The rebel politics and the guerilla-tactics that VS Achuthanandan, former Kerala chief minister and opposition leader, has been playing within the CPM for his mere survival has finally lost its sting.
With the CPM censuring him for the second time in the last three months, this time for his anti-party stand on the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, there is certainly an indication that his crafty brinkmanship within the party is not working any more. The party, that always overlooked its own past practice and constitutional provisions to accommodate the veteran leader for his mass appeal, seems to have lost patience.
Deciding to censure Achuthanandan, the CPM central committee on Sunday asked him to toe the party line on the nuclear plant. The party reiterated its pro-Kundankulam stand and clarified how it was different from its opposition to the Indo-US nuclear accord.
Reportedly, the CPM units from both Kerala and Tamil Nadu strongly criticised Achuthanandan’s support to the anti-Kudankulam agitation. Last month, Achuthanandan, defied his party’s stated policy on the issue and attempted to lead a rally to the plant site, but was stopped at the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border.
In his predictable style of one-upmanship, he subsequently wrote to the party central leadership asking for a change in its stand on Kudankulam, drawing parallels between the anti-plant movement and the party’s stated position on the Indo-US accord as well as the Jaitapur anti-nuclear agitation. CPM leaders from both the states charged that he not only violated discipline, but also embarrassed the party.
For Achuthanandan, his popular-hero image, that once appeared to be a non-depreciating asset, is beginning to erode really fast. Any more indiscriminate use of this resource, which in fact is his political raison detre, will most probably ground the veteran leader who is turning 90 in a few days.
Achuthanandan has been surviving on political theatrics that appealed to popular imagination. He projected himself as a selfless, clean, anti-corrupt, pro-people and anti-establishment hero who took on powerful politicians on issues such as corruption and sex scandals, the most profitable political issues in Kerala.
He was instrumental in sending R Balakrishna Pillai, a former minister and one of the founders of the ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front, to jail after a protracted legal battle. The jail term ruined the latter’s political life. He also took on the present industries minister and an extremely powerful Muslim League leader PK Kunhalikkutty in an alleged sex scandal.
So far, his modus operandi needed no capital and delivered massive returns. Underwritten by his seniority in the party or his government office, he either paratrooped into issues with latent political potential or invented them with the help of a few aides and the media. His flair for caustic platform speeches and casual TV remarks suited his strategy, particularly on issues such as corruption and sex scandals.
He not only took on the opposition, but also the leadership of his party and its policies to project a larger than life image for himself. Within the party, his target has been the state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, once his protege and now his bete noire, and the latter’s coterie of leaders. Vijayan, with cold blooded precision and support from the central leadership, however has long since defused Achuthanandan.
Infuriated by his decline within the party leadership, he resorted to hit-and-run tactics, whenever it suited him, unmindful of the possible damage that it could cause to the party.
The most sensational such attempt in the recent past was his dramatic and unannounced visit to the widow and family of a slain CPM rebel leader TP Chandrasekharan on the day of a crucial bypoll. The highly emotional visuals of the leader with the slain leader’s wife that TV channels played over and over again killed the party’s faint chances in the election.
He was a political leader who survived playing the anti-card for too long; whether it is corruption, development or his own party. But what he failed to realise, or chose to ignore, was that he is a failure if he doesn’t have an “anti” position; and that such contra techniques can, at best, be only of short term term use.
In the long term, playing it again and again, can erode one’s political capital and make one a public nuisance. In fact, several promising politicians who got carried with their public appeal played this game and ruined their careers — whether it was a VP Singh in Delhi or Vaiko in Tamil Nadu. Or an Arvind Kejriwal in future.
But Achuthanandan has been careful. Although his followers, particularly the swelling number of alternative communists, want him to leave the party and lead their formidable movement, the leader is noncommittal. His exit from the party looked imminent with the murder of his protege Chandrasekharan, allegedly by local CPM functionaries; but he chose to accept a censure from the party and sulk than join the anti-CPM tide.
His clean image has also taken hit with allegations of nepotism. There are charges that his son had received out-of-turn favours in his job while a relative was allotted land against rules during his tenure. The latest allegation against the leader is that an information commissioner, appointed during his period as the chief minister, has interfered in the land scam. All the cases are under investigation.
CPM has in fact given him a long rope to survive with his contrarian techniques — he had been censured seven times, but is still within the party. Not any more. Karat and company have made their annoyance adequately public.
Achuthanandan has been teasing his supporters with this unspoken promise and cryptic soundbites on TV; but those who know him closely say that he will never leave the party and stand up for the people who defended him and perished.
The perks of an asset-rich party and the office of the opposition leader are too difficult to part with.