Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Poll debacle brings CPI-M infighting to the fore

Indo Asian News Service

The national leadership of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) will soon be called upon to adjudicate on the sectarianism in the party's Kerala unit, which has been laid bare by the electoral debacle.

The ruling Left Democratic Front led by the CPI-M, which held 19 of the state's 20 seats in the last Lok Sabha, has only four members in the new house. The CPI-M can derive comfort from the fact that all four are its nominees.

In an attempt to maximise the front's tally, CPI-M state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan had gifted the Muslim-majority Ponnani constituency to an independent candidate of People's Democratic Party (PDP) chairman Abdul Naser Mahdani's choice in return for his support in the remaining constituencies.

The Ponnani gamble failed but Mahdani claims credit for the CPI-M's four wins. The party's own assessment, disclosed after a series of state-level meetings, is that the deal with Mahdani did not yield the expected benefits. It reckons that the propaganda unleashed by the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and hostile media on the PDP link and the Lavalin scandal confused party sympathisers.

The party's association with the PDP may not have precipitated a Hindu backlash against it, but it appears to have helped the UDF by bringing about a consolidation of other Muslim groups behind it.

An accused in the Coimbatore serial bomb blast case, Mahdani was in a Tamil Nadu jail without bail or parole for nearly 10 years. After acquittal in 2007, he returned home a hero and resumed his self-appointed mission of weaning Muslims away from the Muslim League, a long-time UDF constituent.

Many viewed Mahdani's activity with suspicion as his campaign in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid had aroused communal passions in the state in the 1990s. CPI-M leaders sought to dispel their fears by asserting he was a changed man.

To the party's embarrassment, the media carried a series of reports based on leaked contents of statements made to police by some terror suspects about contacts with Mahdani or his wife. Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said the reports were based on old material.

The statements were indeed old, but the police had failed to follow them up. It was only after the elections that the police questioned Mahdani and his wife in the light of these statements. Apparently the police had deliberately delayed the follow-up action.

In the Lok Sabha elections of 2004 and the state assembly elections of 2006, the LDF could take the PDP's support without provoking any controversy. It became a matter of debate this time because it was seen as a prelude to the PDP's entry into the LDF.

The CPI-M has only itself to blame for the adverse impact of the Lavalin case. Pinarayi Vijayan was power minister when the state government gave the Canadian company, SNC Lavalin, a contract for modernisation of hydel projects. When the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) named him an accused, the party said the action was politically motivated. The party's state committee directed the chief minister to advise the governor against sanctioning prosecution by the CBI.

The governor, who can take a decision in the matter independent of the cabinet's advice, has not so far accepted or rejected the CBI's request. The length to which the party has gone to avoid Vijayan's arraignment in court has led to a suspicion that it has something to hide.

While identifying disunity in the LDF and the party as a factor that contributed to the electoral drubbing, the CPI-M has glossed over the causes of the disunity. It has also overlooked the role played by party rebels in its rout.

The CPI-M could pacify the Communist Party of India (CPI), which was angered by the allotment of its Ponnani seat to Mahdani's nominee, by offering Wayanad instead. However, the relationship between the two parties at the grassroots level remained strained, affecting the front's campaign.

The state leadership of the Janata Dal-Secular, which was infuriated by the CPI-M's takeover of its Kozhikode seat, openly backed UDF candidates in many places.

The decisions which annoyed the two LDF constituents were not taken in the normal course. They were taken unilaterally by the CPI-M leadership and imposed on the partners. Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan dropped broad hints about his differences with the party decision on both the seats.

Pinarayi Vijayan, while explaining the party's assessment of the electoral debacle, made an ominous reference to "breach of Leninist principles of party organisation". Although he did not mention Achuthanandan by name, he was clearly alluding to the latter's distancing himself from the party's stand on the PDP and Lavalin issues.

In the party forum Vijayan's supporters reportedly demanded Achuthanandan's resignation. One of them alleged that three years ago Achuthanandan had discussed with his aides a plan to float an alternative party.

The state leadership is likely to place these matters before the politburo, which alone is authorised to deal with charges against Achuthanandan as he is a member of that body. The politburo has to walk a tightrope, knowing that while Vijayan has complete hold on the organisation Achuthanandan commands popular support beyond the party.

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