The CPM has never been able to say with any amount of certainty whether Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) is communal or not.
Former chief ministers EM Sankaran Namboodirippad and VS Achuthanandan felt it was. Even serving state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan thinks so. But other stalwarts - another former chief minister EK Nayanar and incumbent Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan - were not so sure.
In 2000, when they were Chief Minister and party secretary, Nayanar and Vijayan had pushed for selective, 'local body'-level pacts with the League. They were not arguing for a statewide alliance with the IUML, just a tactical panchayat-specific understanding. Still, Nayanar and Vijayan were disciplined by the party; they were 'censured'.
In comparison, EP Jayarajan who was enthusiastic about a statewide alliance with the IUML just after he took over as the LDF convener was let off lightly. He was not even 'warned', the mildest form of punishment in the CPM's discipline manual. Truth is, even Nayanar and Vijayan were lucky in 2000 because their pro-League stand did not lead to expulsion like in the case of MV Raghavan in 1986.
Then, Nayanar was dropped from the politburo, a severe form of punishment just short of expulsion, for showing initial interest in Raghavan's 'Badal Rekha' (alternative thesis), which argued for the inclusion of both the League and Kerala Congress (Mani) in the LDF fold.
Therefore, it can be seen that the CPM's annoyance with internal voices arguing for electoral tie-ups with parties considered 'communal' has been dwindling to near zero or token levels. The KC(M), which was once seen as communal by no less a person than EMS, is already in the LDF fold.
All this, therefore, might give the impression that the CPM would in the not too distant future work out a tactical alliance with the IUML. The reality is, even if CPM insiders are aware of this, a deal with the IUML will only do more harm than good for the party.
Muslim approval without League crutch
First of all, as EP Jayarajan himself had said while withdrawing his invite to the League, the LDF bettered its tally from 91 in 2016 to 99 in 2021 without the League's support. In other words, the LDF does not require the IUML to secure a huge mandate.
Even without the League, the CPM is attracting substantial Muslim support. A study of the 2021 Assembly polls by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) has shown that though two-thirds of the Muslim votes in 'Malabar Region', thanks to the League's sway over the Muslim population in the area, are still pocketed by the UDF, nearly half the Muslim votes in 'Cochin Region' went to the LDF.
In 2016, the LDF secured just 25 per cent of Muslim votes in 'Cochin Region'. In 2021 it surged to 49 per cent. There was a marginal increase in LDF's share of Muslim votes in 'Travancore region' as well. The leadership role assumed by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in the nationwide agitation against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) played a big part.
Pinarayi's Samastha coup
And now, after the Waqf-PSC controversy, the Chief Minister seems to have made the LDF more agreeable in the Malabar Region, too. Though the LDF government's move to hand over Wakf Board appointments to the Public Service Commission had caused resentment in the Muslim community, a dispute arose about the tactics the League wanted to adopt against the government.
The League wanted to use the pulpit of the mosques to speak against the government. the EK faction of Samastha Kerala Jem-iyyathul Ulama, the organisation that controls the majority of mosques in Kerala and is also the last word in affairs related to Sunni Muslim spirituality, put its foot down.
The Chief Minister used the opportunity to do something unprecedented. He held direct talks with Sayed Jifri Muthukkoya Thangal, the EK Samastha president who vetoed the League plan, and assured him that Muslim sentiments would be respected.
Now, Vijayan has both the EK and AP factions on his side; the E K Aboobacker Musliyar's Samastha has traditionally been associated with the League and the AP Aboobacker Musliyar's Samastha led by Kanthapuram Aboobacker has long been hitched to the LDF.
The League was so rattled that it organised a Waqf Protection meet in Kozhikode in December 2021. More than to speak about the dangers to the Waqf Board, the meeting was intended as a demonstration of its political strength in Malabar. It was the League's way of telling the Samastha to keep out of politics, to confine itself to spiritual matters. The meet, which drew a record crowd, subjected the CPM and its leaders to some harsh, even tasteless, criticism.
Long term risk of a tie-up
Besides these subtle encroachments into League territory, the CPM had already been chipping away at the League's edges like waves on rocks. Breakaway parties from League like the Indian National League were given refuge in the LDF and popular League dissidents like KT Jaleel and PTA Rahim were used to wrest League strongholds in North Kerala.
After securing such advantages, CPM insiders feel that an open understanding with the IUML would be "fatally greedy". "The party might get more seats in the short term but our secular image would be tarnished forever," a CPM Central Committee member said on the condition of anonymity.
It will smack of hypocrisy also. In 2019, when the then Congress president Rahul Gandhi decided to contest from Wayanad, here is what CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said: "Rahul Gandhi has clambered up the Wayanad pass mounted on that dead horse called the Muslim League." He went further. He said Congress was cultivating Muslim fundamentalism by aligning with the Muslim League.
IUML useful as an enemy than a friend
Taking the League out of the UDF could also be a tactical mistake.
Reason: the CPM has quite successfully used the presence of the League, during the 2021 Assembly polls, for instance, to poke at the Congress's secular credentials. The Muslim League is like the misshapen scar on Congress's face that the CPM is only happy to make fun of. It wants the scar to remain.
It can yield rich political dividends. It is now an established fact that the events that led to the appointment of the “fifth minister” from the Muslim League had caused the first substantial erosion of Hindu votes from Congress in 2016. With the BJP eating into a chunk of Congress's traditional upper-caste Hindu votes - its vote share ballooning from just 6 per cent to 15 per cent for the first time in history - the LDF made indirect gains.
Co-Lea-B and a scary trio
The League's presence also allows the CPM to hurl its trademark Co-Lea-B barb at the Congress. Co-Lea-B refers to the surreptitious Congress-League-BJP pacts in the 1990s that certain BJP leaders have openly attested to and which had helped sow lasting suspicions in secular-minded voters about Congress's commitment to secularism.
The League's association with the UDF also emboldens the CPM to send coded messages to Hindu voters. "The UDF is a front led by Hassan, Kutty and Amir," Kodiyeri had said in October 2020, during the last local body elections. He was referring to M M Hassan, then the KPCC acting president, League leader Kunhalikutty and Jamaat-e-Islami Amir M I Abdul Aziz.
By then the CPM had learned how to ensnare these Hindu votes that drift away from the Congress out of discontent. The idea is to endear itself to the Hindu voter susceptible to the right-wing ideology but still want to remain steadfastly secular. But the challenge is to do this without hurting its growing Muslim constituency.
Keeping Hindus and Muslims happy
Since most Muslims in North Kerala identify themselves with the Muslim League, the CPM knows it is not politically wise to keep calling the League fanatic or communal.
Instead, the CPM tears into Muslim groups it has branded 'extremist', especially Jamaat-e-Islami because the name has an automatic Muslim connection to a conventional-sounding formation like the Popular Front of India.
The League fell into the CPM trap when it sought to have an electoral understanding with the Welfare Party, the political wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, during the local body polls in 2020. This allowed the CPM to demonise the League, rationally. Hindu voters were satisfied but secular-minded Muslims were not distanced either.
After having done all this to throw the League flat on its face, the CPM would want to go for the kill than carry the League on its back