Stung by the rout in this year’s general election, the CPM has taken a U-turn on its efforts to promote Kerala’s renaissance values, judging by the debates in its leadership forums over the past six days. The party has become painfully aware of the fact that it could not even ensure the votes of all the people who lined up in January to form a “women’s wall” - a human chain formed to drum up support for the state government’s decision to implement a Supreme Court order that allowed women of all ages in the Sabarimala shrine.
A year after the landmark judgment in September 2018, the Kerala government and the party that leads it have come full circle. The CPM which has so far maintained the necessity of implementing the court order will have a tough time enlightening the cadre about the new necessity of standing by the faithful. The message will be percolated down to all party units before September 28.
Back and forth
As soon as the Supreme Court passed the order on September 28, the CPM-led government in Kerala declared that it was duty-bound to implement the order. The chief minister himself toured the state to explain the rationale behind the government’s decision. On New Year’s day, thousands of women lined up along the arterial roads of Kerala as part of a show of strength against a conservative backlash.
As soon as the annual pilgrimage season to the Sabarimala got over, the CPM changed its strategy and focused on the imminent general election. The Sabarimala issue was carefully left out from the election campaign in a bid not to ruffle feathers. A hastily assembled collective of pro-government community associations was put in limbo.
Such measures, however, came too late. The CPM-led Left Democratic Front lost all but one seat in Kerala. The allies refused to stand by the bigger party after the rout. Even the CPM central committee admitted that many of its voters were lured away by opponents. Party forums were rife with exhortations to draw back the faithful multitude. The state committee obliged by throwing its weight behind the faithful.
Over to the chief minister
The CPM state committee and the state secretary have admitted that the organisation took the wrong political decisions when it comes to religious matters. Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who formed the government’s policies regarding the Sabarimala issue and led from the front, is yet to speak out on the matter. He had brushed aside initial suggestions that the Sabarimala tangle had contributed to the election fiasco.
The party had an inkling that the issue would backfire in the election. That was precisely the reason for a strict directive to keep mum on the subject in the roadshows led by CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran before the poll. Yet CPM’s Hindu vote base eroded in the election.
The election rout led to an introspection within the CPM which culminated in the just concluded state committee and state secretariat meetings. The party has called upon its workers to work with places of worship - a strange contradiction for a party that had always kept away from religion.
The state committee has called for caution in the days ahead. The government is waiting for the Supreme Court decision on a review petition on women’s entry to Sabarimala. The party has offered to work with the religious people. Community organisations including the Nair Service Society will be keenly watching the government’s attitude towards the patchwork of community associations formed under the “renaissance” label.
The Pala twist
The CPM’s face-saving attempts hit a road block when the election commission announced the dates of the byelection to the Pala assembly constituency, which had been without representation since K M Mani’s demise. Kodiyeri expressed the party’s displeasure by asking what was the need for conducting bypoll only to Pala. The ruling front was hoping for simultaneous byelections to all six vacant assembly seats in the state.
Pala is a different ball game though. This is the only one of the six states where the major parties - the CPM and the Congress - have stepped aside in favour of smaller allies. The Kerala Congress will move earth to retain its home ground. The party cannot afford to lose its late leader’s seat, especially when it is going through a nasty tussle for power.
The CPM got a breather when it fared relatively well in the local body elections that followed the general election. “By winning 22 of the 44 wards, we have proved that our popular base is still intact,” the party state committee evaluated.
Yet the party is headed for the real fight to prove its relevance. The party has tough headwinds to face in Pala where all religious formations are strongly rooted. The BJP got 24,821 votes in Pala in 2016.