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Economic Man, the Fourth Estate and CPI(M) in Kerala

The factional conflict within the Kerala CPI(M) cannot be dismissed as an inner-party affair of no concern to others. Now when the party is in power, it has crucial implications for governance and it directly affects the people. It is also necessary to recognise that several aspects of the conflict that are specific to Kerala's economy and society and are influential in turning democratic dissent into a factional war are the rapid spread of consumerism and a high media density.

Economic Man, the Fourth Estate and CPI(M) in Kerala

The factional conflict within the Kerala CPI(M) cannot be dismissedas an inner-party affair of no concern to others. Now when the party isin power, it has crucial implications for governance and it directlyaffects the people. It is also necessary to recognise that several aspectsof the conflict that are specific to Kerala’s economy and societyand are influential in turning democratic dissent into a factionalwar are the rapid spread of consumerism and a high media density.

K T RAMMOHAN

J
ust less than a decade back I had the occasion to write in these columns a commentary on the beginnings of an inner-party conflict in Kerala CPI(M) titled ‘Kerala CPI(M): All That Is Solid Melts into Air’. It had noted how the monolithic organisation of the party was cracking up. Behind this, it identified the emergence of two rival groups distinguished by differing developmentalist perspectives. The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) group led by the trade union elites argued for the development of productive forces even at the cost of environment and for centralised planning while the rival VS group (after V S Achuthanandan, the present chief minister), then backed by the student and youth organisations and the people’s science movement, favoured eco-friendly development practices and decentralised planning. There were also conflicts of a less ideological nature but these were cloaked in ideology.

Factional War

That was 1998. Today the party is back in power. Through the past eight years the inner-party conflict has assumed the proportions of a full-fledged factional war. What is more, there has been a substantial shift in the themes of contention and composition of factions. There is hardly any semblance of an ideological divide now, making one wonder whether there is any continuity at all with the earlier factional dynamics. The current warring factions simply represent two private interest groups. Their origins and rise are often explained away as yet another instance of erosion of ideology, prompting to seek an “other” within the party rather than outside. There are, however, aspects specific to Kerala’s economy and society that need to be considered in understanding these. Further, it may not do well to pretend that the factional conflict is an inner-party affair of no concern to others. With the party in power, the conflict has crucial implications for governance and directly affects the people.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the CITU group was completely wiped out and the opposing VS group emerged as “the party”. At least partly, this was an outcome of careful manipulation by the VS group that engineered party elections by expunging rivals and shuffling party committees, filling these with their own men. Very soon, however, the group broke into two with the faction led by Pinarayi Vijayan (the present state secretary) consolidating power and most members of the original VS group rallying behind him, which is now seen as the party. The sheet anchors of the original VS group have now practically ceased to be. The political presence of the student and youth fronts is a cipher. The people’s science movement is in a shambles having been discredited because of its bungling on the external funds issue. The VS group, however, claims a following outside the bounds of the party. This owes to what its loyalists project as popular appeal for the sincerity and commitment of the proletarian leader and their rivals allege as springing from manipulation of media by the power-hungry leader.

Face the fact. Now there are two CPI(M)s in Kerala. Till recently, there was a third one too as represented by the vast majority of the party rank and file. To begin with the latter were unaware of the factionalism, and later even when they came to realise it, chose not to take sides. They still believed that they were members of a party intensely committed to social change. Also, there were people who were not party members but voted for the party. The vote was relative in the sense of supporting what was seen as less corrupt and more peopleoriented of the two electoral fronts. Like most of the rank and file of the party, they subscribed to neither group. They included both middle class and lower class. There were academics, artists, and writers as well taking a similar neutral stance. Eventually, however, swayed by media propaganda and individualist aspirations, most of these sections were drawn into the gambit of one or the other of the two CPI(M)s.

Major Entrepreneur

In the consumerist high fever plaguing Kerala, ideologies and commitment, even of the lowest classes, rapidly melt into air. The party is rich and powerful; it is the best patron around. Incentives galore. Besides jobs, transfers and promotions in the government when in power, the party, as a major entrepreneur by itself, can offer employment even when it does not hold power. For the casual agricultural worker, it could be relatively steady labour in the beedi cooperative, for his educated, unemployed daughter, the job of a clerk in the village cooperative bank or a nurse in the super-speciality hospital in the city run by the party. With the party operating modern manufacturing enterprises, including engineering and rubber production units and IT park, and directly involving in entertainment industry like television channel and amusement park, there are high-end jobs too for those who are technically and managerially skilled. For the artist, there is possibility of membership in the state academy of fine arts; for the filmmaker, an official position in the film development corporation or an assignment for the public relations department; for the writer, awards, honours and fellowships; and for the economist, a position in the state planning board. As triggered by the need to widen support, each faction vies with the other in selling dreams and distributing favours. It does not matter which faction one belongs to. But necessarily one has to be factional. Activists of student and youth fronts too are prudently planning their careers by identifying with one or the other of the two factions.

Media’s Role

An important agent and beneficiary of the factional war is the media, especially powerful in the high-literate state. It could even be said that the media is the major vehicle of the factional war. In 1990s, the

Economic and Political Weekly August 26, 2006 VS group had successfully deployed it to portray the CITU group as a socially irresponsible and corrupt lot. The propaganda proved highly persuasive at a time when CITU was fast losing ground among the workers due to its inability to protect jobs in the context of globalisation and getting discredited among the middle class because of poor service delivery in public utilities and hesitancy to resist high-level corruption in state enterprises. It ultimately saw to the death of the group. Subsequently, as the VS group itself broke into two, there was more meat for the media. In an attempt to outwit each other, both the groups flooded the media with news of party deliberations, slander and rumour. The job of the journalist was made easy. S/he did not have to investigate; just keep the cell phone switched on, and there was at least one story to file everyday. Journalists, even of right wing newspapers, identified with one or the other faction becoming the apple of its eye. Their careers flourished.

A section of the media portrayed V S Achuthanandan as Stalinist, antidevelopmentalist and an enemy of minority communities. He was juxtaposed against the Pinarayi faction, which was projected as liberal and forward-looking. For the other section of the media, VS was the great protector of human rights and environment and a champion of the working class. At once, the Pinarayi faction was posed as being corrupt and a comprador. Whichever way, for the newspaper-addicted Keralite, each day broke with an exciting feast. With all the 13 Malayalam satellite television channels and local cable networks joining in, the feast was turned into a round-the-clock affair. Prompted by market signals and own economic and political agenda, sections of the media performed amazing somersaults too – turning whom they once described as satans into angels and vice versa. Admittedly, there was a very small section of the media that pursued a policy of equidistance allowing the readers/ viewers to form own opinion, but such isolated instances do not typify. At least for some of the seemingly neutral media, it was merely a matter of caution given that it was not clear then as to who would

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be the vanquisher and who would be the vanquished.

Sadly, the CPI(M) offices in Kerala are now reborn as gossip dens with speculation rife as to who is with whom and anxieties rising as to whether s/he would betray the group. Power is the key; crossing floor is no crime. There is news of possible new coalitions and factions. Party offices have also been turned into spaces where conspiracies are hatched, plots and counter-plots woven. Yet, if the party has not formally split, it is not merely because of the continuous arbitration of big brother politburo. The economic leviathan that the party has grown into, a split would be disadvantageous to both the interest groups. Especially so at this moment when the party is in government with all its attendant possibilities of accumulation of power and pelf. Yet, nothing is ruled out in corporate communism – split, merger, takeover or else. All that depends on the bulls and bears of the political stock market. Comrade economicus!

EPW

Email: rammohan@cds.ac.in

Economic and Political Weekly August 26, 2006

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