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Sixty years ago this day, the Communist Party of India formed its first government in India. It was a historic moment not just for the CPI, then the largest Opposition group in Parliament, but also for the world communist movement. Six years earlier, the CPI had been a banned outfit — for waging a war against newly independent India. Though the party had recanted its position and withdrawn the Telangana armed struggle, it was ambivalent about parliamentary democracy. Globally, it was the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was expanding its influence, sometimes in unpleasant ways — a year earlier, it had toppled Hungary’s Imre Nagy. Democracy and communism appeared impossible allies, and there was deep distrust among many about the commitment of communist parties to parliamentary democracy.
In India, the communists were a resurgent force in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Bengal, and wielded influence among the peasantry in Bihar and Punjab and in the industrial belts of UP and Bombay. Unlike the squabbling socialists and the Hindu rightwing Jana Sangh, the CPI seemed like a potential rival to the Congress. The CPI government that took office on April 5, 1957, the first democratically elected communist government in a large region anywhere in the world, however, found its own trajectory, independent of global communism and set off a unique experiment in democracy. That trajectory, and the template it set, has enabled the communists to dominate the political space of Kerala ever since.
The government of EMS Namboodiripad focussed on building a welfare state. It embarked on initiatives that addressed the rights and needs of peasants and industrial workers. It raised minimum wages and protected employment. It showed an urgency to industrialise the state and invited even private capital. It attempted to build a diverse industrial base by encouraging small-scale industries. The number of factories rose by 30% in 3 years — from 1,613 in 1957 to 2,275 units in 1959. Wages for the top layer in the workforce were frozen — they were reduced for ministers — while minimum wages were raised for the lowest strata. Legislation was drafted for land reforms, the centrepiece of the programme for social and economic progress. EMS outlined the intent of his government as implementing policies and reforms promised by Nehru’s government, and within the framework of the Indian Constitution. The CPI central leadership declared that Parliament and state legislatures had become the most important forums of fighting for the people and the country. It was Indian communism’s moment of discovery of parliamentary democracy as an instrument for social change.
The CPI government of 1957 was unique in the way it negotiated electoral democracy. The party’s narrow win in the Assembly election, a year after the formation of Kerala as a linguistic state, was the result of a deft handling of the state’s communal, caste and class faultlines. Like elsewhere in India, the CPI had built its base on a series of militant struggles for peasant and labour rights. Many of its leaders had come to the communist movement through the social reform movement and the independence struggle. Many were critical of the Gandhian political tradition, but could match the Mahatma in their spartan lifestyle. This vested in them enormous political and social capital. These, however, weren’t sufficient for them to win elections, especially when the state’s significant religious minorities and feudal classes were suspicious of the godless communists and their intent to socialise private resources. The then state party secretary, M N Govindan Nair, was a master tactician who recognised the limits of the party’s influence and worked to win over influential community leaders including the Nair Service Society chief Mannathu Padmanabhan. The party won 60 seats in the Assembly of 126 MLAs, and with the support of 5 independents claimed a majority — the CPI voteshare of 35% was two points less than that of the Congress, which, however, could win only 43 seats.
The precarious nature of the victory made the CPI leadership cautious in government formation. Regional and communal representation was ensured, and the party invited three prominent independents to join the ministry, among them V R Krishna Iyer, then a leading lawyer, and Joseph Mundassery, a titan of Malayalam literature. The readiness to accommodate capable non-partisans helped to improve governance and establish the ministry’s credentials of political inclusiveness.
However, this broad social support dissipated when the EMS government embarked on radical reforms in education and land ownership. The rainbow coalition of anti-communists hit the streets in what came to be described as “vimochana samaram” (liberation struggle). Political thinker Rajini Kothari has described this as an example of direct action, which he defines as an extra-constitutional technique that takes the form of a group action, is aimed at some political change, and is directed at the government in power. He explained the liberation struggle in Kerala as the expression of a political struggle between the aggrieved sections of the middle class and the political apparatus of a parliamentary democracy. The communists, however, saw it as a conspiracy of the feudal classes against a popular government that cared for the working classes, and suggested a CIA hand in triggering it. In the chaos, Nehru’s government took the opportunity to dismiss EMS’s government, the first instance of the Centre misusing Article 356.
Communist parties have formed governments in Kerala many times thereafter. But the 1957 EMS ministry, which included C Achutha Menon and K R Gowriamma, remains the gold standard for a government in the state. The welfare programme and the emphasis it laid on accommodating reasonable interests of a wide spectrum of society has provided the governance framework for the political coalitions that have ruled the state since. Land fragmentation and changes in agrarian relations that followed land reforms turned agriculture unproductive. However, land reforms ensured a transfer of capital, in the form of land, to the landless in the state. The Education Bill protected the rights of workers in the private sector but failed to reform private education, which remains a den of communalism and nepotism.
The first communist government laid the foundation for the famed Kerala Model of development which allowed the state to achieve remarkable gains in health, education, and so on. It foregrounded class over caste with some success. Six decades later, new faultlines have developed. The unaddressed issues of landlessness among Dalits and tribals, collapse of agriculture, dependency on remittances, wobbly public services, especially in healthcare, and fraying of communal relations now call for reimagining politics and governance. The state is now at a crossroads — and the lessons from the Class of 57 might be worth recalling.