February 23, 2015 12:04:11 am
At 92, V S Achuthanandan is in no position to build a new communist party. His influence within the CPM has been neutralised to the extent that there was hardly anyone to speak up for him when delegates to the state party conference accused him of factionalism and anti-party sentiment. No senior leader seems to have tried to placate him when he quit the conference midway and left for Thiruvananthapuram.
The CPM central leadership has always tended to give him a long rope and let things die out rather than force any drastic disciplinary action like expulsion from the party. For an outfit that prides itself in the Leninist idea of organisational discipline — in common parlance absolute obedience to party line and leadership — the patience shown to the rebellious old comrade is remarkable.
What is it that has got a cadre party like the CPM to run scared of VS? A powerful section of the state leadership would have preferred to rid the party long ago of VS, the sole survivor among the 32 national council members who walked out of the CPI in 1964 to form the CPM. But closer to elections, the very same leaders seek his endorsement. In 2006, a near mass uprising forced the central leadership to reverse its decision not to field VS in the assembly election. He led the party to victory. Five years later, the party was again forced to renominate him and he nearly won an unprecedented second consecutive term for the Left Front in Kerala. His success as a vote-catcher who can attract non-party voters to the party is such that his detractors are unsure about the party’s ability to win an election if he refuses to lead from the front.
Elections across the country have become leader-centric. But in Kerala, this shift happened in the 1990s, which was a transitional decade in state politics. Beginning the 1980s, the state witnessed high growth rates, a massive expansion of its middle class and a media and communications revolution. The nature of political struggles and mobilisation too changed. Kerala was becoming a service economy and the idea of the Left itself underwent change. The structural changes in the state’s economy broke established social consensus and threw up new political challenges, ranging from caste assertion to struggles situated around local issues. No leader sensed these changes better than VS did. In his 70s then, he shed his image of a party apparatchik and reinvented himself as a leader of the masses. A handful of aides with the help of mass media helped him in this transformation. Even if the party was squeamish about this projection of VS more than the CPM, it didn’t pull him back since the new strategy helped address new challenges outside the domain of conventional working class politics, for instance corruption, environmental concerns and inequalities created by conspicuous consumption.
The CPM’s inadvertent dependency on VS was also the outcome of its limited social base. Muslims and Christians constitute about 45 per cent of Kerala’s population and the party still has only limited influence among them. When the party leadership was focused on building material assets and strengthening the organisation, VS had become the party’s mass face. It was a carefully cultivated image, even a heroic one that drew from his long record as a party activist, agitator and leader. He appealed both to the new Left that saw its politics in issues of development and those in search of a puritanical communist, willing to be constantly at war with those intending to “corrupt” the party.
By the time the new century arrived, contemporaries of VS, including EMS and E K Nayanar, had left the scene. There was no one else in Kerala CPM who could match his record in party or public life. When the younger leaders in the party, including Pinarayi Vijayan, had started to look increasingly jaded in their approach to everyday politics, VS has been constantly manoeuvring, and even manipulating, the media to remain as some sort of a moral compass for a large section of Kerala’s population. It is these numerous faceless admirers who raise flex boards in his name and fight his battles in social media. They don’t seem organised but they may be capable of hurting the party’s electoral exigencies. And, the CPM leadership knows it.
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