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The twain can't meet

The twain can't meet

T V R Shenoy
Rediff on Net
April 29, 2000
Title: The twain can't meet
Author: T V R Shenoy
Publication: Rediff on Net
Date: April 29, 2000

Order. Counter-order. Disorder. That classic trinity sums up Sonia Gandhi's policy vis-à-vis the Congress unit in West Bengal. But we should not allow ourselves to be so distracted by Ghani Khan Choudhury and Signora Gandhi's peculiar shuffle that we forget the rest of the country. I refer specifically to events that are unfolding in the second bastion of the Left Front -- Kerala.

While we speak of the rulers of West Bengal as the Left Front, that is not strictly true; the CPI-M has a majority in the assembly and can govern on its own. (Whether it can sustain that majority in an election after alienating its smaller partners is another matter.)

In Kerala, however, it is a different story as neither the CPI-M nor the Congress can form a ministry without support from smaller parties -- which in turn have raised changing sides to the level of a fine art. And one of the most prominent of these artistes is the Muslim League.

I understand some dramatic developments are due where the Muslim League is concerned. To cut a long story short, the party is considering leaving the Congress-led United Democratic Front to join the Marxist-dominated Left Democratic Front. But such decisions are not made in haste, and I do not expect any outcome before May 15, time enough for the CPI-M politburo to consider the ramifications of the alliance.

The Congress is understandably upset at this turn of events. The Muslim League is, after all, one of the few parties that is openly acknowledged as an ally, not just in Kerala but also in Delhi. On April 20, as soon as she heard the rumours, Sonia Gandhi asked the League's P K Kunhalikutty to tea, with Ghulam Nabi Azad delivering the invitation. The Muslim leader did not respond; and in case somebody had not got the message, he was seen at a press conference in the company of Kerala Chief Minister E K Nayanar.

So much for the Congress. But what does the CPI-M have to say about this turn of events? One of the reasons why it is taking so long to make up its mind is that the party finds itself in a bind. On the one hand, the Marxists are uncomfortably aware that their party is prey to internal conflict, that their government is unpopular, and that there is nobody in Kerala who possesses the stature of a Jyoti Basu to paper over the cracks as the veteran does in West Bengal. The LDF needs all the allies it can get if it wants to win the assembly election due next year.

Twenty-three per cent of the voters in Kerala are Muslims. The Muslim League does not, of course, command all of them, but it has enough of a base to make a substantial difference. The party¹s role becomes doubly important given that the UDF and the LDF are almost evenly matched going by the last Lok Sabha results. (About 10 per cent of the votes were polled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, but that party is not acceptable to either of the two fronts.) In other words, if the Muslim League carries all its votes over to the LDF, then the Marxist-led alliance retains power.

One problem is that the CPI-M once made a virtue of having no truck with "communal forces", specifically including the Muslim League. That decision was made in the days of the late E M S Namboodiripad and cannot be overturned without loss of face. But the lure of power will probably prove stronger than a decade-old principle...

Whatever the embarrassment for the CPI-M, I believe the repercussions of the Muslim League¹s defection will be far graver for Sonia Gandhi. It will increase the bitterness of the anti-Communist element in the Congress, who will put pressure on the party president to take a stronger stand against the Marxists. The West Bengal unit will be emboldened by colleagues from Kerala who share a perception of the CPI-M as the prime enemy. (It was no coincidence that Union Home Minister L K Advani invited Congressmen to join the crusade against the Marxists while visiting Kerala.)

CPI-M general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet and Sonia Gandhi might wish otherwise, but the compulsions of their local units in West Bengal and Kerala are pulling the two parties apart. The mahajot in Calcutta was the first shot; the battle shall begin in earnest if the Muslim League pulls away in Thiruvananthapuram.

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