THE die is cast. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) has finally taken a major step to rid its Kerala unit of the canker of sectarianism which has spread through its vitals. Given the unilateral character of the action, it is unlikely to yield the desired results.
All of Kerala waited with bated breath during the weekend as the 85-member party central committee, called at short notice, deliberated on the course of action proposed by the 15-member politburo, which could not come to an agreed conclusion the previous weekend.
People sat glued before television sets as the news channels organised live discussions on the issue on Saturday and on Sunday on the basis of unsubstantiated reports that emerged from time to time about the course of the deliberations at the party headquarters in New Delhi.
Fax messages supporting one leader or the other flowed into the party office from all over Kerala and from the Gulf states while the meeting was in progress.
The party has been afflicted by sectarianism since long. Matters came to a head at the 2005 conference at Malappuram, where the factions led by state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan and Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan (who was leader of the opposition at the time) clashed, ignoring General Secretary Prakash Karat's plea to accept an agreed list of candidates for the state committee.
The hesitant steps the national leadership took during the past five years failed to check sectarianism. The party's disastrous performance in the Lok Sabha elections forced it to acknowledge that the malaise that originated at the top had spread to the lower limbs.
The official assessment was that Achuthanandan's public voicing of opinions different from those of the party on issues like the Lavalin case, in which Pinarayi Vijayan figures as an accused, and the electoral pact with Abdul Naser Mahdani's People's Democratic Party, had contributed to the poll debacle.
It was this perception that prompted the leadership to recommend to the central committee to remove Achuthanandan from the politburo.
Although some members wanted action to be taken against Vijayan also, the committee eventually accepted the recommendation without any change.
The central committee's decision, undoubtedly, is a victory for Vijayan, since the state committee, which is under his control, was seeking action against Achuthanandan for breach of discipline.
But the Vijayan faction's sense of triumph is tinged by disappointment over the national leadership's refusal to concede its demand for Achuthanandan's removal from the post of chief minister. The state committee reportedly made the demand in two resolutions sent to the Politburo.
Demotion from politburo to central committee is a setback that Achuthanandan, who has invited disciplinary action in the past too, can take in his stride. For him, the greater blow is the national leadership's rejection of his contention that there was corruption in the Lavalin deal. It rejected his demand that Pinarayi Vijayan, as an accused in a corruption case, must be told to step down from the post of state secretary.
The politburo gave Pinarayi Vijayan a clean chit. It reiterated the earlier decision that the Lavalin case was politically motivated and that Vijayan was not guilty of corruption.
On earlier occasions the national leadership had taken care to convey the impression that it was holding the scales even between the two faction leaders. This approach was particularly evident when both Achuthanandan and Vijayan were suspended from the politburo for several months for indulging in a public spat.
On a superficial view, the national leadership may appear to maintain parity even now inasmuch as Achuthanandan and Vijayan have been allowed to remain chief minister and party secretary respectively.
However, considering the bureaucratic character of the communist machinery, demotion within the party further limits Achuthanandan's functional autonomy as chief minister, which was already severely circumscribed by the state party.
Since Achuthanandan values his image as a crusader against corruption, built up over the years, and Pinarayi Vijayan is unlikely to lessen the control he exercises over the government through his acolytes in the cabinet, the national leadership's fond hope that the two factions will work together is unlikely to materialise.
The spontaneous demonstrations at a few places and the opinions voiced by people in straw polls conducted by television channels are indicative of a surge in support for Achuthanandan in the wake of the disciplinary action against him.
This does not augur well for the CPI-M which has to face panchayats elections next year and Assembly elections the year after.