The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) politburo meets July 5-6 to grapple with the worrying problem of sectarianism in its Kerala unit. Few political observers believe it is in a position to act decisively.
Ranged on either side of the divide are two politburo members - party state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, 65, who has the organizational machinery in his grip, and Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan, 85, the only living party man from the state who was among the 32 members who walked out of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India in 1964 to found the breakaway party.
Achuthanandan, who was state secretary from 1980 to 1992, played a big role in Vijayan's elevation to that post in 1998. But they quickly parted ways.
Early on, it looked as though Vijayan was trying to modernize the party to bring it in tune with the times and Achuthanandan was trying to hold it back in the Stalinist path. Soon, however, their public images changed.
When the Congress-led United Democratic Front was in power, Achuthanandan, as Leader of the Opposition, travelled to the remotest corners of the state and identified himself with popular causes, earning in the process the image of a man of the masses. Vijayan, who tightened his hold on the party and mobilized resources for the party's media and entertainment enterprises by tapping rich men of dubious background, came to be identified with the wrong kind of change.
The party's national leadership has been seized of the sectarian problem since 2005 when the two sides went in for a showdown, rejecting General Secretary Prakash Karat's plea to approve an agreed list of state committee members. The measures it has taken to put down sectarianism have not yielded results, mainly because it has been treating the symptoms, not the malady.
The state party leadership did not want Achuthanandan to contest the assembly elections but the politburo, responding to public demonstrations of support to him, allowed him to contest and become chief minister. The state party then effectively reined him in by packing the cabinet with Vijayan loyalists. With the politburo's help, it ensured that the chief minister did not keep the sensitive portfolios of home affairs and vigilance.
The national leadership has been at pains to give the impression that it holds the scales even between the feuding leaders. As they indulged in a public spat, it suspended both from the powerful politburo but allowed them to stay in their respective posts. The suspensions were withdrawn after a few months.
As the situation deteriorated, the national leadership adopted a policy of procrastination. There was no action on Achuthanandan's repeated requests for a politburo meeting to discuss state party affairs. Complaints from the two factions levelling charges against each other piled up at the party's headquarters.
After the party's disastrous performance in the Lok Sabha elections the national leadership could no longer look the other way. However, its election review was marked by self-righteousness rather than self-criticism. The Central Committee refused to acknowledge the damage caused by the party's brazen attempt of shield Vijayan from prosecution in the Lavalin case and by the alliance with Abdul Naser Mahdani's People's Democratic Party, which is widely seen as a communal outfit. It attributed the electoral debacle simplistically to the confusion caused in the public mind on these issues by the opposition, hostile media and a section within the party.
The politburo has before it two demands - one from the Vijayan faction seeking Achuthanandan's ouster from the chief minister's post and the other from the Achuthanandan faction for Vijayan's removal from the state secretary's post pending his clearance by the judiciary in the corruption case. Theoretically, it can accept either or both of these demands.
The national leadership is in the unenviable position of being damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. In taking a decision, it has to consider how its action will affect the Kerala party, which is its largest unit. If Achuthanandan is ousted, it will not be able to find a chief minister with comparable popular appeal. If Pinarayi is removed, it will be hard put to find an equally competent successor.
Party documents have revealed that about 10 percent of the full members and close to 25 percent of the candidate members in the state have been dropping out each year. Large-scale desertions, even when the party is in power, suggests deep disillusionment among the rank and file.
Despite a high dropout rate, the party continued to grow until 2006 thanks to the onrush of new entrants. However, in 2007, the last year for which figures are available, there was a net drop in membership. It fell from 341,006 in the previous year to 336,644.