In a press statement dated November 10, the CPI(Maoist) announced that the party’s general secretary Mupalla Laxman Rao alias Ganpathy has “withdrawn from his responsibilities” and the new general secretary is Nambala Kesava Rao alias Basavaraju. It is the first time in the party’s 14-year history that a change is taking place in the top leadership. Ganpathy has, in fact, been supreme leader of the Maoist movement for 25 years — 12 years as chief of CPI(ML) People’s War and 13 years as chief of CPI(Maoist) following the merger of People’s War and Maoists Communist Centre (MCC). A look at what the change of leadership could mean for left-wing extremism in the country:
Why the change?
According to sources in security agencies, the CPI(Maoist) had been considering a change of leadership for the last five years or more. The health of Ganpathy, 71, has been failing and he sustained injuries in an encounter a few years ago. The CPI (Maoist) press note suggests that the change took place in February 2017 itself. “In view of his growing ill-health and advancing age… Comrade Ganpathy voluntarily withdrew from the responsibilities of General Secretary and placed a proposal to elect another comrade… following which the 5th meeting of the Central Committee… elected Comrade Basavaraju (Namballa Kesava Rao) as the new General Secretary.” Security sources said the fifth meeting of the central committee took place in February 2017.
Who is Basavaraju?
Basavaraju, 63, will be leading the CPI(Maoist) at a time when it has suffered a series of reverses and its area of influence has reduced considerably, now limited to parts of Chhattisgarh and the Andhra-Odisha Border (AOB) axis. Until he took over as the party chief, he was practically the number two. He was commander-in-chief of the Central Military Commission and is seen as responsible for all attacks and ambushes on security forces over the last one decade. He looks after both intelligence and operations, and has headed the forest division of the Dandkaranya in the past. He was also a member of the Politburo (the party’s top ideological think-tank), the standing committee, the central committee and the editorial board of the CPI(Maoist) publication Awam-e-Jung.
Security agencies have very sketchy details of the “ferocious and brutal revolutionary” beyond his student days. Born at Jiyanapeta in Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh, on July 10, 1955, Basavaraju earned a B Tech degree from the Regional Engineering College in Warangal. Basavaraju was also a sportsman and represented Andhra Pradesh in volleyball.
Those were also the days when he got involved in Left-wing student politics. He was arrested in 1980 following a scuffle with ABVP members, the only arrest in his lifetime. He subsequently joined People’s War and has now been associated with the LWE movement for 35 years.
According to intelligence agencies, Basavaraju is six feet tall and has a “wheatish” complexion. An intelligence document accessed by The Indian Express describes him as a “clean shaven man who now dyes his hair regularly”. The document says Basavaraju “lives in Maad (Abujhmaad) and AOB Zonal Committee area” and carries an AK 47. “He walks briskly and swings either side while walking,” the document says. It also says Ganpathy has been grooming him for the top leadership for years and that he had accompanied him to Parasnath Hills in Giridih in November-December 2013 for a meeting. He was last seen on the AOB Axis in May, intelligence sources said. Basavaraju carries a reward of Rs 2.02 crore on his head. Ganpathy has over Rs 3 crore on his head.
How is he different from Ganpathy?
Ganpathy has been the ideological fountainhead and political brain of the CPI(Maoist) and steered its broad policies since its inception. A teacher before he joined the Maoist movement, Ganpathy is regarded as a pragmatic leader with a modicum of acceptability across the LWE parties. Once working under Kondapally Seetharamaiah, the founder of People’s War, Ganpathy toppled him in 1992 and was elected general secretary. He oversaw the merger with MCC and was again elected general secretary.
His core concerns and roles have been spreading the influence of the party in new areas, maintaining contact with and guiding overground front organisations, keeping in touch with like-minded political parties, and establishing infrastructure for logistical support and legal help for cadres.
Basavaraju, as chief of the Central Military Commission, has been responsible for planning operations, targeting security forces and recruiting dalam cadres. He is known as an aggressive military commander who is believed to have presided over some of the most audacious and brutal Maoist attacks. He is regarded as an expert in IEDs and a master military strategist. It is said it was his brain behind the 2013 Latehar ambush in Jharkhand when a photosensitive IED was planted in the belly of a dead CRPF man with the hope that rescue teams and doctors would suffer casualties. He had the blessings of Ganpathy when he was chosen to lead the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army. He is also viewed as someone who can “tolerate some collateral damage” in terms of civilian lives if it means a major success against security forces.
Will CPI(Maoist) change?
While there have been suggestions about the party becoming more aggressive, backed up with anecdotes cited about recent attacks where civilians and journalists apart from TDP MLAs have been targeted, data does not bear this out too specifically. Home Ministry data for the period 2015- 2018 shows hardly any significant spike in violence after Basavaraju took over. In fact, in 2017, the number of incidents dropped compared to 2016. While casualties among security personnel rose, civilian casualties decreased (see table).
“I don’t see a big change in the strategy or functioning of CPI(Maoist) in the short term. Their decision-making is very structured and it will take some time for things to move in a new direction, if at all,” said an IPS officer who has overseen operations in Maoist belts for over six years.
A Home Ministry official, however, cautioned that Basavaraju may be under pressure to take bold decisions to boost the morale of the cadre. “Basavaraju has come at a time when there is need to instil fresh energy in the cadre. This energy may translate on the ground into attacks. Ganpathy was a different kind of leader — on occasions he would make a tactical retreat… he would use peace to build the party. But Basavaraju has worked closely with Ganpathy and is likely to take a considered decision,” the official said.