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It's all about the chair

It's all about the chair

Author: T V R Shenoy
Publication: Rediff on Net
Date: June 2, 2000

Five weeks ago I mentioned the possibility of the Muslim League and the CPI-M joining hands in Kerala. The deal is now virtually complete; the state secretariat of the CPI-M has decided, after quite a bit of debate, to welcome the organisation which it once denounced as "communal" and equated with the Bharatiya Janata Party. The state committee shall, I am told, meet on June 5 to make it official.

This step will have repercussions -- the CPI will lose its position as the second largest party in the Left Front, and the Congress will lose a valuable ally just one year before the next assembly poll. Right now, however, what I find most interesting is the rift that the proposed alliance has opened up within the ranks of the CPI-M itself.

You might say that the rift is as much geographical as it is historical. The modern state of Kerala was created in 1956 by the union of two distinct geographical entities -- Travancore-Cochin and the Malabar areas of what used to be Madras. As many as 86 of the 140 Members of the Legislative Assembly are elected from constituencies that used to be in Travancore-Cochin, with only 54 from Malabar.

Nevertheless, it is a curious fact that every CPI-M contender for chief minister -- from the late E M S Namboodaripad to E K Nayanar today -- has been from the Malabar area. Even more surprising -- given the pretensions of the Communists -- all of them have been upper-caste men. (I use the word 'men' advisedly; the CPI-M has never made a woman the chief minister although Kerala has more women than men.) For the record, the foundation of the CPI-M vote is the Ezhava community, 'OBCs' in the casteist lingo of modern Indian politics.

There have been only two 'OBC' leaders from the CPI-M with aspirations to the chief minister's chair - V S Achuthanandan and K R Gowri. The latter, who seemed to offend the CPI-M by being a woman, was expelled from the party. As for the former, he was projected as chief minister in the 1996 assembly poll, but lost from his own constituency due to fighting within his party, which paved the way for Nayanar. Achuthanandan is still a member of the CPI-M politburo; more to the point, he is also the foremost opponent of any tie-up with the Muslim League.

That is not very surprising. The Malabar wing of the party is aware that a tie-up with the Muslim League could lead to the alliance sweeping as many as 48 of the 56 seats from this area. That means the next chief minister will, yet again, be someone from Malabar.

If these calculations hold, the CPI-M's nominee as the next chief minister will probably be Pinarayi Vijayan (who is currently state secretary of the party). This means Achuthanandan's hopes will be dashed yet again, and he is not getting any younger. That is one of the reasons why he is objecting so strenuously to the proposed alliance; Vijayan's chance of getting the top job in Kerala depends quite a lot on the Muslim League's support.

What are Achuthanandan's options? Can he sabotage the party's chances as his rivals did to him? How does it help him come closer to the chief minister's seat if the Congress-dominated United Democratic Front comes to power? Can he convince his colleagues in Kerala to denounce the alliance with the Muslim League even at the eleventh hour? Not really, everyone is aware that the tie-up is essential if the Left Front is to return to the treasury benches.

Achuthanandan need not expect anything from his comrades in the state; his only hope of stopping Vijayan is the Centre. No, I do not mean the National Democratic Alliance ministry in Delhi, but the central leadership of the CPI-M itself. He hopes that support from the Big Brothers in the party headquarters shall be enough to stop Vijayan somehow.

It will be interesting to see how Achuthanandan handles the weak cards that he has been dealt. I am sure, however, that he will not just fold up. The battle between the two wings of the party -- Travancore-Cochin versus Malabar, OBC versus upper-caste -- shall continue. It will be masked, in true Marxist fashion, as a conflict between two ideologies. But do not be fooled by the dialectics -- it is nothing more than a sordid battle for the chief minister's chair.

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