THERE were two conspicuous absentees when leaders of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) in Kerala assembled at Perinthalmanna for the EMS Namboodiripad birth centenary celebrations, with general secretary Prakash Karat in attendance.
Conceived as an occasion to pay formal tribute to Namboodiripad, the tallest leader of his time, the centenary function assumed special significance as it provided Karat an opportunity to set the tone for the crucial state committee meeting at Thiruvananthapuram and central committee and politburo meetings to follow in New Delhi later in the week.
As it happened, Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan and party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, protagonists in the long-playing sectarian drama in the state party, were not present.
Achuthanandan is the CPI-M's senior most leader in the state -- he is the only survivor among the central committee members who had walked out of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) to found the party -- and, arguably, the most popular one too. He was not at Perinthalmanna because the state party leadership did not want him. It had assigned him no task there.
Pinarayi Vijayan is the party's most powerful leader in the state. He had demonstrated his hold over the party machinery in the organisational elections held in advance of last year's party congress.
He was not at Perinthalmanna because he had to rush home, cancelling all public engagements, to attend the funeral of his elder brother. In his absence, Karat performed the tasks assigned to him.
Significantly, Achuthanandan's exclusion from the function came in the wake of strident demands in the party's state secretariat by Vijayan's supporters that the politburo should take action against him for flouting party discipline.
There were reports that ministers loyal to Vijayan had informed the state leadership that they could no longer work with the chief minister. The ministers quickly denied them to obviate possible criticism that the principle of collective responsibility of the council of ministers had been violated.
Achuthanandan's most recent act that angered the state leadership was his refusal to endorse its stand that Governor RS Gavai had acted unconstitutionally in granting permission to the Central Bureau of Investigation to prosecute Vijayan in the Lavalin case.
In an interaction with the media, Achuthanandan not only refused to endorse the party's criticism of the governor but justified his action by pointing out that the Supreme Court has ruled that governors can use discretion in such matters and other state governors, too, have acted in like manner.
The state committee, in a statement, diluted its criticism of the governor's action, apparently to stay within the bounds set by the politburo, which only said it was "unfortunate." It also dropped the oft-repeated declaration that the party would fight the Lavalin case politically. Now that the matter was going to the court, the party would fight it legally, the statement said.
The softer tone signified a tactical move. The party continued with demonstrations against the governor. Addressing one such demonstration, Left Democratic Front (LDF) convener Vaikom Viswan, who is a central committee member, said that anyone who remained impassive on the Lavalin issue was an enemy of the party.
Although no names were mentioned, the attack appeared to be directed against Achuthanandan, who has refused to toe the party line, and the LDF constituents, who have kept away from the public campaign against the governor.
The state committees of the CPI and the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the only other leftist parties in the LDF, while criticising the governor for rejecting the ministry's advice on the prosecution issue, dissociated themselves from the CPI-M stand that the Lavalin case was politically motivated.
The demand for Achuthanandan's removal from chief minister's post is expected to be raised by Vijayan's supporters at the state committee meeting which Karat is due to attend.
The next act of the sectarian drama will be enacted in the politburo, of which both Achuthanandan and Vijayan are members. At its meeting, scheduled for Friday, the majority faction's demand that Achuthanandan must step down as chief minister or be removed is sure to come up. Achuthanandan is expected to demand that Vijayan, who is facing a corruption charge, must step down from the post of party secretary or be removed.
Karat has said the party will move forward, making "corrections" in the government and the organisation in the light of the electoral defeat. The crucial question is whether the party can sacrifice either or both of the feuding leaders.