Jesus Christ! What are the communists in Kerala up to?
CPI takes on the CPM over the controversial Last Supper ad; the latter strikes back.
It is an unusual coincidence that the state conferences of two communist parties of Kerala, the big CPM and the smaller CPI, are happening at the same time, although in neigbouring districts.
In terms of scale and ostentation, the CPM has literally painted the capital city red; in comparison, the CPI event in Kollam is quite modest.
But more than this coincidence, what is significant is the sparks that flew between the CPI and the CPM leaders prior to the meets. The reason for the war of words was CPM's futile attempt in wooing the Christian minority through a controversial painting that spoofed Da Vinci’s Last Supper. The Church was already up in arms against the CPM for depicting Jesus Christ as a revolutionary in a party exhibition; the Last Supper controversy was the last straw.
CPI state secretary, CK Chandrappan said the use of the painting was a cheap tactic that hurt the sentiments of the Christians. Senior CPM leaders, MA Baby and EP Jayarajan — the former an otherwise soft-spoken (self-styled) cultural icon and the latter a toughie — hit back. Baby said Chandrappan was raking up unnecessary controversy for publicity and recalled how the CPI had supported the emergency for political gains. Jayarajan tried a body blow when he said that Chandrappan behaved like a hallucinated man.
The CPM was the target of intense criticism for depicting Christ as the first revolutionary in an official exhibition of the party on the sidelines of the state conference, and also the Last Supper billboard. The Christian church and the parties of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF), mainly the Congress and the Kerala Congress, pounced on the CPM, charging that they wantonly hurt the religious sentiments of Christians. They also recalled that the CPM leadership had made disparaging remarks against the Church, and hence, this was a calculated move to further ridicule the belief of Christians.
The Christian belt, particularly the hilly districts, are traditional UDF strongholds and hence the UDF leaders are fiercely protective of their interests. The CPM buckled under pressure and looked apologetic. Chandrappan rubbed salt into their wounds by echoing the sentiments of the Christian clergy and UDF.
It was yet another futile attempt by the CPM in wooing the Christians, although the party didn't have a politically astute or ideologically sound long-term strategy. CPM leaders, such as Harkishan Singh Surjeet, had in the past openly admitted the party’s inability to get the support of the Catholic church in the state.
Having made the decision to woo the Christians, however short-term the strategy was, the CPM should have stuck to their guns. As a politically significant community, the CPM is perfectly right in targeting them, but their lack of a long-term plan and appropriate ideological strength failed them.
The CPM's attempt to depict Christ as a liberator of people from unjust economic, social and political conditions is no different from what the liberation theologists propagated in the coastal districts of Kerala in the 1980s, which also was relentlessly targeted by the Catholic Church. Although, liberation theology spread significantly fast among the fisherfolk in the coastal districts, it subsequently fizzled out, possibly due to the 'NGOisation' of its leadership and ranks.
The liberation theologists and the Marxists had a common ground, but on ideology they were not together. The theologists didn’t necessarily believe in alliance with Marxism, but they found Marxist analysis useful to dissect the social reality. At the same time, they were not ready to conflate the poor with the proletariat. Liberation theologists also advocated force to achieve their means. The CPM should have learned from the failure of the liberation theologists and devised its plan.
This is where Chandrappan assumes significance. Even while criticising the CPM for wounding the sentiments of the Christians, he said there was nothing wrong in depicting Christ as a liberator. In the past, he had taken a similar position and referred to how effectively the Catholic Church in Brazil had harmoniously combined Marxist ideology and Christian belief without hurting the sentiments of people.
Despite the gall it showed at the exhibition where Christ was featured as the first among the revolutionaries, with his dates of birth and death, the CPM failed to generate a polemic that could have had a serious political churning in Kerala. Also aligning with the issues of the common people among the Christians (e.g. the nurses strike, which it has proposed to do), it could have broken the barriers of influence of the Church.
CPM is not new to strategically playing the communal card, and it usually gets away with sound ideology. For instance, in 1987 assembly elections, the legendary CPM leader EMS Namboodirippadu was charged with wooing the majoritarian votes when he took an exceptionally strong stand against “communal forces”. Prakash Karat, the present general secretary of the CPM wrote in an essay: “The 1987 assembly elections saw EMS conducting an intensive campaign, posing the basic question before the people of Kerala that caste and communal politics should become an anachronism and should find no place in modern democratic Kerala society. The victory of Left and Democratic Front and the party line in these elections was one of the finest moments in EMS's political career.”
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The party under the EMS attempted a strategy, stuck to it and used it for an electoral success.
The CPM also had played the Muslim card successfully in 1991. This time, the party’s political plank was Saddam Hussein and Iraq invasion. It worked reasonably well in its favour.
In its approach to the Church, particularly the intransigent Catholic Church, the CPM should have fielded an ideologically strong position instead of backing out when shouted back. Here, perhaps what was also missing was the sincerity of purpose. In the case of EMS’s 1987 strategy, it was his ability to “foresee a line of development and analyse it in class terms” that worked. However, for the current leadership, the immediate reason is a by-election (Piravom assembly constituency) where the Christian votes are significant.
Additionally, the current CPM leadership, unfortunately doesn’t have many with sound ideological strength. Most of the theoretically sound leaders have been either purged or have left the party. In addition, while a leader such as EMS saw both the short and long terms, the politically expedient present crop of leaders are unable to go beyond immediate electoral gains.
Coming back to the CPI-CPM spat, perhaps Chandrappan is trying to generate a missing polemic within the communist parties, or more importantly within the CPM. In addition to targeting the CPM for the Christ-fiasco, he also said the present party conference was event management. The CPM had made elaborate designer-arrangements for the conference, largely by its sympathisers who are architects and artists.
But the plunging standards of CPM are best exemplified by a senior leader M Vijayakumar. “There is no cure for jealousy and baldness. Chandrappan has both,” Vijayakumar has reportedly said.
If political analysts expect the new ideology document of the CPM’s central leadership — which is critical of the Chinese model that the party has relied on for long, to be a plank for discussions at the state conference, one can also expect interesting pearls of wisdom from its current crop of leaders.
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