The only Krishna the CPM was concerned about in Kerala until last Saturday was P Krishna Pillai, a founder leader of the party. Comrade Krishna Pillai’s celebrated public engagement with his namesake was when he rang the temple bell at the Guruvayur temple in the early 1930s and challenged the Hindu orthodoxy. The social revolution that swept across Kerala in the first half of the 20th century prepared the ground for the communist movement to gain office in the state. The emancipated Hindu underclass was the bedrock on which the Communist Party built its citadel. Cracks have now started to appear, the CPM leadership seems to fear. The concern that the BJP is winning over its cadres may have influenced the CPM to look at new forms of gestural politics that nearly mimic the Sangh Parivar’s religion-centric mobilisations.
However, the curious spectacle of little Krishnas marching with portraits of Karl Marx, Bhagat Singh, Harkishen Singh Surjeet and others on Janmashtami across Kerala under the banner of Balasangham, the CPM’s children’s wing, has left the Left constituency divided. A cornered CPM state leadership clarified that the Balasangham march took place on Janmashtami was a coincidence and these were the culmination of Onam celebrations. No one needed to be told that the marches were an attempt to limit participation in the processions organised by Balagokulam, the Sangh Parivar outfit for children. In fact, a section of CPM leaders and associates even said Krishna was not the exclusive preserve of the Sangh Parivar and a “secular” celebration of Janmashtami was possible. Since the party’s stand on secularism had so far not extended to organising processions on religious occasions, the claim did not sound convincing. In all probability, the Balasangham initiative may have failed both the religious and the non-religious. What it has done, however, is to expose the confusion in the party’s response to the challenge from the Sangh Parivar.
At the heart of the confusion is the contradiction that has plagued the Left, especially the CPM, in Kerala for long. Though avowedly secular and standing up for minority rights, the party’s core base continues to be limited to sections of the Hindu community. The party — and the Left Front — has yet win over a decisive section of Christians and Muslims and, often, needs a Hindu consolidation in its favour to win elections. This is why the growth of the BJP in the state and the Sangh’s overtures to the Ezhava community, a Hindu OBC group, could decisively impact the CPM’s electoral prospects. The Left Front’s recent byelection losses, for instance, were deduced to be the result of a growing Hindu disenchantment. The growing murmur about the party’s “minority appeasement” too may have scared the party leadership.
The Left approach to socialisation in the past was through building or involving in broad-based social initiatives, for instance the Library movement. Culture, especially theatre, was the instrument to reach out to the non-party religious sections, especially during festivals. Trade unions once led the battle for collective rights. The many rural proletarian struggles helped build a Left constituency across the state. The popular science campaigns of the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad, the literacy campaign, people’s planning etc also helped further “Left consciousness” in the society. By the 1990s, these movements began to decline. There are critics who accuse of the CPM of trying to appropriate or control movements and groups and turning broad Left platforms into party fractions.
The rise of religious fundamentalism that started with the Ayodhya movement had its resonance in Kerala. Around this time the Sangh Parivar started Janmashtami processions and celebrations like Raksha Bandhan. Islamist groups too emerged around the same time. One fed the other and both saw the Left as a threat to their growth. By now, external factors such as migration to West Asia had led to structural changes in the Kerala society and economy. Besides remittances, trade and tourism emerged as drivers of the economy, leading to the creation of a consumer society. The traditional constituencies of the communist movement – in agriculture, primary processing industries like coir and cashew etc – weakened. The bulk of blue collar workers today are non-Keralites. Old forms of rights-based platforms and mobilisations could not attract fresh cadres or gain fellow-travellers. New social movements now articulate issues of land and resources that the Left had flagged off in the 1940s and 50s. Most of these, in fact, are hostile to the CPM.
The Left response to the changes has not been imaginative. In northern Kerala, the battle for political dominance has been violent at times. The CPM tactic to counter violence with violence has led to the party losing the perception battle elsewhere in the state. The productive campaigns for the party have been its initiatives in waste management, palliative care, organic farming and so on.
However, the party’s responses to questions of religion and faith have lacked conviction. For a party that prides about its materialist ideology, issues of faith have been too complex to handle. Moreover, the responses from the party leadership have at times been contradictory. There is a view that suggests the CPM should give cadres and sympathisers the freedom to engage with religion and religious activities on their own terms as social beings than as party workers. Counter religion-centric mobilisations are unlikely to check the growth of communalism. According to those who hold this view, an instrumentalist approach to religion only helps communal forces to set the terms of politics.