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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The eternal Kerala pattern

Nehru’s anti-communism was replaced by his daughter’s wooing of the CPI.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
September 6, 2010 3:26:25 am

After the manifestly unfair and unconstitutional dismissal of Kerala’s first communist ministry,headed by E.M.S. Namboodiripad,in 1959 (‘Jawaharlal’s EMS dilemma’,IE,July 26),events there took a series of turns and twists worth recalling and recording. The Joint Front that had launched the virulent agitation to bring down the state government had fought principally against its land reform and education bills. But it realised that to scrap these measures was not feasible,because of their widespread popularity with the people,especially the poor. It,therefore,wanted the two bills watered down — but shrewdly left the job to the governor’s caretaker regime,busying itself instead with preparations for fresh elections,scheduled for mid-1960.

Needless to say,from the word go,the election campaign was relentlessly bitter. Nehru,engrossed at that time with the China problem following the revolt in Tibet,the Dalai Lama’s flight to India,and the Kongka-la border clash,suddenly remembered that the Joint Front in Kerala included the Muslim League. In a heated discussion with his daughter before the EMS ministry was sent packing,he had called the front “communal”. But he knew that it was impossible to dissolve the front when electioneering was in full blast. Yet,he abhorred the prospect of the Muslim League sharing power with the Congress. So he made it a condition that the Muslim League leader in the state assembly,Mohammed Koya,could be the assembly’s speaker — but not a minister. Koya and his colleagues in the League were furious and frustrated but realised that they could not take on the towering prime minister.

Consequently,after predictably winning the elections,the Joint Front ministry began its innings not in the best of spirits. Other problems were to aggravate this situation. In the first place,the Congress was the largest party in the ruling coalition,but it had to accept the claim to the CM’s office of Socialist leader Pattom Thanu Pillai,because of his stature and his leadership role during the anti-Communist agitation. Aspirants in the Congress party,even more faction-ridden in Kerala than in other states,remained sullen.

It did not take very long for that discontent to burst into the open. That the state must have a Congress chief minister was only one of the party’s two demands. The other,driven by the all-powerful caste factor,was that the backward Ezhavas,though in a majority,were denied their due while Nairs or Brahmins ruled the roost. Came a stage when Nehru found it necessary to dispatch his chief troubleshooter,Lal Bahadur Shastri,to Trivandrum.

As usual,Shastri heard everyone most patiently,but the next thing the country heard of his mission was that,during the night,he had flown back — not to Delhi,but to Chandigarh,and with Thanu Pillai as his sole travelling companion. There the Kerala chief minister was sworn in as governor of Punjab,which then included both Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. At Trivandrum,R. Sankar,an Ezhava,was elected chief minister,and somehow kept the fractious coalition together until it was time for fresh assembly elections in 1965. Nowhere else were any elections due for another two years.

However,by then there had been radical changes in the political milieu in the country,and even more so in Kerala. Jawaharlal Nehru had,of course,passed into history. Shastri was prime minister. The trauma of the 1962 war with China in the high Himalayas still gripped the country,and war clouds were gathering on the India-Pakistan horizon. No less significantly,the Communist Party had broken into two — the CPI and the CPI(M),the letter in parenthesis standing for Marxist. In Kerala,as in West Bengal,the other Communist stronghold,such prominent party leaders as Namboodiripad and A. K. Gopalan had joined the Marxist camp. For electoral purposes,the CPI continued to be the CPM’s junior partner in the Left combine in both the Marxist bastions.

Where Kerala was concerned,all this paled into insignificance compared with a sea change in the Muslim League’s attitude,as dramatic as it was startling. Having always denounced Communists of all hues as “irremediably evil”,the League now became an ardent admirer and ally of the CPM,especially of EMS. When I asked Koya for his reasons,his terse reply was: “we were betrayed.” And then he proceeded to say that betrayal was the Congress’ “second nature.” What he did not add was that during their years in the wilderness the CPM leaders had assiduously wooed the Muslim masses. A senior Church leader I saw next remarked: “I don’t like this but the reality is that if Bafaqi Thangal (the League’s supreme leader who never took part in elections) says one thing and Namboodiripad another,the Muslims would follow Namboodiripad.”

Under the circumstances,it was no surprise that the Marxist-led United Left Front (ULF) won,but to no avail. For its victory was overtaken by another dramatic development. While election results were still coming in the Shastri government,reportedly at the initiative of then Union Home Minister G.L. Nanda,banned the CPM. In a countrywide crackdown,thousands of Marxists,including MLAs,were rounded up. Kerala went under President’s rule once again.

In the 1967 general election,the ULF,headed by EMS,won yet again. But over two years later,it collapsed largely because of unbridgeable differences between the two communist parties. Indira Gandhi,who,after the Congress split of 1969,was heading a minority government in New Delhi,seized the opportunity,forged an alliance with the CPI,and won the September 1970 assembly poll in Kerala hands down. Graciously,she conceded the office of chief minister to CPI leader Achutha Menon,who became the first chief minister of the troubled state to complete his full term.  

This was a prelude to the dissolution of the Lok Sabha in December and parliamentary elections in 1971,and Indira’s spectacular and sweeping victory. Those within the CPI,and the Congress Left,who were hoping for a replication in New Delhi of the “Kerala pattern” were deeply disappointed.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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