Kerala CPM Must Be Wary Of Communalism; It May End Up Helping BJP
Any strategy that is ultimately beneficial to the BJP will simultaneously be catastrophic to every other party.”
Pinarayi Vijayan’s controversial Facebook post from the other day, where he accused the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) of assuming the leadership of the Congress, has set Kerala on a dangerous course of polarisation in the lead-up to the assembly election early 2021.
The social media post of the Kerala Chief Minister was not a one-off case. It is very much part of a broad strategy adopted by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPIM) of using dog whistles to bolster its prospects among its Hindu base and the much-coveted Christian vote, which saw a huge swung away from the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the just-concluded local body elections.
BJP’s Attempts To Win Over Majority Community In Kerala
To understand the significance of the chief minister’s statement, it is important to recount where Kerala politics stands today. The BJP’s desperate attempts to win over the majority community, even after the Sabarimala agitation, haven’t made much headway. On the other hand, the Christian community, mostly the Syrian Christians (or Saint Thomas Christians), have been upset with their perceived marginalisation within the Congress-led UDF.
And with the Left Democratic Front (LDF)’s unexpected gains in the local body elections, against the run of play, the CPI (M) reckons keeping the communal pot boiling presents the party with an opportunity to buck the state’s four decade-old trend of voting out incumbents.
Back in October, the then CPI (M) State Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan made a comment that stood out for its communal overtones: that the UDF was now being led by the trio of MM Hassan, PK Kunhalikutty (of the IUML) and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) Ameer, in the wake of the UDF entering into a tactical regional alliance with the JeI. While Balakrishnan or Pinarayi Vijayan wouldn’t own up to the CPI (M)’s own overt and covert dalliances in the past with the JeI and the PDP led by Abdul Nazar Madhany, they were quick to dub the JeI an ‘extremist organisation’ as soon as it switched loyalties. A Vijayaraghavan, the LDF Convenor, who is now doubling up as the CPI (M) State Secretary, has also not been too far behind when it comes to making polarising statements.
CPM’s Strategy Of Using ‘Dog Whistles’
This is not to suggest that the Congress or the UDF hasn’t played the communal card to their advantage on occasions. However, there is one major difference. For instance, at the peak of the Sabarimala agitation spearheaded by the BJP and the RSS, the Congress was accused of ‘soft-Hindutva’, on account of the party’s position that it ‘stood with the devotees’.
But it has to be understood that the UDF, especially on account of its make-up, has always catered to the regressive elements of every community uniformly, yet, they don’t make tall claims unlike, say, the CPI (M), which has always sought to claim the moral high ground on secularism.
A lot of it has to do with the CPI (M)’s ability to speak with a forked tongue, as evident in the party’s duplicitous stand on the Supreme Court order in the Malankara Church stand-off. Unlike on the Sabarimala issue, when Pinarayi Vijayan declared that the court order will be executed pronto, the same administration has gone slow on the implementation of the Supreme Court order on the church and, the party reaped the rewards for it in the local body polls. The LDF won big in the Jacobite centres of Piravom, Kothamangalam, Mulanthuruthy and Manarkad.
As for the strategy of using dog whistles, if the CPI (M) adopts a similar method in the assembly election, it will not be the first time the party would go down that path. Back in the mid-eighties, following the Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case, the CPI (M) led by EMS Namboodiripad had undertaken a similar strategy to consolidate the majority community. And this had paid off so well for the LDF that it came to power without the support of either the IUML or the Kerala Congress factions.
The ‘majority card’ was also employed during the previous Oommen Chandy government-led UDF government, when Leader of Opposition VS Achuthanandan dubbed it a ‘government dominated by minority leaders’.
Catholic Church At Loggerheads With Muslim League — What This Signifies In Kerala Politics
What Pinarayi Vijayan is attempting to pull off now is something more complex. Different sections of Muslims in Kerala, who are particularly dominant in north Kerala (Malabar), have clear voting preferences. Till 1989, when the Sunni organisation Samastha Kerala Jamiat-ul-Ulema split into the EK and AP factions, after the two prominent leaders of the organisation then, EK Aboobacker Musliyar and Kanthapuram AP Aboobacker Musliyar, the IUML commanded the support of Kerala’s majority Sunni Muslims. Post the split, however, the numerically-weaker AP faction veered towards the CPI (M), and it has remained that way ever since.
In Kerala, the UDF has traditionally attracted minority votes, and the LDF, the Hindu votes. That long-time equation has undergone a change in the recent local body polls on account on the Catholic Church’s leadership’s antipathy towards the IUML and the growing Islamophobia among the Christian community.
Of late, the leadership of the Catholic Church has been at loggerheads with the Muslim League and has been seething at the outfit’s growing bargaining power within the UDF. This has led to a situation where the Muslims and Christians – who generally voted as one bloc for the UDF — have been pulling in different directions.
Can CPM Retain Power By Splitting Up The UDF Vote Bank?
There have been many issues altering the time-tested community equations within the UDF — ranging from reservations for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), the IUML taking a position on Turkey’s Hagia Sophia reconversion and pushing the UDF for an alliance with the JeI-promoted Welfare Party, the ouster of the Syrian Christian-dominated Jose K Mani faction of the Kerala Congress (M) and the absence of Christians in leadership positions in the Congress.
The CPI (M) has sensed an opening to drive a wedge between the Muslim League and the Christian community to split the UDF base and turn it into an advantage for the LDF in the ensuing assembly elections.
While the Marxist party continues to wield significant clout among the AP faction of Sunnis, it expects that by splitting the UDF vote bank and mopping up more Christian and Hindu votes, it can retain power in Kerala.
The CPI (M) has short-term and long-term goals to opt for such a strategy. The party is primarily concerned with ensuring a comeback for its undisputed leader in Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, whose political career will most likely come to an end in the event of the LDF losing power.
The long-term strategy of the CPI (M) is that once the UDF is weakened and the BJP grows at its expense, it can also wean away the Muslim League from the UDF as that party would have nowhere else to go.
But, just as Mamata Banerjee, who is currently feeling the heat in West Bengal after destroying the Left base there has realised by now, any strategy that is ultimately beneficial to the BJP will also be catastrophic to every other party as well. The BJP has long been trying to mainstream communal politics in Kerala without much success. But once the spectre of communalism is unleashed, it will be tough to bottle the genie and the CPI (M) should well be aware of that.
(Anand Kochukudy is a Kerala-based journalist and former editor of The Kochi Post. He tweets @AnandKochukudy. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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