Independents on party ticket: CPI(M) adopts new strategy in Kerala to retain its national-party status

Even candidates with no Communist background are under the sickle-hammer-star banner, and in a first, Kerala has no Left-backed independent!

ByK A Shaji

Published Mar 22, 2024 | 9:00 AMUpdatedMar 22, 2024 | 9:27 AM

AKG Centre, the state headquarters of CPI (M) in Kerala. Photo: Supplied.

A decade has passed since Kerala’s hill district of Idukki was on the boil, with farmers protesting in the streets against the implementation of the Madhav Gadgil-Kasturirangan committee report on ecological restoration of the Western Ghats regions, where human interventions created innumerable environmental damages.

The powerful Catholic Church and the church-backed farmers’ movement, the High Range Samrakahana Samithy (HRSS), back then organised a series of protests against the implementation of the committee report.

They claimed it would be detrimental to the larger interests of farmers who occupied crucial portions of the ghats and grew cash crops.

Joyce George

Joyce George

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the HRSS fielded its leader Joice George as an independent to defeat PT Thomas, the then-sitting MP of Idukki from the Congress.

Thomas wanted the farmers to back the eco-restoration, saying that it would be the only option to fight the impact of climate change on cash crops.

In a calculated move to gain the votes of church supporters in other constituencies, the CPI(M)’s then-state secretary and current Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan extended support to George, and he won the election by a margin of over 50,000 votes.

In the next five years, George remained a Left-backed independent in the Lok Sabha, largely coordinating church affairs and interests in the national capital.

In 2019, he lost the seat to the Congress’s young face, Dean Kuriakose, by a margin of 1,71,053 votes, and went into political oblivion.

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Change in policy

Left circles in Idukki clarify that George has never been involved in any organisational activities of the CPI(M) so far, and has not participated in any agitations the party has organised.

This time, George has found himself on the candidate list of CPI (M) not as an independent but as a party leader who contests the official symbol of the sickle, hammer, and star.

K S Hamza

K S Hamza

Almost similar is the case of KS Hamza, who is contesting on the CPI(M) symbol in Ponnani, a constituency in the Malappuram district that is regarded as the citadel of UDF’s second largest constituent — the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML).

Till March 2023, Hamza was the state secretary of IUML, and he was expelled following differences with party strongman and national secretary PK Kunhalikutty.

A former conscience keeper of Kunhalikutty, Hamza accused him of conducting secret talks with the RSS and the CPI(M), thereby compromising the minority politics of the IUML.

Despite having fought the CPI(M) politically all these years, Hamza is now the Left party’s official candidate to fight MP Abdusamad Damadani of the IUML.

In Ernakulam, where the Latin Catholics have a considerable following, the CPI(M) has always preferred high-profile independents who can avoid the church’s disapproval of “materialistic” Communist cadres.

Deviating from the practice, the party has fielded KJ Shine, a woman who is the face of the party’s teachers association, with the official party symbol.

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Reason behind change

According to Kochi-based political observer NM Pierson, this is the first election since its formation in 1964 that the CPI(M) has allotted party symbols to all the candidates fighting in the election in Kerala.

Practically, the state is not seeing any party-backed independents in this election, though George and Hamza have no history of working for the party or its feeder organisations.

Unlike mainstream parties, the Left parties — the CPI and the CPI(M) — have a long tradition of not promoting direct recruitment of leaders from rival formations.

Those who switch loyalty from other parties would initially be given only candidate membership, and would be forced to do organisational work and engage in agitations until the party found satisfactory grounds to issue permanent membership.

Leaders without permanent membership in the party were never given the party symbol.

In the past, eminent jurist VR Krishna Iyer and poet ONV Kurup contested as Left-backed independents, though they were known as fellow-travellers of the Left party.

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Battle for survival

According to CPI(M) insiders, the party was forced to adopt such a strategy as part of its survival measures.

The party, which was once powerful in West Bengal and Thripura, is now confined only to Kerala, and only by increasing its vote share can it maintain its national party status.

If somebody fights as a CPI(M)-backed independent, the votes they poll would not be counted as votes secured by the party.

Thus, for the first time in its history, the party is looking to increase its cumulative vote share to safeguard national party status.

Besides Kerala, the party hopes to win seats in Tamil Nadu, where it is part of the DMK alliance.

Though it has entered into an electoral tie-up with the Congress in West Bengal, the Left party has fewer chances of winning even a single seat there. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the party won zero from there.

The CPI(M) is contesting some other seats in states like Bihar, but remains unsure of winning even a considerable share of votes.

According to political observers, the CPI (M) is aiming to win the maximum seats in Kerala, the lone state where the party is now in power, and increase its vote share.

The CPI(M), which has only three members in the current Lok Sabha, garnered only 1.75 percent of the votes nationally in the 2019 polls.

Its experiment with independents yielded results in the Idukki, Ernakulam, and Chalakudy LS constituencies in the previous election.

Sebastian Paul and Xavier Arackal won as independents in Ernakulam, which was considered a Congress fortress.

Actor Innocent wrested the Chalakudy seat from UDF in 2014, while  George won from Idukki in 2014.

Also Read: Part of INDIA bloc, yet LDF on a spree to discredit ‘rival’ Rahul

‘The party has only one agenda this time’

Left political observer Azad Malayattil said the CPI(M) has abandoned the political experiment with independents to garner maximum votes under its banner.

“The party has only one agenda this time. And that is to maintain its national party status. It has no confusion in allocating the party symbol to even independents like Hamza in Ponnani,” he added.

The ECI revoked the national party status of the CPI and a few other parties last year.

A common party symbol across states for both Lok Sabha and Assembly polls, free airtime during elections on public broadcasters, and allotted space for a party office in New Delhi are part of the privileges enjoyed by a national party.

In  2004, the CPI(M) had 43 seats in the Lok Sabha, with 26 from West Bengal, 12 from Kerala, two from Tamil Nadu, two from Tripura, and one from Andhra Pradesh.

It declined in 2009 to 16 seats (nine from West Bengal, four from Kerala, two from Tripura, and one from Tamil Nadu).

In 2014, the CPI(M) seats were reduced to just nine Lok Sabha seats (five from Kerala, two from West Bengal, and two from Tripura), and the vote share was 3.6 percent.

In 2019, it reached an all-time low of three Lok Sabha seats (two from Tamil Nadu and one from Kerala), and the vote share reached 1.75 percent.

It may be recalled that the undivided Communist Party was the largest Opposition bloc in the Lok Sabha after the first general election of 1952.

Legendary Communist leader AK Gopalan from Kerala emerged as the first Opposition leader as a result.