This is a guest post by VIPIN KUMAR CHIRAKKARA
In his address to the media in Thiruvananthapuram after the Left won the mandate in Kerala, Sitaram Yechury announced two positions to be given to two leaders of his own party who had successfully contested the elections from there. One is that of the leader of the legislative party of the CPI-M, or effectively the chief ministership of Kerala. That went to Pinarayi Vijayan. The other one went to V.S. Achuthanandan. He is made the Fidel Castro of Kerala. Yechury, the embattled general secretary of the party who is also known to be closer to VS than to Vijayan, elaborated on the function of the second position since, seemingly, he felt that people could develop doubts about the implication of this honour, if not an anxiety whether the left victory in a single assembly election is turning Kerala into Cuba. He clarified that VS will be an inspirational symbol providing advice and direction to the new government, and added that the veteran leader could not head the government due to his advanced age and poor health. Yechury was, of course, flanked by the state secretary of the party Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and VS himself. The suspense thriller of this election thus had the curtain fall, with an anti-climactic scene of unity.
It would deprive us of a unique opportunity to know another meaning of the mandate if we ignore how Yechury has read it. He interpreted the mandate in the same address to the media that was held in Kerala’s capital. He had a special reading to offer us, indeed different from what we all would ordinarily imagine. His reading is distinguished from ours by its methodology itself. He does not look at the assembly elections with reference to states where elections have taken place now. According to him, elections took place in 820 seats. He took out his cell phone and provided the statistics of the results. The BJP could win only in 64 assembly seats, the Congress in 115 whereas the Left has been victorious in 124. He said that this was “the absolute ground reality”. He assured us, the anxious beings, further that this reality implied no such threat as the return of the saffron. When a journalist mentioned to him the victory of the Trinamool Congress that had won above 210 seats in West Bengal, he said he had in mind only the national parties. So, we are expected to understand if we haven’t yet, that the Left’s is indeed an impressive performance as a national party!
The most significant suspense in the assembly election in Kerala this time was not whether there would be a trend of anti-incumbency against the ruling Congress, so much as who would take over as the chief minister of the state once the Left wins in the election. The CPI-M, which did not announce its choice for the post of CM before the elections most of the times in the past, did not do so this time also. Nevertheless, it used to restrict the probables to a single figure while finalizing the list of candidates. As a departure from that practice, it had fielded both V.S. Achuthanandan, who was the former CM of the state, and Pinarayi Vijayan, who was until recently the secretary of the state committee and who has also been widely perceived as the biggest rival of VS within the party. However, it did not make any commitment about its actual choice for the position of CM; it had only wanted to interpret and represent the presence of both in the electoral fray as a mark of unity in a party that has been subject to perils of inner-party conflicts which had often spilt into public view till recently.
The people who voted four days before Yechury made the announcement are now supposed to accept everything he said in his address. They should believe that the Left government led by Vijayan would require (or even accept) advice and direction, and that too, from VS. They should believe that the decision about the legislative party leader was based on the problems of age and health of VS; that otherwise there was no history to it. However, for such “desirable” ends, the major difficulty would be that the voters’ minds are formed upon constant interruptions by the pasts. One does not need professional historians to recall the last ten years of the politics of Kerala and remind the voters; they do it abundantly themselves. Let us quickly reflect on an important visual field of Malayalam that invokes their collective memory and renders it politically activated.
Voters learn about politics not from books or formal statistics, so much as they comprehend them from newspapers, informal conversations and, importantly, tens of political satires that appear everyday on the various entertainment and news channels of the television. Programmes on political tensions are mostly watched in the same way people watch a comedy show; or a suspense thriller at times. That nevertheless does not deprecate their memory and comprehension of contemporary politics. A cursory reading of the texts of these programmes would demonstrate that they are structured around scenes from unforgettable films, prefixing them (or suffixing, as the need may be) into the portrayals of political scenes of our days. In a state where an extensive popular film culture is in place, the aesthetic form of television satire invokes the enormous resource of cinematic memory and material to juxtapose, dub, and depict the politics and the politicians of the present. This is especially true of the television phenomenon of political satire in Malayalam. As several people comment, the satire did the real work of opposition in the state. Once A.K. Antony had reportedly commented that a mimicry artist would rob him of his CM’s job.
The Left in Kerala indeed had a unique experience in 2011 when it faced the assembly election, after VS remained as chief minister for five years since 2006. The VS leadership had nearly overcome the anti-incumbency, by missing the half-way mark only by two assembly seats. Before moving into its details, we must locate this result in the backdrop of understanding Kerala’s political habit in elections. It is more than four decades since it had re-elected a ruling party. Anti-incumbency is quick to work on its political soil. Mamata Banerjee would have relished such a political orientation: the life-time energies she has expended on an ambitious mission called poribortan could have been saved, given West Bengal were like Kerala. Change of government is a regular election reality in Kerala. For instance, the police have been particularly cautious there not to antagonize, beyond a point, the opponents of the ruling party, because the language of response would always include a caution to the police that the next would be “our” turn. This language is present in some fashion in every part of life. This should, theoretically, reduce outright atrocities and violence by a particular side on the other one although, seen in the other way round, it could pave way for the equal empowerment of criminals on both sides.
More than any merit of administration, what perhaps worked in favour of the Left in 2011 seems to be the anxiety it had produced among what is known as the “official” leadership of the party. Much of the popularity of the VS government rested on the spectaculars of the tension it produced within and against the party which, by all means, began to be seen as one of the most powerful “establishments” in the state. His image was a product of the popular perception that he did not budge before the diktats of his own party. Much more than doing something with his administration, he had definitely, and successfully, managed to leave an impression that his government was rather prevented, by his own party, from implementing bold and purposeful measures. There is adequate evidence for his tension with the party. The central leadership had censored him for more than once when he was CM; he was removed from the politburo of the party in 2009, a position he occupied for 24 years; and it was decided again in 2011 that he should not be fielded in the election for another round. In the election of 2011 when there was no significant anti-government wave and where VS could have returned to office, the party had a few dubious electoral losses in the constituencies of its own strongholds. This tension had only escalated since he remitted the office of the CM. The instances speak for themselves: the welcome he received at the slain Marxist rebel T.P. Chandrashekharan’s place, Onchiyam in 2012, or at the tea-garden site of Munnar, in 2015, from where the women workers on strike had kept all political-party and trade-union leaders away. At times, on crucial issues, he did submit to compromises for practical political needs, and did disappoint many who have been active in social movements. In the end of the day, still, many of his interventions defied the official line of his party and created utter discomfort for it.
Sometime in 2015, the party had “decided” that VS, due to his age, could not function as a full member of its central committee (he was, of course, 92 then), though he himself was yet to make a voluntary statement about his inability, in the way Jyoti Basu did at one point. As his physician and other observers commented, his actual age did not reflect in the conditions of his health, speech and statements. But he was grouped with Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Nirupam Sen who had themselves cited reasons of ill health to retire from the central committee, and subsequently designated as an invited member in it. Throughout in 2015, when the party conducted its conferences at the various levels of its organization, its major anxiety was about its own thinning presence and loss of relevance. After a party congress, a change of leadership, and an organizational plenum (all held in 2015), it still failed to change its agenda for West Bengal. By the election time, the only way out in West Bengal, as it appeared to its inflexible leadership, was to join the Congress and share seats. This was like a survival pang in the moment of utter disaster and little sense. In these circumstances, one section of the central leadership somehow felt that in Kerala there was still a “fighting chance”, and subsequently it proposed that VS, the man at 93, must contest and campaign. There was almost an en-bloc opposition from the state committee of the party in Kerala to this proposal but that opposition was said to be resisted by the general secretary himself.
To approach a disempowered leader for contesting the election and leading the campaign was in itself a confession of panic, but unlike the approach in West Bengal, this turned out to be tactically clever. A section of the party indeed sensed what the active presence of VS could turn around in the election, though the state committee would not acknowledge it. Adhered to dogma, the official wings do not acknowledge a situation in which the party gets subjected to the credibility and charisma of an individual rather than to that of a collective programme. It might like to ignore such factors though it knew the facts. And going by facts and figures, the performance of the Left under the leadership of VS in 2006 was the best in the history of the electoral performance of the Left in the Kerala assembly. It had turned up victorious, winning in 99 constituencies out of 140, as against its 78 in the previous time when it had made it to the government in 1996. Though he was the leader in the election held in 2001 also, he was largely battling against the anti-incumbency faced by the previous Left government in which he was not a part in ministerial capacity. In 1996, he was perceived to be the CM-probable, but he had failed to win his own seat. Besides all, the more immediate example of 2011 was at hand.
With VS in the lead, the party did surge ahead in the campaign-show statewide. There were the biggest gatherings of people to listen to him, just as there was substantial media coverage on every corner VS had travelled to. His campaign was a fascination for foreign journalists who went around with him in the campaign trail. When he was leading “from the front” as Yechury puts it, there was notable enthusiasm in the social media networks. VS seemed to be the only politician on the Left who continues to attract a remarkable section of the youth. Commenting on what was termed as his youth-like vigor in the campaign, Yechury did tell the youth leaders of his party to make his method as their model. The strength may be identical, but the interests of those who rallied to listen to VS these days are incomparable to that of the huge gatherings which used to be a feature of the meetings in which E.M.S. Namboodiripad would turn up to address in the mid-1990s. EMS had virtually relinquished political positions and aspirations within the party at that time, and was essentially revered as a voice of eminence and direction for the party itself, inside and outside. In sharp contrast, VS, still not ready to leave the fray, has been seen as a contestant and a potential actor at the formal position of the government itself. Whether he has still nurtured a selfish parliamentary ambition could be one genuine question, since many politicians do not leave the field even in an advanced age. Yet what matters more in this context appears to be the considerable support and following he was able to gather. And in any case, the results of the election are everybody’s knowledge today.
On the very next day of the announcement of the results, the state committee, wherein VS is not a member but could be present in the capacity of an invited member of the central committee, rapidly took the decision that Vijayan would be its legislative party leader. In that moment, the state committee had its way over the central leadership which had pushed VS into the lead. That was the moment a new Fidel was born! As Yechury described VS as the Fidel Castro of Kerala, reminders were given to him by the media persons present at the venue that VS was nonetheless addressed as the vigorous Che Guevara till the other day. It becomes necessary to comment on this gift named Fidel, since on the very next day it was the most dominant subject of troll in the social media, in the TV satire, and in the comments from the mainstream. The “elevation” of VS to the stature of Fidel, in Yechury’s order of points in the statement, followed mention of the age and health of VS. Yechury, however, is not the first person to call VS the Fidel of Kerala. Three years ago, Prabhat Patnaik, in the manner of the tract that he never abandons, had drawn a parallel between VS and Fidel, saying that it was difficult to find a communist leader who enjoys such mass popularity as VS. After the end of classical communism, he said, the only other figure he could think of was Fidel Castro. How is one supposed to understand the making of this Fidel? Did people really vote for getting a Fidel in the state? Are there a lot of people who miss Fidel and Che so much in Kerala that there should be indigenous incarnations of those figures there?
The parallel with the former Cuban leader, as Yechury loosely attempts to draw it, comes in some definitely wrong ways. Fidel is a leader who had taken voluntary retirement and handed over the reins to his brother and comrade-in-arms Raul Castro. Fidel did not have to face the situation where he was demoted, suspended and dropped from his communist party several times. He did not have to sit next to the general secretary of the party with a seriously disappointed face, as VS had to do this time. As an aged leader, Fidel’s methods and he himself, it seems, have been getting increasingly sidelined in the administrative avenues in Cuba today, as the President Raul facilitated in March 2016 the historic visit of the US President to Havana. The Cuban President has been consistently seeking relaxations in the long-prevailing U.S. economic embargo on Cuba as well as in the rigidities of their bilateral relation. The White House had not promised Havana on whether Obama would pay a visit to Fidel, against the conventions of international diplomatic courtesy; nor did the Cuban government ask for such a visit, even as it idolizes Fidel like the founder of the revolutionary state. No doubt Fidel was a militant revolutionary long ago, but the parallel today is with an aging and ailing Fidel who, people imagine in India, functions like a guiding voice in Cuba. Ironically enough, Fidel is no advisory to his own brother’s communist state: after Obama’s visit to Havana, Fidel wrote a missive in Granma recalling the bitterness of the past, including that of the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, stating finally that Cuba needs nothing from the empire. With these, the only remaining correspondence with Fidel would be, here, that of the biological age. In any case, his name appeared impromptu in our context, only to serve to settle a political conflict in a manner that relegated to rest a politician seen as a tireless election campaigner and an interventionist. That was precisely the instant suspicion developed by those who listened to Yechury’s Fidel story. Yechury and his faction might have turned helpless under organizational compulsions and his party’s poll debacle in West Bengal. And Fidel is the name of their political defeat.
In the arena of political party, we are left with a bunch of Marxists who, unmindful of all political and social structures both inside and outside the country, get lured by images and slogans imported from the endangered communist bloc. Such an iconization is rampant in an imagination affected by subservience of a strange kind, if not of the classical colonial hierarchy. Prabhat Patnaik made it a point to introduce VS, saying that he might not be well-known outside. But in Kerala which has a population of 33 million, added Patnaik, he is the most popular political leader. Patnaik was writing in Baraza, a Columbia blog, of course, of critical collaboration on the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. He knows that Fidel is known to international socialists, and others, while VS is not. That makes Fidel’s name, for Patnaik, the legitimate standard for an elevation of the latter. The authors of the Fidel story in our contexts seem to think that the places where the one-party communist state was successfully established form something like a communist first-world. These authors would expect the communists of other places to import the histories of such communist nations, accept their heroes, and search for equals. This pattern hardly looks different from the confusion that haunted the CPI and its four leaders who had secretly sailed to Moscow in the early fifties to seek advice from Molotov and Stalin about the possible path of a communist revolution in India. It is doubtful if the Cuban party acknowledges Indian communists beyond the level of a general invitation and reception extended to international delegates. The inspiring image of Fidel is, therefore, a phenomenon that is produced upon the romantic idea of a “first-world” exclusive to the horizons of official communist imaginations. If Yechury and Patnaik intend to make the parallel between VS and Fidel on the basis of the influence of the two, and judge the strength of their reach in terms of the population of a territory, the story will be different. Devoid of the “first-world” advantage, Fidel is much less influential, as the tiny island nation’s population is three times smaller than Kerala’s. Romanticized in another way round, if one-third of Kerala had been an “island” nation, were not the Marxists of Malabar making the revolution in the early forties?
In any of the diverse senses in which we address a person as communist, VS had joined a communist organization much before Fidel did. In fact, his biography since his youth, and till now, would be broadly the span of the biography of communist party itself in the regions that formed Kerala. VS was probably a member of the national council of the communist party in India around the time the revolution was happening in the distant Cuba. It is known to us that even in the moment of the coup in 1959 that overthrew the U.S. puppet Fulgencio Batista from Cuba, Fidel and Che were members of what can, at best, be described as a bourgeois party. The Cuban Revolution was Marxist but only retrospectively. Raul Castro was perhaps the only socialist in the guerilla band of Sierra Maestra Mountains in the fifties. The revolutionary state was politically reoriented only in the early 1960s under the aegis of the Soviet Union. Yet, due to the culture of iconization inherent in communist politics in India, the heroes of the Cuban revolution had a distinct symbolic place of their own in the political landscape of Kerala. It was particularly evident in the popularity of the Cuban solidarity campaigns led by communists throughout Kerala in the early 1990s. To the extent such symbols become important, the image of the real Fidel himself has remained inspiring there. Unlike many of us who discover the romance of Che from the bourgeois market today, Che was always present as a symbol in the rural pockets of communist politics in the state from the late sixties. The new incarnations must be, in this sense too, thoroughly redundant. The worship of the canons of international communist movements must be customary within the party, but in the popular imagination such canons have still rarely carved a space above that of the more immediate communist politicians.
An old experience that I recall in this context never convinced me the other way round. A flagship programme of E.K. Nayanar’s Left Front government, the total literacy mission, was in the full-throttle mode in 1990. Though the government guidelines had stated that the mission only needed to count people up to the age of 60 years, we—a group of three instructors that included me and two other comrades—had all our seven learners well above the age of seventy, and six of them were women. The man had never turned up for the classes, despite repeated appeals by the senior branch leaders of the party. We used to conduct our classes in a local reading room owned by the CPI-M’s branch in that place and where the branch committee stored its propaganda resources. Inside the room, a sizeable cut-out of Lenin, painted to look in the style and posture in which the Bolshevik revolutionary addressed his followers, was kept slanting in a corner, although it could be seen in full from any part of the small hall. The collapse of the Soviet Union was still a year away, into the unknown future, at that time. The short-lived coup attempted by the hardliners like Gennady Yanayev was yet to happen, while the troubles churning inside that foreign world of communism were still to be known to us in detail. In short, Soviet socialism had continued to be both the scripture and the reigning reality in communist imaginaries and party propagandas. The aged learners had a fairly good idea that the process was the literacy initiative of the government and, in effect, the communist party. Looking at the cut-out with all genuine seriousness, one of our women learners did ask us if it was the portrait of Nayanar, the chief minister, himself. Being so confident about the existence of international communism in those days, that question did certainly pass like a funny interlude for all of us. I comprehend, increasingly, the implications of such a question after a quarter of a century today.
The CPI-M’s reading that the mandates in these elections did not overall favour the saffron party runs against commonsense. In Kerala itself, the BJP has won a seat for the first time in the history of its elections to legislative assembly and finished second in a record seven places with an enhancement of its vote-share. In the state, the BJP’s vote-share had gone up from a mere 6% in the assembly election of 2011 to 10.33% in the Lok Sabha election of 2014. With its alliance partner BDJS, its vote-share has further moved up to almost 15% in this assembly election. In West Bengal, its vote-share has dwindled but it still made a presence with an unprecedented victory in six assembly constituencies. For the first time in its history, it has gained Assam, and is now forming the government there. By all measures, the elections in five states have once again, alarmingly, turned the political scene back in favour of the BJP. Yechury failed to make his point stand the test: he answered a question about the Left’s “unholy alliance” with the Congress in West Bengal but by dodging that alliance. His answer came with reference to the BJP and the TMC. He said that seven percent of the BJP votes had gone to the TMC and that the real unholiness had existed in the hidden alliance between those two parties. He was contradicting his own argument, which he had made a minute ago, for the unholy alliance should be eventually adding the strength of the TMC to that of the BJP. It should be, at the face of it, difficult to concede this as an alliance since this could also simply mean that the TMC has won over a solid seven percent from the BJP kitty in this election. If we look at the voting in the previous election, we may be persuaded to ask, from where and from whom did the BJP gain that seven percent at that time, so that it could “transfer” them to the TMC in this election. Was it not from the Left? Yet, in spite of such massive vote drain, it shows that the CPI-M will continue to be pompous and blatantly unrealistic in its analysis of the people’s mandate.
The CPI-M may be successful in putting up a show of unity. It might have secretly settled its internal leadership squabbles. It might also be “technically” or “officially” correct to claim that it hadn’t stated, before elections, who would lead its legislative party in Kerala. This might again “technically” help it wash off its hands from the need to address the vast expectations outside its organizational structures. Or, it may even rope in VS himself to endorse its official resolutions. However, it would be still difficult for the party to escape the moral accountability in producing a large impression about the possible leadership, or even keeping the question uncertain or unresolved and therefore open to speculation outside. In the conditions of its less suppressed bitterness with VS, otherwise, it would have at best asked him to lead the campaign instead of making him contest. For certain, this indecision had contributed to the overwhelming verdict the party received in its favour. But it prefers not to note these realities.
What engulfs the Left in India at present is nothing short of a historic decline and decimation, especially with the further disgraceful thrash it has received in West Bengal. In such circumstances, it should have treated a small electoral victory in Kerala as a precious moment, or as an important platform to regenerate itself. It could have turned up transparent and honest about its present choices of leadership. By all reason, no one had expected VS to be chief minister of Kerala for another entire term. To the extent such a point being made, Vijayan faced no serious opposition when the vast supporters of the Left, beyond the members of the party, seemed to have already settled with the knowledge that he would eventually take over the leadership in government. After the elections, the CPI-M—with all its factions—could have really explained the circumstances with humility: it could have addressed the crisis in public and recognized that it was speaking about a crisis that is already familiar to others as well. It could have executed the internal processes in dignified and democratic fashions, adopting a resolution acceptable to popular aspirations. However, the Left party keeps up its habit and marvel at the gravity of its own organizational structure and rigidity of procedures. If there is a moral aspect to the mandate, it is specialised in misreading it by turning it into objective data and exclusive organizational matter. From the perspective of transformation, its bureaucratic conventions and disciplinary protocols look to be tougher than religious rites and customs. The great love for protocols often devours the substance of politics; it ultimately leaves the CPI-M as a party of forms and protocols devoid of substance. From its deliberations to interpretations, it has willfully embraced self-deception and falsehood as its favourite forms of political address.
Vipin Kumar Chirakkara is ICSSR Post-Doc Fellow at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.