Kerala’s CPI(M) Govt and the Holes in the Alternative Model
Illustration showing Kerala map and CPI(M) symbol on a noose, used for representational purposes.
Illustration showing Kerala map and CPI(M) symbol on a noose, used for representational purposes.(Photo: The Quint)

Kerala’s CPI(M) Govt and the Holes in the Alternative Model

Thankamma, the wife of Madhavan, who was a driver with the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC), recently took her own life after not receiving her family pension. The suicide has intensified the strike being carried out by KSRTC pensioners against what they call the Left-front government’s apathy towards them.

They say that after the CPI(M) government came to power in May 2016, six of their former colleagues were left with no option but to commit suicide, after not receiving their pensions.

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The crisis deepened after the government became reluctant to support the loss-making public sector unit, throwing the lives of thousands of pensioners into disarray. Supporting and reviving the KSRTC was one of the poll promises made by the Left-front leaders during their election campaign.

If Thankamma took her life because of a ‘non-interventionist’ state, Dalit youth Vinayakan was driven to suicide because of State excesses. In July 2017, Vinayakan and a friend were picked up by the police while talking to a girl by the roadside.

What started as a case of the police playing ‘moral police’ took a sinister turn. The police allegedly brutalised the boys and tried to coerce them into confessing in a long-pending theft case. Despite the torture, the boys refused.

Shattered by the humiliation, Vinayakan committed suicide. The police officers allegedly involved are still in service after ‘minor punishment’. Ending custodial torture was one of the main planks of the CPI(M) during their election campaign.

Teenager Jishnu Prannoy was found hanging at Nehru College of Engineering and Research, a private college in Thrissur, on 6 January 2017, and till date, his death remains shrouded in mystery. His mother had to resort to a dharna in front of the DGP’s office after she was convinced that the police was not investigating the matter seriously.

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Kerala CM’s Uncharitable Approach

However, the Home Department and the police gave short shrift to her complaints. Mahija’s letter to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan demanding proper investigation also fell upon deaf ears. The CM’s uncharitable approach created a huge media uproar which forced the government to come out with an explanation in the newspapers, defending the steps taken by the government in the case.

The police took 38 days to file an FIR against the college authorities for abetment of suicide. Later, the Supreme Court directed the CBI to investigate the case. The government’s handling of the case was criticised even by traditional Left supporters.

The stories of Thankamma, Vinayakan, and Mahija are manifestations of how the Left rhetoric regarding police policy has fallen flat. The political will, which one would have expected from a Left government, is conspicuous by its absence in Kerala.

It’s not just the police policy or mischief committed by some officers that is ailing the government. Its policies towards Dalits, sexual minorities and political dissent have all come under severe criticism from civil society.

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Left Needs to Solve ‘Caste Conundrum’

Victims of indiscriminate spraying of Endosulfan (an insecticide) in Kasargod district of Kerala continue to be on the warpath against the government for not giving them compensation.

The Left government has so far not implemented a Supreme Court order issued in January 2017 to give Rs 5 lakh as compensation to all the victims. Left parties, which had campaigned for the victims while they were in Opposition, now cite financial and other technical reasons to circumvent the court’s order.

Moreover, the mainstream Left’s approach towards caste has always been problematic. Their ‘mechanical’ understanding of caste as a superstructure of society has drawn much flak earlier.

Although the mainstream Left has not solved the caste conundrum, CPI(M) central leadership has been trying to forge alliance with Dalit movements.

But in Kerala, CPI(M) leadership seems to be least bothered about this.

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Soft Approach Towards Saffron

The administration’s attitude towards Dalits protesting against the Nair Service Society’s ‘caste wall’ enclosing common land in Kochi’s Vadayambadi speaks volumes about how the CPI(M) approaches caste discrimination. The government, rather than demolishing the structure, chose to unleash police force against the protesting Dalits.

Activists who had gathered at Vadayambadi to protest against the ‘caste wall’ were beaten up, arrested, and verbally abused (with casteist slurs) by some of the officers. Despite the protests, the political leadership has not commented against the police’s highhandedness.

While the RSS was only testing the waters when it suggested to end caste-based reservation, the Kerala government moved many steps ahead when it announced that it will adopt economic reservation.

Critics say the CPI(M)’s understanding of reservation as a method for poverty alleviation is the result of the flawed perception of how the caste system operates in the country.

There have also been allegations against the government from some quarters for its alleged ‘softness’ towards saffron atrocities. The case of a ‘ghar wapsi’ centre camouflaged as a yoga centre at Thrippunithura, Kochi, is a classic example of the CPI(M) government’s approach towards Hindutva’s machinations in Kerala.

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On 28 September 2017, 28-year-old Swetha Haridasan filed an affidavit before the Kerala High Court in which she described the mental and physical torture she was subjected to at the Sivaskthi Yogavidya Kendram in Kerala’s Ernakulam district. She said she was confined to the yoga centre in order to make her leave her Christian husband.

A few days later, another woman from Kannur, 24-year-old Sruthi Meledath, approached the high court saying that she was tortured for 58 days at a yoga centre to force her to leave her husband Anees Hameed.

The government’s passive approach towards these allegations has drawn heavy criticism. The irony lies in the fact that all of this is happening amid the Sangh Parivar’s violence against the CPI(M) cadres, especially in the northern districts.

Neoliberalism Over Marxism

The CPI(M), which cries itself hoarse against neoliberalism elsewhere in the country, largely follows the same narrative of development. The Vizhinjam port project in Trivandrum bears testimony to this.

The CPI(M) had minced no words when criticising the previous Congress government for signing an agreement with the Adani Group to develop the Vizhinjam port.However, after coming to power, the CPI (M) decided to go ahead with the project.

After the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) found that the MoU signed with the group is not in the interest of the state, choruses against the project gained momentum within the party.

The Rot Within

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s penchant for development is well known. The pragmatist politician that he is, he has no qualms in declaring that those who oppose development projects would be dealt with the ‘goonda act’. He seems to be unmoved by the lessons that Singur and Nandigram have taught mainstream Marxists.

When fishermen and women living near Puthuvype beach protested against an LPG plant, Vijayan proved that he meant what he said — women and children were brutally lathi-charged, prompting the Human Rights Commission to intervene.

The latest controversy in Kerala regarding an alleged financial fraud involving the son of CPI(M) State Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, has, after a brief period, brought to the fore the issue of the relationship some of the leaders allegedly maintain with Malayali billionaires in Gulf countries.

The party leadership has never been able to explain how some of their children got lucrative jobs in Gulf countries in companies owned by these billionaires, even when they don’t have exemplary educational qualifications. All this, while the CPI(M) leaders leave no stone unturned to lash out against crony capitalists and their influence in the government.

An Entrenched Resistance to Change

The mainstream Left in general, and the CPI(M) in particular, does not miss an opportunity to wax eloquent on alternative steps to the policies pursued by the bourgeois parties. But converting policy rhetoric into practice has never been its forte, as was exemplified in West Bengal in the last decade.

Though tonnes of papers have been written by party intellectuals about the need to learn lessons from Bengal, the Kerala government under Pinarayi Vijayan seems unmoved.

The CPI(M) leadership recently decided through voting not to have any electoral understanding with the Congress in its fight against Hindutva. The party has decided to fight Hindutva by projecting an alternative against communalism and neoliberalism. But down south, the only major hub of the mainstream Left, the CPI(M) government is least bothered to tread this alternative path.

The bureaucratic structure of the party makes it the same as any other mainstream political party which strive to maintain the status quo. This has not prevented the party from flaunting what they call their revolutionary character as and when they deem it necessary.

Is this the ‘Kerala model’ which the central leadership of the CPI(M) wants to replicate at the Centre to fight the ‘deadly combination’ of Hindutva and neoliberalism ?

Going by the enormous influence that the Kerala unit of the CPI(M) wields in the higher body of the party, the issue is unlikely to be addressed.

(The writer is an independent journalist based in Kochi. He can be reached @NKBhoopesh . This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)