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The Left Debacle in Kerala

The Left Debacle in Kerala

A number of the Left Democratic Front's supporters in Kerala moved away from it in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections leading to its poor showing. This must be viewed as a silent revolt by its sympathisers who want it to go back to value-based politics which distinguishes the left from the rest of the political combinations.

COMMENTARY

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The Left Debacle in Kerala

K Haridas

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the UDF suffered a rout in terms of the number of seats, it had secured only 38% of the polled votes. The pre-poll surveys which predicted a downslide to 36% for the LDF have been proved wrong.

A number of the Left Democratic Front’s supporters in Kerala moved away from it in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections leading to its poor showing. This must be viewed as a silent revolt by its sympathisers who want it to go back to value-based politics which distinguishes the left from the rest of the political combinations.

K Haridas (haridasappu@gmail.com) is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

S
eventeen members belonging to the Left Front were elected from Kerala in the 2004 parliamentary elections and this number contributed significantly towards the front’s strength in the 14th Lok Sabha – the highest ever in independent India. The results in the recently concluded elections are in sharp contrast to the previous one and all the squabbles among the front partners which were suspended during the campaign trail have re-emerged. There are observers who regard these results as the prelude to the ultimate decimation of the left in one of its traditional strongholds. However, it is not only the history of the electoral behaviour of Kerala’s voters that is a usual phenomenon and which leads to alternate verdicts in favour of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) or the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in successive elections that should caution such observers. It should be noted that despite winning only four seats the LDF has secured 42% of the polled votes as compared to the 48% polled by the UDF. The swing away from the left as compared to 2004 is only 4%. Moreover, when in 2004

‘Shock Treatment’

Much before the election process started, it was clear that this time around the voters who had no affiliation to either of the fronts were all set to discard the LDF. They may be in a minority in the highly polarised state but they have a decisive say in the final outcome of the closely contested race in each constituency. It will be wrong to presume that they are influenced only by national issues when it comes to the Lok Sabha election. The track record of the LDF regime that assumed office three years ago has been far from attractive. The washing of dirty linen in public not only among the various constituents of the front but also among the leaders of the faction-ridden CPI(M), allegations of corruption and arrogance at all levels of administration, charges of interference in administration by the kith and kin of the state ministers, etc, are aspects that were unheard of in the past whenever the LDF was in power. Stunned by such a scenario it is no wonder that many concluded that the differences between the two fronts have been erased. Some might even grade

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
may 30, 2009 vol xliv no 22

COMMENTARY

the UDF higher citing the escalation of political violence in which CPI(M) cadres were involved during the LDF rule.

There was another section of voters who were biding their time in order to express their discontent and ironically enough it consisted of people committed to the CPI(M) ideology. The details of the voting pattern in the CPI(M) strongholds indicate that this section indeed administered the “shock treatment” to the party for its alleged deviation from the path of commitment to the cause of the common man. According to them, the CPI(M) is fast changing in complexion. However, this change is attributed to a section of the leadership that has established a nexus with money bags, and the people hope the situation can be retrieved with “shock treatments” like election defeats. In Kerala one comes across a number of local CPI(M) workers who in private aver that internal democracy in the party organisation has ceased to exist. Any doubts on the decisions of the party are viewed with suspicion. Thousands of party workers thrown out of the organisation in recent times say that they are victims of the newly inherited style of functioning against the backdrop of the inner party fight against sectarian tendencies. They would have one believe that the party has been reduced to what Antonio Gramsci had termed a “police organisation”.

This is only one side of the story. The functionaries committed to the official faction of the state leadership attribute all such criticism to the highly individualistic stand taken by the state Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan. He is accused of promoting the tendency to challenge party decisions which should actually be obeyed by comrades at all costs. In reality the situation may not be as simple as that presented by either faction. The crux of the matter is that no concrete shape has been given to the political and ideological questions even by those who assert that they exist and in the absence of ideological discussions, the rules of the organisation take precedence over political issues.

Deviating from the Tried and Trusted

A third group of voters who have unleashed their wrath on the LDF seem to be those who are upset that its secular credentials have taken a beating. Apparently, the official leadership of the CPI(M) wanted to win with the help of those sections which they had taken into confidence. It mattered little whether such a policy alienated long-term allies like the CPI or the Janata Dal (Secular) (JD(S)). The latter led by M P Veerendra Kumar, who is also the managing director of Mathrubhumi, the leading Malayalam daily that had played a major role in highlighting many scandals in which some CPI(M) leaders were involved was denied its traditional seat and thus virtually thrown out of the LDF. The open courting of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) led by A N Madani alienated the secular sections among Muslims. A similar gesture of friendship towards a rebel BJP outfit angered the secular section among the Hindus. However, a backlash from the Hindu voters against the alliance with the PDP, which was predicted to favour the BJP, did not take place. The overall vote share of the BJP has in fact gone down to a mere 6% from the 12% plus it had secured in 2004. Ever since the 1987 assembly elections in which the CPI(M) led front devoid of any communal outfits registered a magnificent victory, the secular image of the front has remained intact, occasional alliances with some Muslim outfits notwithstanding. The attempted understanding with a leader accused of terror links even after his release from prison like Madani and at the cost of angering the CPI, the feud over the CPI’s traditional Ponnani seat and the humiliation meted out to the JD(S) all showed up a badly divided LDF just weeks before the elections. LDF supporters point out that never in the history of the front had such things happened and that loud protests against the autocratic style of functioning of the state secretary of the CPI(M) and his recalcitrance are being heard. It is believed that at least in two constituencies the CPI(M) candidates lost due to the alienation of the JD(S) voters. The CPI(M) is also being accused of attempts to defeat the candidates of the CPI and the fact that the latter drew a blank lends credence to such allegations.

The process of candidate selection in the case of the CPI(M) also came in for criticism from party insiders. Some sitting MPs with good track records were ignored in order to make room for the official group’s

may 30, 2009

favourites. Leaders from the trade union front were completely sidelined and in the name of giving the youth an opportunity, erstwhile student leaders were given undue representation. This was seen as an attempt by the official group to lure the youth towards their camp. The party leadership seems to have ignored earlier experiences when youth leaders given parliamentary seats simply deserted the party showing a woeful lack of ideological commitment. Allegations of “campus recruitment” apart, there were complaints that certain candidates were promoted without the knowledge of the concerned district committees and the candidate put up at Kozhikode is said to be a case in point. The party was forced to answer questions regarding the family relationship of this candidate with the Chennai-based businessman who was in the thick of allegations of financial irregularities in recent times. The support to this candidate was widely seen in conjunction with the allegations of dubious dealings with criminal elements by some leaders associated with the party daily Deshabhimani. The party had declared that the donations received from such elements had been returned. The central committee member who had been suspended for lack of alertness that led to such a shabby deal was reinstated as the daily’s manager after a few months. That the CPI(M) could not convincingly challenge the accusations regarding the Kozhikode seat which was taken away from the JD(S) and awarded to a controversial figure seems to have had a negative impact throughout the state. The S N C Lavlin scam in which the state secretary has been indicted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) further compounded the issue of the integrity of some of the left leaders as never before. By embarking upon a defence of the secretary and by declaring that the CBI case was an attack on the party, the central leadership virtually put the party itself in the dock.

The Silent Revolt

The state secretary’s tour in February was supposed to lay bare the problems of building a new society in Kerala. However, it turned out to be an exercise in presenting a one-sided picture of the CBI charges. The massive cost of this tour and the coercive

vol xliv no 22

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Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

methods employed to ensure the participation of party cadres in the meetings associated with it conveyed messages contrary to its stated objectives. Not a single issue related to Kerala’s development was discussed. The final show at Thiruvananthapuram witnessed a reluctant chief minister making his appearance on the dais along with the party’s state secretary, airing allegations. In fact the “yatra” as it was called was received by people unwilling to forgive corruption. This was evident from the body language of the participants at the functions arranged to receive the state secretary and his entourage. The assessment of the state committee of the party that the tour was a big success and the subsequent assumption by some of the leaders that it had generated enough enthusiasm among the party workers to immerse themselves in the election campaign indicated the loss of contact between the ranks and the leadership. This assessment reflects yet another instance of trying to justify what was politically wrong with the might of the organisation. It was forgotten that the CPI(M) was in the forefront of raising its voice against corruption in the past and that a deviation from this practice would not go down well with the party workers. The failure at the hustings is also attributed to the so-called “vote drain” as some sections of the party supposedly persuaded people to vote against the party. How far this is true in a secret ballot system is debatable. The party leaders should be willing to admit the fact that no party discipline can be imposed on any one, whether party member or not, exercising his or her right to franchise. Perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn from the setback consists in the behaviour of the electorate in the party strongholds.

The outfit formed by those expelled from the CPI(M) could not make much of an impact even though its candidates secured over 20,000 votes each in a couple of constituencies. Nor has the CPI(ML) proved to be of consequence in the state’s electoral space. The majority of the left voters have remained with the LDF while a section of the traditional LDF supporters seem to have cross voted. This is a voting pattern that can be best understood as a silent revolt by the left sympathisers for the retrieval of the value-based attitudes of the left which have distinguished it from the rest of the political combinations. The idea of a Third Front government at the centre that the campaign managers of the left were trying hard to sell did not catch the imagination of those voters. Unless this section is won back the left cannot even dream of a genuine electoral victory. If that means examining the many ills gripping the party in recent times, the question of response to liberalisation will figure high. Even the lifestyle of many of the leaders will then be questioned. To what extent such a rectification campaign can be conducted by a party or parties running profitable organisations and are owners of assets worth crores of rupees is debatable. Is it desirable for a leftist party to run tourist centres and five star hotels? These are some of the questions that will have to be answered by the left in the immediate future as all political lines adopted will have on them the stamp of the basic character of the organisation that has formulated them.

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Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
may 30, 2009 vol xliv no 22

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