Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, former home minister and a central committee member of the CPM, took over from Pinarayi Vijayan as the party’s secretary in Kerala after the latter was elected as the chief minister of the state. Balakrishnan, a powerful leader of the Kannur faction of the party, is considered the number 2 in the state CPM after Vijayan and constantly has the ear of the chief minister. In a free-wheeling interview to IndianExpress.com, he spoke at length about the party’s recent victory in Chengannur bye-election, its strategy for the Lok Sabha polls and how it chooses to tackle the Congress-led UDF and the BJP. The last of our five-part series – What is left of the Left.
The bye-election in Chengannur was seen as a tight contest for all three parties. But eventually, your party won with a margin of 20,000 votes – the highest in the constituency. When you campaigned there, did you expect such a landslide mandate?
In Chengannur, a mood in favour of the Left was evident. Politically and organisationally, it’s a victory for the Left. It is a historic victory as no candidate was able to win with such a big margin.
Is the result in Chengannur a victory of your candidate Saji Cherian or a reflection of your government’s work?
The mandate is a prize for the secular politics of the LDF and the policies of our government. It’s a combination of the two. The candidate was also a factor, but it’s the nature of politics that’s important. It’s also a reward for the work of Chengannur’s ex-MLA late KK Ramachandran Nair who belonged to our party. He has worked a lot for the constituency’s development. People know that the LDF government will be there for the next three years. So people were confident that the work started by KKR would be continued by Saji Cherian. It’s an important factor.
Does the party think the result in Chengannur is a portent to what’s gonna happen in 2019?
Every election is connected to the political developments around it. In every bye-election after the LDF came to power, there has been a rise in our party’s vote-share. Chengannur is a continuation of that trend and in the months to come, that trend will strengthen. It is evident that there is a change in favour of the LDF in Kerala politics. After this election, the factionalism within the Congress has sharpened. There are also problems within the UDF and it is facing a big defeat. Congress has lost its confidence. Political or ideological differences are not responsible for the state of the Congress. It’s a question of their survival and a fight for party positions. There are no ideological discussions within the Congress. There are no democratic decisions. So our plus point towards 2019 is that the LDF will benefit from such problems.
The BJP in Chengannur has lost about 7000 votes, but it’s important to note that they still got 35000 votes without the support of its ally BDJS. Did the CPM consider the BJP as a potential contender?
For a long time, the RSS has had a base in Chengannur. In 1991 and 1996 elections, BJP has got up to 16000 votes there but in the elections that followed, that vote-share went to the Congress. It was in the previous election (2016) that we saw the BJP, with the support of BDJS, consolidating its vote. They were able to mobilise their strength and make an attempt to win the seat. So we were working knowing that the BJP has a base. In central Travancore, Chengannur is a seat where the BJP has some influence so we thought the party would make some gains. But it has failed to make any gains and it has been a setback for them.
But the BJP’s core vote remains…
Yes, but they have not been able to advance. They didn’t arrive on the scene in Chengannur suddenly. They were always there as a ‘sleeping group’. In past elections, RSS men opposed to us voted for the Congress. They wanted to defeat the CPM so they voted for Congress. But in the last two elections, that hasn’t happened. Their vote-share has gone down. We were able to stop their advance. In Karnataka, the Congress ruled for five years, but there, the BJP was able to double its seats. So Congress couldn’t stall their (BJP’s) advance in five years, but here, in the last two years, we were able to stall BJP’s growth. Both in Vengara and Chengannur, BJP’s vote-share dipped. So that means, only CPM can stop BJP’s growth in Kerala, Congress cannot do it. The state’s secular-minded voters and religious minorities know that. This will reflect in the LS elections.
Political pundits say the CPM’s strategy has been to make the contest in Kerala a three-cornered one by including the BJP so that anti-CPM votes get split and you would gain eventually. In 2016 elections, BJP came second in seven seats and LDF gained. Is that the strategy?
Votes flowing towards the BJP has always come from the Congress. We have seen that nationally. Today, 112 BJP MPs were earlier part of the Congress. So Congress leaders as a group are turning towards the BJP. In Kerala, the Congress’ leadership has not gone towards the BJP like other states. But a major share of Congress workers have gone to BJP. BJP has always had about 8-10 per cent vote share in Kerala which has gone up to 15 per cent with the support of BDJS in 2016. In 1991, we decided to face election one year early along with Lok Sabha polls. We were certain to win. In Vadakara LS seat and Beypore Assembly seat, there was a public understanding between the Congress and the BJP. In both seats, they lost, but in several other seats, they had a discreet alliance. People didn’t know that and we lost. There was an understanding between the Congress and BJP to get two MLAs of the saffron party to get elected to the Assembly. But that time, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and the Congress became confident of its chances so it did not fulfil its promise. Otherwise, two MLAs of the BJP would have got elected then from Manjeshwaram and Thiruvananthapuram North with the help of Congress. Several times, Congress and BJP have indulged in trading of votes. Now that the BJP has come to power at the centre, the situation has changed. They are trying to assert their strength. At one time, for the CPM, we only had to deal with the Congress. Then came the IUML and the Kerala Congress (M) into the UDF. Now, we have to fight the BJP also along with the UDF to move ahead. LDF’s new challenge is to face both these forces and we have accepted the challenge.
In future, do you see the BJP replacing the UDF in Kerala to emerge as your main rival?
I don’t see that happening. Kerala is different from other states in that it has a secular foundation. Unfortunately, in other states, that secular base is not present. Kerala has seen a lot of social reform movements led by Sree Narayana Guru, Ayyankali and Chattambi Swami in different religions. In other states also, there have been social reform movements but there hasn’t been a continuation to that process. Here, there has been a continuation led by national and communist powers. So here, there is a secular base. RSS has not been able to erode this secular base. Gujarat, the home state of Mahatma Gandhi, had a secular base, but the RSS-BJP attempted to spark religious discrimination. In Kerala, the society hasn’t witnessed such religious disparities, that’s why they (RSS) were not able to form a government here. They are trying to do that but it’s not successful. Communists are very vigilant here. In Kerala, 217 CPM workers have died at the hands of the RSS, so many have been injured. CPM’s alertness is why the RSS hasn’t been able to make any impact. CPM organisations, through 35000 branches are everywhere and are connected to the people here. We have relations with even families of our enemies.
You spoke about political killings. The truth is that 11 people have died so far since your government was voted to power in 2016. Victims of these killings have included workers of the RSS, CPM & Congress. It seems your party is not able to rein in your cadre, who are getting out of control.
We are opposed to murder politics. It should be eliminated completely. We have to find solutions to it. CPM was not responsible for the start of murder politics in Kerala. During the British-era, our workers were shot dead. They have been hanged after being implicated in false cases. Moyarath Sankaran, a Congress leader, became a Communist. He had published the history of Congress party in Malayalam. Congress killed him. There have been several incidents like that on Communist leaders but there was never a retaliation. After British left, Congress workers began attacking Communists. In Salem jail, 32 of our workers were killed. Despite such incidents, our party did not die. Naturally, when such attacks, especially by thugs, happened, our workers started defending. In such incidents, Congress workers have been killed. PSP used to attack us in certain centres. Muslim League also, so we have been targeted by all parties. In Kerala, CPM martyrs are close to 600, out of which 217 have been murdered by BJP. The CPM has been found culpable in some incidents, I don’t deny that. But we want to avoid such incidents. Azhikkodan Raghavan was the Left convenor who was killed in 1972. Is there any justification for his murder? Kunjali, an MLA was shot down. At that time, nobody talked about these murders. During the Emergency, Kolangaroth Raghavan was killed when a bomb was hurled at him. Congress used bombs for the first time which the RSS took on later. CPM workers have had to defend such attacks. So, we need to completely avoid such incidents. But one party alone cannot solve this. There has to be consonance of opinion and CPM is ready to lead the initiative. We believe in politics, there is no space for attacks because we are the worst victims. Because, we are in control of the administration now. In politics, there have to be discussions on principles and no weapons can strengthen any form of politics. With the help of a weapon, no party can be eliminated as well.
But the RSS makes the same claims that their workers are being murdered by the CPM. They are complaining that they are not even allowed to enter into certain CPM strongholds in Kannur. They are telling the same tales you are saying.
Yes, that’s why the chief minister took the initiative to hold talks to identify the problems. CPM said that it is ready to preserve an environment where they (RSS) can work. Why are they not coordinating? Why are they not allowing our workers to go into their centres? Publicly, they say this but they do not seek peace. They grow through attacks. RSS grows in India through communal violence. Like other parts of India, you cannot foment communal riots here. So here, they are trying to destroy the Marxist party. We don’t need to do that. Only when a BJP worker is alive tomorrow, can he join the Communist party. If he is not there tomorrow, how can he turn? So many BJP workers are coming towards us…OK Vasu, Unnikrishnan, Asokan have joined us. We are not trying to eliminate anyone. No communist will think like that because that person should join us tomorrow. Only if workers of other parties are alive can they join the communist party. So we don’t want to take anyone’s life. But talks alone cannot solve this. There has to be efforts at the grassroot level, that’s why we held talks. Even now, when there’s violence, BJP leaders get in touch with us and there’s communication at the regional level. We will also act on our part and try to reduce violence.
So like last year, will the party conduct talks with BJP/RSS leaders?
We are ready to talk whenever such incidents happen. When there was recent attacks in Kannur, there were talks. We have taken a decision to take a lead to ensure such attacks don’t happen. The party will not condone anyone who gets involved in such attacks. Some incidents have taken place where party workers were involved and we have thrown them out of the party. We sent a message. After that, number of incidents have come down and we have realised that we can control them.
In the last two years, the working of the police force under your government has been a heated issue. Sreejith’s custody murder and the Kevin Joseph murder case are examples. Law and order is a very important department. Don’t you think Kerala requires a full-time home minister? How can the CM handle everything?
The problem is not how many portfolios a minister has. The chief minister or any minister may have more than one portfolio, but they may not be dealing with day-to-day issues. A minister cannot check every case being registered at a police station. There’s an SI and other officers for that. Cops are working legally according to the Kerala Police Act. So even earlier, the chief minister has handled the home ministry like EK Nayanar. Only in 1980, when he was CM, did he give the home ministry to TK Ramakrishnan. When Karunakaran was Congress CM, he was the home minister also. Problems have persisted during UDF regime also, but when you compare with UDF, such problems are lesser. The media has acted against us in a big way when such incidents happen. During UDF government, there were four custody murders. Did anyone know? Did the media hold discussions then like today? How did the then government react? Not a single officer was suspended or murder charges made against him. Under this government, murder charges have been registered against the accused officers and they have been sent to jail. A district police chief was suspended. The government is helping the victim’s family financially in every way. The LDF government protects the victims and punishes the perpetrators. UDF government always supported the perpetrators and the media supported that government. Now, the media is against us.
But the torture of Sreejith in police custody and his eventual death is a big incident. He was wrongly implicated…
Yes, but during the UDF regime, there were four such cases. The media didn’t pursue those cases aggressively. I was the deputy opposition leader in the Assembly at that time and we took up these cases. The media at that time didn’t publicise these cases.
I’m asking why is the police behaving in this way? How can they pick a wrong person and then torture him in custody?
Is it the first time the police have killed a person in custody?
No, but the point is it is still continuing…
The government’s reaction is clear now, isn’t it? The government will not give protection to officers who commit offences. During the Emergency era, Rajan was taken into custody, tortured and killed. At that time, under UDF government, 23 people were tortured and killed. Did any media report it? We were in jail during the Emergency for one-and-a-half years. Our arrests never came in the newspapers because there was press censorship. Today, it has changed. When Karunakaran was CM, Udayakumar was murdered through ‘urutti kola’ (rolling a heavy wooden log on the convict). It became a huge furore but no officer was suspended or punished. Society must discuss how the government reacted to it. We will never accept offences committed by the police force. Kerala Police Act was brought when I was Home Minister in 2011 and there are clear directives in it for police how to handle the accused. In the past, they would be made to disrobe to their underwear, but the Act makes it clear they must be allowed to wear their normal clothes while in custody. UDF did not make attempts for the Act to be followed. During those five years, police was misused in many ways and there are still remnants of such misuse in the force today. A section of the police force is working to malign the image of the government so we are cautious of such activities.
Moving to politics, on the national stage if a Congress-led united opposition needs a few seats to cross the halfway mark in Lok Sabha, will your party offer outside support?
Even in 2004, we gave support. If such a situation arises, where we have to prevent the BJP coming to power, we will certainly support an Oppposition alliance. It is not wrong to take a stand similar to 2004. The party congress has approved it. It has made it clear how and where there can be an understanding with the Congress. CPM will never favour the BJP coming to power. Only when the number of Left MPs increase, can the BJP be defeated. In 2004, we had 63 MPs but in this Lok Sabha, very few Left MPs are present. That’s why the present government is capable of taking anti-people decisions. To counter that, we need more Left MPs in Parliament. In 2004, we got 18 out of 20 seats in Kerala. Not a single Congress MP got elected that time but we gave support to the UPA to keep BJP out of power. So a 2004-like scenario will happen in 2019.
How many seats are you hoping to win in 2019 from Kerala?
This time, Congress is staring at a big defeat. LDF will win more seats this time. I cannot tell you how many seats we expect to win because it’s not the correct political strategy. It would be premature to talk about number of seats.
The Left has lost its strength in Bengal and has been overridden by the BJP which came second in several bye-elections. So the party cannot expect a lot of seats there. In Tripura, there are only two LS seats. Communism in a way has become limited to Kerala. Therefore, isn’t there pressure on the state leadership here to deliver in the upcoming elections?
A: The people have to decide. Naturally, we will try to win most of the seats here. Politically and organisationally, we will strengthen our efforts to create a 2004-like scenario. So Kerala’s share of seats is critical in the parliamentary election. People also know that Left MPs must increase. Agitating farmers, students and those working in public sector firms know that their problems will only reach Parliament through Left MPs. Congress cannot do that. In West Bengal, to improve the party’s performance in 2014, we will undertake political strategies. The party’s seat-tally will increase.
Rahul Gandhi has been elevated as the Congress president. How do you evaluate his leadership qualities?
Indian politics doesn’t hinge on who becomes the Congress president. A personality is not a factor. Anti-BJP sentiment is prevailing in the country today and Rahul is making certain advances which have not been seen before. Naturally, we are not examining the decisions of Rahul Gandhi as a person, but the policies of the Congress party. By replacing Sonia Gandhi with Rahul Gandhi, Congress policies haven’t changed. They must amend their policies. They must stop adopting neo-liberal economic policies. They are not strongly fighting against communalism. They are adopting soft-Hindutva and soft-communalism.
There have been serious differences between CPI and CPM among its leadership and workers, be it the Mani issue or that of Thomas Chandy. How are you looking to solve these issues?
There are no problems between CPI and CPM now. CPI has made certain statements publicly, they are not wrong to do that. We have also done it sometimes. When it’s two different parties, difference in opinion will be there. It’s not a fight, only expression of opinion. CPI-CPM is united. In the Rajya Sabha seat allocation, were there any problems? We decided in two minutes. The clashes you saw within UDF, did you see it here? We are rooted to the reality. UDF is scared that we are united.
But CPI’s ministers even boycotted a cabinet meeting during the Thomas Chandy controversy. It’s being said that their insistence on his resignation forced the CPM’s hand.
That lasted for a day. Some people are misconstruing it like that. Even the CPI does not say that Chandy resigned because of their stand. LDF’s stand paved way for his resignation.
Finally, what is your long-term strategy for 2021 Assembly election? Do you foresee it as a straight LDF versus UDF fight? Or will BJP be an important player?
2021 election will be a repetition of the 2016 election. It will be a challenge for the BJP to retain their 15% vote-share they got last time.
But no party has been voted back to power since 1980. Isn’t that a challenge for you?
We will certainly take that challenge on. We are confident that we will come back to power. But people have to decide. We will make changes in our organisational set-up and the government will work with renewed vigour for the people. We will make efforts to bring the LDF back to power. That will be our aim.