AS the election process in the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) moves to the final phase, it is clear that the central leadership's effort to contain sectarianism in the Kerala unit has not succeeded fully. However, the faction feud caused disruption only at a few places.
The Kerala party, which had 341,006 members last year, is the CPI-M's largest unit. The West Bengal party, which has been in power continuously from 1977, had only 290,164 members at the time. Bengal's population is two and a half times that of Kerala.
The conferences held at various levels in advance of the triennial party congress provide CPI-M members the opportunity to express their views on the organisation's working and elect new office-bearers.
As the party's 26,000 units decorated their localities with red banners and festoons for the meetings, Kerala had a festive air. Last week district-level conferences began, raising the noise level. The State conference will be held at Kottayam in February.
The party has been in the grip of sectarianism for several years. Last May, the Politburo suspended both State party Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan and Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, who lead the rival factions, for feuding in public. Before going into conference mode, the Politburo revoked their suspension. It also issued a set of election guidelines to contain sectarianism. They provided for immediate intervention to deal with any manifestation of factionalism. CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat said the Politburo would intervene if the guidelines were not followed.
The media took keen interest in the electoral process. By all accounts, the leadership of the organisational and governmental wings came up for severe criticism from supporters of the rival faction at the lower level conferences.
Thanks to the party's tradition of democratic centralism, delegates usually accept officially circulated lists of office-bearers. However, contested elections are not unknown. This time there were contests at many places. There have been reports that the factions either captured or retained control of committees at different levels. However, there is nothing to indicate whether there has been a change in their relative strength.
The district level conferences are spread over a long period. When all 14 district meets are over, the stage will be set for the State conference. The final line-up will be available only then.
Pinarayi Vijayan said last week that the guidelines had helped contain factionalism. But the spate of complaints that flowed to the central leadership shows that members divided on factional lines even at the lowest levels. Charges levelled by each side against the other include abduction of delegates, use of money power and resort to blackmail tactics.
The reasons why the guidelines have not been very effective are not difficult to fathom. When the higher body, which is required to supervise the proceedings, is affected by factionalism, it cannot be expected to act decisively against sectarianism at the lower level.
There are definite limits to the Politburo's ability to intervene promptly at the lower levels. Now that the process has reached the district level, the State committee is directly in the picture as the sole supervisory body. Also, it is possible for the Politburo to keep a close watch on developments and step in if the guidelines are not followed scrupulously.
Aware of this, the leaders of the two factions, which fought bitterly at the lower levels, are reportedly demonstrating willingness to avoid direct conflicts, and accommodate each other instead. Pinarayi Vijayan, who was present at the Kottayam district conference, strove hard to promote unanimous election. Some observers, however, thought he did so to prevent the rival faction taking advantage of the differences between two of his local supporters.
The two factions had gone to the last State conference, held at Malappuram, determined to fight it out. Prakash Karat appealed to them to elect the State committee without a contest, but they ignored his plea. In the contest that followed, the Pinarayi Vijayan faction emerged victorious.
This time, too, the electoral process began amid indications that the two factions are determined to fight it out. However, the way Karat has handled the sectarian issue in recent times suggests that, unlike last time, he may now be willing to assert the authority of the central leadership and prevent a fight to the finish. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 3, 2007.