Even as national leaders of the CPM address Parliament on the importance of dissent, tolerance of a diversity of views and decency in political discourse, their leaders and cadres in Kannur, a party stronghold in Kerala, speak a different language. Just in the past month, party workers have been accused of murder and assault in at least two incidents. On February 15, an RSS activist was killed in his home in a village in the district. On Tuesday, an auto driver, a BJP worker, ferrying schoolchildren, was dragged out of the vehicle and hacked. In both cases, the police suspect CPM workers. With elections approaching in the state, there is fear that the political violence could spiral out of control.
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Certainly, the violence in Kannur is not a one-sided affair. In fact, a majority of the victims — one estimate puts the number of political murders in Kannur in the past three decades at 300 — belong to the CPM. By all accounts, though the BJP is electorally weak, the RSS has the muscle to target the superior organisational strength of the CPM. Yet as a powerful force in the state, the CPM must explain the involvement of its own leaders in the unrelenting violence. In the run-up to elections, the party’s Kannur secretary, P. Jayarajan, is in jail for allegedly plotting a political rival’s murder. The local leadership may boast that strong-arm tactics have helped the CPM dominate the district, but the violence deployed in Kannur has not just brutalised the political fight here but also dented the party’s support and image elsewhere in the state. The use of violence to dominate the political space has longer-term repercussions for the CPM. The test of a party’s claim is how it behaves in the areas it dominates. In the case of the CPM, its practices in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura matter. The violence in Kannur, therefore, undermines the party’s claim at the national level to a more moral politics. Second, the rules of political conduct in a particular setting are often derived from the practice of the dominant party. Political violence was given legitimacy and institutionalised in West Bengal, where the CPM was in office for over three decades. And now, the Trinamool Congress uses the same instrument to keep the CPM in check in the state.
Ideological rigidity and outmoded organisational methods have forced the Left to retreat from most of the country where it once had a political presence. It must reflect on whether it can allow the brutality in Kannur to undermine the possibilities of the emergence of a new Left.