From Das Kapital to Ramayana: The changing face of CPM in Kerala

By John Cheeran

Railing against America is a great pastime in Kerala. Especially if you belong to the most dominate caste in the state, the caste of communism.

So it comes as a sweet and strange surprise to Malayalis that the chief minister and the iron man of Kerala communism, Pinarayi Vijayan, is seeking treatment in the renowned American hospital, Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Vijayan, 74, is set to leave for the US on a 13-day visit on August 19 while the poor party cadre and common man join the queues at taluk and district hospitals asphyxiating in the absence of infrastructure.

The CPM cadre who has been still indoctrinated in party study classes to love, if not follow, China, North Korea and Venezuela are a bemused lot. So is the entire state since there has been no word on the nature of ailment the CM is suffering from. Should a people’s leader and the people’s party be afraid to make routine but vital disclosures?

In a state where Che Guevara is still popular than Mahatma Gandhi, the symbolism of the US visit for personal salvation would not go unnoticed. Yes, the chief minister’s health is valuable and he deserves to get the best of medical care in the world. But what makes it dialectical is the CPM’s not yet discarded and often not discussed revolutionary agenda and fiery anti-US, anti-capitalist posturing.

Vijayan is the first CPM leader to seek medical treatment in the US, unlike past stalwarts such as EMS Namboothiripad and E K Nayanar. Many die-hard cadre believe that that would be the last thing the nonagenarian living icon and former chief minister V S Achuthanandan, incidentally a bete noire of Vijayan, would do, confronted with a similar crisis.

The US is the arch-enemy, the establishment that put the dreaded CIA on the job to topple the first democratically elected communist government in the world in 1957. Ask Prakash Karat, who scuttled a pragmatic coalition with the country’s most-left leaning centrist party, solely on the US question, and still refuses to shake hand with Congress for a broad anti-Modi opposition coalition.

Vijayan is no ordinary communist. As a young Marxist, he suffered police brutality during the Emergency in 1976 and later emerged as a much-feared apparatchik from the CPM’s stronghold, Kannur. He is no woolly intellectual but the committed cadre. That makes the situation ironic.

But the colour red bleeding from the CPM flag is not a sudden development. The party, for its survival in an aspirational consumerist state, has been keeping friends with the capitalist class in unabashed manner since the collapse of the USSR. To facilitate local investment, the CPM has had no qualms in letting industrialists and businessmen flout environmental safeguards, especially the Paddy Reclamation Act across an agrarian state. Shopping malls, seven-star hospitals, convention centres, luxury car showrooms have all come up on what have been rice bowls of the state, and whether in power or out of power, the CPM has donned the garb of a facilitator. Even when the Modi friend Gautam Adani bid for the Vizhinjam port project, the CPM played along with the then ruling UDF government. Similar is the story of the half-built SmartCity, a real estate-cum-information technology park, a joint venture between the state government and the Dubai- based Tecom Holdings.

The party itself runs theme parks, hospitals, has huge real estate assets across the state (mostly in the form of party offices) owns a bouquet of television channels, runs the third largest circulated Malayalam language newspaper that is sustained by clarion call advertisements for a consumerist society as well as crooks and charlatans. By any measure, it is a far cry from the avowed goals of a party inspired by Marx, Lenin and Stalin.

Much like Narendra Modi, Vijayan the administrator, too, swears by development agenda so that when his own party men in a north Kerala hamlet, Keezhattoor, rose in protest against the National Highway Authority’s road project, he set in motion the party’s well-oiled machinery to isolate and ostracise them. The protesting people in Keezhattor, known as ‘vayalkilikal’ (paddy birds) wanted to safeguard the paddy fields that would be taken over for the road project and the CPM’s stand against the people’s struggle recalled how the party lost its political plot in Singur and Nandigram.

Now, in the land of the red flag, the red is more less the colour of KFC and Coca-Cola. Although in power in the state with a comfortable majority, the CPM leadership was extremely jittery when the state went to polls in May 2016. It openly allied with pressure groups playing religious cards, be it Hindu, Muslim or Christian communities, so as to stop the Congress and maximise the number of LDF MLAs.

As the state is being transfixed by sexual abuse charges levelled by an elderly nun and another married woman against a Catholic bishop and four Orthodox priests, the CPM-led government is chary of displeasing the various church establishments by taking swift and mandatory police action against the accused.

This, indeed, is notable, for once—in October 2006—Vijayan as the party state secretary had took on the might of the Roman Catholic Church in the state by lashing out against an influential bishop in north Kerala, describing him as a despicable creature in the wake of the death of a CPM MLA, Mathai Chacko, the son of Christian parents, who was laid to rest in a specially erected grave in the party office. Now no one is despicable, especially with the BJP capturing a significant 15% vote share in the state in the last assembly polls. To please every section of the society, the party has to jettison the leftist agenda and usher in and cover up moneybags as well religious influence peddlers.

Six decades after its tryst with communism, Kerala is finding its rational backbone is close to breaking point, leaving CPM with little choice other than embracing religious motifs and iconography in its election campaign. Notable was the portrayal of Vijayan as the modern-day Arjuna during the 2016 assembly poll campaign and the billboards that come up to wish each community on its religious and cultural high days.

Most recently, a cultural feeder organ of the party, Sanskrit Sangh, had planned to mark the Ramayana month in July with readings from the scared text in order to remain the ‘Hindu’ party and keep BJP at bay. Facing with backlash the party finally disassociated itself from the move.

Still, the CPM is a party of grand gestures and grander illusions. Recently, the LDF government made a disclosure of the assets of its cabinet members. The richest among them is A K Balan, a dalit CPM leader, a former Lok Sabha MP, and the current minister for law and SC/ST welfare in Kerala. The class war has been won, at least partially.


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