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In Kerala, it's CPI-M versus CPI-M

By George Iype in Kochi
March 23, 2006 19:03 IST
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In Kerala -- which will elect its state assembly in a three-phase poll on April 22, April 29 and May 3 -- the Communist Party of India-Marxist's biggest problem is itself.

The CPI-M, which heads the Left Democratic Front that is gearing up to take on the ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front, is locked in an ugly internal war.

The internal battle -- that has spilled over onto the streets, cell phones and the Internet -- bodes ill for the LDF, which had hoped to sweep the state assembly election.

If you are wondering why the Marxists are in turmoil in the 'red bastion' of Kerala, read on.

Why are the CPI-M leaders fighting in Kerala?

Senior CPI-M leader V S Achuthanandan and the party's State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan are the leading rivals in the factional infighting.

Last week, the CPI-M's central committee refused to give Achuthanandan an election ticket.

His supporters -- who accused Vijayan of sabotaging Achuthanandan's seat - organised protest marches across the state.

Vijayan is not contesting the election, because of a party rule that bars state secretaries from fighting elections.

But the best answer about why there is so much infighting in the party comes from a prominent Kerala trade union leader who was expelled from the CPI-M three years ago.

"It is because the Marxist party is like the Congress party. The only difference is in the name," says V B Cherian. "The CPI-M in Kerala is steadily losing its culture, history and support base because Marxist leaders here are like the Congress leaders," he adds.

So, it's just a personality clash?

Party insiders say the fight is between tradition and modernity.

Achuthanandan is a traditional Marxist leader who has a mass following in the red strongholds in central Kerala.

He opposes Microsoft learning programmes in Kerala schools, does not want foreign capital flow in the state and has vehemently fought against projects such as the Dubai Smart City that the Congress government wants to set up in Kochi.

Vijayan too has a mass following, especially in north Kerala, but he is seen as the modern face of Marxists. He travels abroad, his son studies in London, he wants private investment, and he is an ardent supporter of the Dubai Smart City.

Just who are these two leaders?

He may not be an intellectual giant like E M S Namboodiripad, but the 84-year-old Velikkakathu Sankaran Achuthanandan has a traditional following in the party, especially from the lower castes and classes.

Decades ago, he led the legendary peasant uprising in central Kerala known as the Punnapra-Vayalar Samaram.

But despite his sterling organisational skills, Achuthanandan has never been a minister.

He failed in is attempts to become the Kerala chief minister on two occasions: In 1991, when the LDF lost the assembly election, and in 1996, when he lost the election, even though the LDF came to power under his leadership.

Achuthanandan has said many a time that he lost the 1996 election because his archrivals -- read the Pinarayi faction -- sabotaged the traditional Marxist bastion at Maraikkulam in Alappuzha district.

Vijayan is from the traditional Marxist base of Kannur in north Kerala. He joined the party as a student leader. For a long time, he was the president of the Kerala Students Federation.

Vijayan has been a minister in the LDF government between 1996 and 1998. He has been secretary of the CPI-M state committee since 1998.

The post of the party state secretary is the most influential, and Vijayan has always used his political clout to belittle Achuthanandan.

Achuthanandan has been hoping to lead the polls this time. But Vijayan and his supporters -- who outnumber the Achuthanandan faction in the state committee -- have ensured that the veteran leader is denied an election ticket.

So it's an old battle?

Yes, the fight for power and supremacy between Achuthanandan and Vijayan has been boiling in the party for long.

But never in the past has the battle spilled spelt so much of a crisis on the eve of an election.

What about the CPI-M's national leadership? Who do they support?

CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat -- a Malayalee -- is said to be an Achuthanandan sympathiser. But Vijayan has more clout in the CPI-M Central Committee in Delhi.

So who will lead the LDF in the poll?

That is not yet decided. But CPI-M insiders say Paloli Mohammed Kutty, a former minister and senior party leader, will be projected as the chief ministerial candidate.

Kutty is said to be an ardent supporter of Vijayan, and many believe that if Kutty becomes the chief minister, Vijayan will rule the state by default.

There is also a move to bring in S Ramchandra Pillai, a CPI-M Politburo member who is in charge of the party in Kerala, as the chief ministerial candidate.

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George Iype in Kochi