In the Kerala Assembly elections, the stakes are clearly the highest for the CPM. A defeat for the CPM in Kerala would mean that the party would be left to rule only Tripura, the state that is roughly the size of Maharashtra’s Nanded district in area and population.
But luckily for the party, the odds are stacked in its favour, and even the pre-poll surveys place it in the lead. Yet there are two things that can rock the CPM’s seemingly smooth-sailing boat in the 16 May election.
One: The BJP, which is fashioning itself as a new force in Kerala, may split the votes between the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in a way that can throw up a nasty surprise. Some pollsters predict only a narrow victory for the LDF, but narrow victories can just as easily turn into narrow defeats in the very last minute.
Two: The CPM can rock its own boat. One of the surest ways the party can do that is by naming their chief ministerial candidate.
It’s not uncommon for parties not to name Chief Ministers before elections — even the Congress hasn’t done it in Kerala — but the CPM’s case is a particularly awkward one. It’s not because the party has no potential Chief Ministers. It’s only because it has two, who are fire-breathing enemies: former Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, popularly known as VS, and former state secretary of the party Pinarayi Vijayan.
Disclosing which one of them would rule Kerala in case of an LDF victory — or even just dropping a gentle hint as to who it might be — could amount to committing instant political hara-kiri. It would trigger a clash between VS and Vijayan that would make the war between Conan the Barbarian and Thulsa Doom look like a toddy shop brawl in Kerala. And that, in turn, could possibly mean for the party a beating in the election.
Achuthanandan, 93, and Vijayan, 72, are no ordinary adversaries. They not only can’t see eye to eye, they even can’t breathe the same air in the same room for any significant amount of time. There is not one name they haven’t called each other in Malayalam or English, privately or publicly.
For the local media, the announcement that both VS and Vijayan would contest next month’s polls was in itself a story as big as the announcement of elections by the Election Commission. There had been speculation whether VS would throw in the towel this time because of his advancing age and, even if he wanted to, whether his enemy would let him.
Clearly, the central leadership wised up after what happened in 2006 and 2011. In 2006, the party’s politburo refused to let Achuthanandan contest but, after his supporters took out protest marches and raised hell, declared him a candidate. And he went on to be the Chief Minister. In 2011, it was the state unit, controlled by Vijayan, which denied him a ticket but the politburo gave him one.
Many leaders of the CPM as well as its allies believe that, but for the feud between the two leaders, the Left would have won the 2011 election, which it narrowly lost by four seats and 0.89 percent votes.
In a way, the cockfight in Kerala is a proxy war between CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury and his predecessor Prakash Karat. Achuthanandan is close to Yechury and his “Bengal lobby” in the CPM, while Vijayan has been an open supporter of Karat and the “Kerala lobby”. In fact, Vijayan and Karat had together tried hard last year to stop Yechury’s election as the general secretary — they wanted their man Ramachandran Pillai of Kerala for the job — but backed out in the last minute.
Achuthanandan was the only Kerala leader who supported the Karat faction’s clamour to ally with the Congress in the ongoing West Bengal polls with an eye on getting the Bengal lobby’s support for his candidature as the CM.
Now Yechury wants peace. He certainly doesn’t want the CPM to lose Kerala and reduce itself to a “Tripura party” under his leadership. Under Karat, who was the General Secretary before Yechury for 10 years, the party’s strength in Lok Sabha had plummeted from 43 members in 2005 to 15 in 2009 and just nine in 2014, and Yechury is bent upon doing better than that.
So he flew to Kerala well in time last month and stopped Vijayan from staging a coup against VS. He made sure that VS would be a candidate along with Vijayan.
Yechury has enforced ceasefire for now, but keeping the two warring men under check for long is not an easy job. The two are made of different stuff. Vijayan is a man of the “party” and VS, a man of the people. As state secretary for 16 years over four terms between 1998 and 2015, Vijayan established a pincer-like grip on most of the party’s 14 district units.
VS has little control over party machinery but, over the years, he managed to turn himself into a darling of the people, so much so that his occasional defiance of the central leadership in the past had to be tolerated by a party that insists on Gestapo-type discipline.
During the course of his long career, VS fought hard for land reforms and against land encroachments. Fighting as a lone soldier, he became responsible for former UDF minister R Balakrishna Pillai going to jail in an irrigation project scam in 2011. He waged another long war to fix former Congress Chief Minister K Karunakaran in the Palmolein import scam. But Achuthanandan’s crusade did not quite receive a standing ovation from Vijayan, especially when the former took up cudgels against the latter’s Lavalin hydro-electric power projects scam, in which he was an alleged culprit when he was a power minister between 1996 and 1998.
The case dragged on and, in 2009, when Achuthanandan was the Chief Minister, he spoke up on the involvement of Vijayan, who was then the State Secretary, in the scam. Karat, who was then the General Secretary, took the stand that there was nothing to prove Vijayan’s guilt. And seeing the Chief Minister’s utterances against a senior party colleague as “anti-party” activity, Karat sacked him from the politburo.
All this only bolstered Achuthanandan’s status as Kerala’s most loved, living politician. In the Mathrubhumi-Axis My India pre-poll survey, 35 percent of the people supported Achuthanandan for the Chief Minister’s post, 34 percent plumped for UDF’s Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, while only 12 percent backed Vijayan.
So who will it be? VS or Vijayan? That’s what Left supporters ask everywhere in Kerala. That’s the question not only the CPM workers, but even those of other LDF parties like the CPI face when they drop by at a chai adda or a voter’s home.
And that’s the question Sitaram Yechury hates to answer.