism, the all-round economic crisis compounded by rampaging price rise of essential commodities and petroleum products, the agrarian crisis persisting for many decades, the harsh implications of growing unemployment, and realpolitik questions regarding electoral alliances with other secular parties, especially the Congress.
A framework and action plans
According to senior leaders such as Yechury, Mollah and former Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Issac, as well as scores of delegates who interacted with Frontline , four broad tasks and several related action programmes have been identified by the Kannur congress. The four broad tasks are as follows: Strengthen the CPI(M)’s own organisational and political reach; build up a robust unity of all Left parties leading to a powerful Left and Democratic Front; systematically counter and defeat the ruling Hindutva forces represented by the BJP government at the Centre and its associates by forming a comprehensive and united platform of secular forces; and, finally, mould this into a political formulation which is capable of advancing alternative, people-oriented policies and governance. These points have repeatedly been discussed in all the party congresses since 2008, the period when the CPI(M) decided to withdraw the support of the Left parties to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by the Congress on the nuclear deal issue. At the Kannur congress, however, the party has set a six-month deadline to follow up on the framework with concrete action plans.
The action programmes that supplemented the framework of the four broad tasks included continuation of the spirited farmers’ struggles that forced the Modi government to rescind the controversial farm laws after a sustained campaign lasting more than year in several States and on the border of Delhi. The Modi government has literally gone back on implementing the promises it made, while withdrawing the farm laws, to the farmers’ unions, including the CPI(M)-led Kisan Sabha, one of the prominent groups in the agitation. The charted action programmes include taking up the unemployment issue in association with youth organisations of different secular political formulations across the country. Already, spontaneous outbursts have erupted in several parts of the country, including big States like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, highlighting immediate anomalies related to government job appointments and the Modi government’s failure, through its last eight years of existence, to fulfil the promise of creating one crore jobs every year. The CPI(M) action programme plans to build on the rising discontent among the youth.
On more direct political and electoral questions related to challenging the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar, the message of the Kannur Congress is to work out State-level tactical alliances with secular parties, taking into consideration regional equations and factors. Making a specific reference to this, Yechury underscored two points in his interview to Frontline (page 43-46). First, all alternatives to the dominant Indian political establishment from 1997 to 2004 have come up in the form of post-election coalitions. Two, this is so because India’s social diversity reflects in its political diversity, and it is more or less impossible to have concrete and uniform nationwide alliances.
More specifically, the CPI(M) is thinking in terms of alliances at the regional level among regional parties and with the Congress, depending on regional factors, political exigencies and tactics. These alliances would be forged with the common goal of defeating the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar, and their governments at the Centre and in several States. This fight is necessary for restoring the spirit of Indian democracy and the Constitution. Elaborating on this, the party congress said:
“During these [the last] four years, particularly since the return of the BJP government in the 2019 elections, we in India have been subjected to the aggressive pursuit of the Hindutva agenda of the fascistic RSS by the BJP government. There are multi-pronged attacks along with this unfolding of the RSS fascistic agenda. There is the simultaneous pursuit of rabid neoliberal reforms strengthening the communal-corporate nexus, promoting crony capitalism brazenly, the wholesale loot of national assets, legalising political corruption and imposing full-fledged authoritarianism…. In this process, systematic efforts are being made to change the character of the secular democratic Indian republic. The four fundamental pillars of the Indian Constitution—secular democracy, federalism, social justice, and economic sovereignty—are being severely assaulted and undermined. The pursuit of the Hindutva agenda of the fascistic RSS requires a unitary state structure negating the federal character of India. To achieve this objective all the independent institutions created by the Indian Constitution to act as checks and balances for implementing constitutional guarantees—Parliament, judiciary, Election Commission, CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation], ED [Enforcement Directorate] etc.—are being undermined, negating their independent authority. Pursuit of this agenda being its sole concern, the Union government has thoroughly mismanaged the combating of the pandemic, imposing unprecedented misery on the people leading to the loss of a huge number of lives. There is a determined systematic effort to fudge statistics and data which severely underestimates the incidents of the infection and death.”
Tamil Nadu model of alliance
The Kannur congress underscored that this situation necessitated a coming together of various secular forces. It also made it clear that there could be no larger political understanding with the Congress, given the grand old party’s long-standing political, economic and ideological orientation. Yechury called upon the Congress to clarify its stand on fighting Hindutva communalism and set its house in order organisationally and politically to achieve clarity on the matter. In the interview with Frontline , he emphasised the need for other regional parties to take a clear position in defence of secularism. Though this was not mentioned in absolute terms, the party congress seemed to point to the Tamil Nadu model of political and electoral alliance consisting of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK), a powerful regional force, the Left parties, the Congress, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the predominantly Dalit organisations such as the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK). This alliance was mainly the product of sustained struggles at the social level advanced by many organisations in the grouping, including the Left parties.
The presence of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, president of the DMK, at an important seminar on Centre-State relations organised as part of the Kannur congress, reinforced the thinking on the Tamil Nadu model alliance. Stalin shared the dais with Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and rebel Congress leader K.V. Thomas, who had defied his party leadership’s diktat not to attend the seminar. Stalin and Vijayan attacked the BJP and its Union government on a variety of issues including denial of the rights of the State governments by, for instance, the curtailment of funds that they are entitled to. Stalin pointedly referred to the Modi government’s authoritarian tendencies and asserted that the cultural hegemony that Union Home Minister Amit Shah was trying to impose using the Hindi language would not be tolerated by States like Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Vijayan asserted that “our democracy involves diverse cultures and languages” and that the “Constitution has given due importance to different languages” adding that “any bid to foist Hindi would eliminate local languages and cultures”. Stalin said these were efforts to eliminate diversity in the country. “If India has to be protected, States should be first guarded. The nation can be safeguarded only if States are shielded. The architects of the Constitution did not envisage a unitary structure of power but stood for division of powers, as reflected in features such as the States, the Centre and the Concurrent List. The Panchayati Raj Act bestowed local bodies with rights. The nation and the States will witness development only if villages grow. Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the CPI(M) and the DMK, have every right to speak about the Centre-state relations. An elected Communist government in Kerala was dismissed by the Centre in 1959. In Tamil Nadu, DMK governments were dismissed twice in similar manner, first in 1976 and then in 1991, using that provision.”
At the level of a governance model, the party congress highlighted the “Kerala model” of governance as a national alternative. It passed a resolution hailing the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in the State for securing a second consecutive term in power. The resolution stated: “We salute the Kerala State committee of the CPI(M) for the political guidance it has provided to the government, and to the people of Kerala for their support and participation in the initiatives and success of the government. The LDF government overcame a series of challenges since coming to power in 2016, such as a depleted state exchequer, negative agricultural growth, stagnation of industry, unemployment, the COVID pandemic, natural disasters, and the Narendra Modi government’s alleged antipathy towards the State government.”
This assertion of the need for a new coalition and governance model, by all indications, has gone well with the delegates to the party congress. The general understanding that emerged at the congress was that this was the practical line to adopt, especially in view of the fact that the next general election will take place in two years’ time. The acceptance of this political line found reflection in the deliberations on the organisational structure of the party. Unlike in the last two party congresses held in Vishakapattanam and Hyderabad, there was no confusion on the election of the general secretary.
Equally importantly, Yechury’s long-standing inner party push to have a representative of the Dalit communities in the Polit Bureau, found acceptance at the congress through the elevation of senior West Bengal leader Ram Chandra Dome. Dome is the first Dalit face in the CPI(M)’s highest body. The party congress also fixed 75 as the age limit for members of the central committee and Polit Bureau; older leaders and a few others who are close to 75 were dropped from both bodies and new faces brought into the leadership. The CPI(M) also cut down the size of the central committee from 95 to 85. In the newly constituted 17-member Polit Bureau, new inductions apart from Dome are Kerala’s LDF convener A. Vijayaraghavan and All India Kisan Sabha president Ashok Dhawale. Those dropped from the Polit Bureau on the basis of the age factor are S. Ramachandran Pillai, Hannan Mollah and Biman Bose. There are 17 new faces in the 85-member central committee. The female representation in the central committee has gone up to 15 with the inclusion of three new faces.
There is little doubt that these moves have been initiated in the background of several organisational factors and limitations, which were highlighted time and again over the past three years in inner-party debates. In fact, Yechury himself has stated that the self-criticism on these organisational issues has been intense. The pertinent points flagged as part of this debate included the inability of the party to attract younger people in large parts of the country and the consequent problem of a dipping membership, which is visible in a majority of States.
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The credential report of the Kannur congress points out that out of the 729 delegates, 320 had joined the party between 1978 and 1990. In other words, approximately 44 per cent of the delegates are aged between 32 and 44. By all indications, the CPI(M) leadership wants greater representation of members in the 20-30 age group. The drop in membership in States such as West Bengal and Tripura, once considered Left citadels, was also flagged as a worrisome issue.
Between 2018 and 2021, membership in West Bengal dropped from approximately 1,92,000 to 1,60,000 and that in Tripura dipped from approximately 71,000 to 51,000. Kerala was the only State to register a significant rise. The membership here grew from approximately 4,89,000 to 5,27,000. Other big States like Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana registered a fall in membership while Bihar, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra registered a small increase. There was sharp criticism at the party congress that the central leadership was not effective in making correct organisational moves to spread the party across India. The new moves relating to the party committees, including the fixing of an age limit, is considered to be a consequence of the intense self-criticism at the congress. The moves, apparently, have been welcomed by members across the party.
The big question, of course, is how far all these organisational measures and time-bound action plans on social, economic and political fronts will enhance the image and strength of the CPI(M) and its other allies on the Left. The success of the party’s immediate political goal of building strong secular alliances ahead of the next general election will depend on the successful implementation of the line evolved at the Kannur congress.