By B.R.P. Bhaskar, IANS,
The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) is in trouble in Kerala. Its state secretary, Pinarayi Vijayan, who is a member of the party politburo, has been named in a corruption case. At the grassroots level, it has suffered erosion of popular support, resulting in humiliating defeats in by-elections to local bodies.
In the four and a half decades of its existence, the party has never faced a situation of this kind before. Since the Kerala unit is the largest and the richest, the rot here can hurt the party nationally.
Outwardly, the most serious of the twin challenges is the decision of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to prosecute Pinarayi Vijayan along with 10 others in the Lavalin case. The arraignment of a politburo member in a corruption case for the first time dents the party’s clean image.
However, from an organisational viewpoint, the revolt at the lower levels is a more daunting challenge. It points to breakdown of the traditional bounds of discipline.
The corruption case is a fall-out of the State Electricity Board’s Rs.3.75 billion deal with SNC Lavalin, a Canadian company, for modernising three ageing hydro-electric plants. Vijayan was electricity minister at the time and had led the team that went to Montreal to conclude the deal.
As soon as the CBI approached the state government for permission to prosecute him and some former officials, Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, who is also a politburo member, publicly charged the central agency with implicating him as reprisal for the party withdrawing its support to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)government.
The party state committee repeated the allegation in a resolution and declared it would meet the challenge politically. The politburo endorsed its stand.
Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan, who has been involved in a losing sectarian fight with Vijayan, did not attend the state committee meeting which adopted the resolution. He flew to New Delhi apparently to convey his reservations on the issue to party general secretary Prakash Karat. His exertions did not lead to any re-thinking by the politburo.
The politburo’s ready endorsement of the state unit’s stand on the issue is proof of its clout in the party. Kerala, with only about 3.10 percent of the country’s population, accounts for 34.28 percent of the CPI-M’s nationwide membership of 982,155. At the last count, membership in the state stood at 336,644 as against 321,682 in the more populous West Bengal, where the party has enjoyed an unbroken run of power for more than 30 years.
There is a qualitative difference between the party units in the two states. In West Bengal, membership is comparatively stable, annual desertions being as low as 3.29 percent. Kerala has a drop-out rate of 10.62 percent, but the party continues to grow by attracting new members. A report presented at last year’s party congress said more than 40 percent of the members in Kerala had joined after 2002.
In the elections that preceded the party congress, Pinarayi Vijayan convincingly demonstrated his hold over the organisation at all levels. The state unit, which has several businesses under its control and proven ability to attract donations from commercial interests, is believed to be a big contributor to the party’s national coffers.
With the CPI-M giving the Lavalin case a political colour, it is certain to figure as a major issue in the Lok Sabha elections. It is already highlighting facts that serve its interests. It was a previous Congress-led government that signed the memorandum of understanding with the company and it was a subsequent Congress-led government that ordered the CBI inquiry.
The opposition counters it with arguments that serve its own interests. It was the Comptroller and Auditor General who brought to light the Lavalin deal irregularities. The Congress-led government had only given Lavalin a consultancy contract. Vijayan gave it a contract for renovation and supply of equipment.
The public’s suspicion about corruption in the deal is based on the disappearance of nearly Rs.900 million which Lavalin was to have given to a cancer research society floated by the government. It is not clear if the CBI has any information on who got the money.
While the party faithful may readily accept the charge that the CBI was acting under political motivation, the party leadership will have a hard time selling it to voters who know that the high court ordered the CBI investigation and has been supervising it. The agency had to raid a government office to get hold of some records which the state government withheld.
Continuous desertion by long-time party members over the past few years is indicative of disillusionment at the lower levels with the leadership. In the Onchiyam area in Kozhikode district, those who left the party on their own or were thrown out have floated a parallel Marxist Party.
When the CPI-M expelled M.R. Murali, a municipal councillor of Shoranur in Palakkad district, eight others quit the council with him. In the byelections that followed they routed all but one of the official nominees, reducing the party to a minority in the municipality, which it has ruled since the 1970s.
In a panchayat byelection at Ambalapuzha in Alappuzha district, which was won by a CPI-M dissident, the party’s official nominee ended up in third position.
Last week, in a bid to stem the rot, Vijayan asked the party’s area committee in Shoranur to win back the rebels.
(B.R.P. Bhaskar can be contacted at [email protected])