How PFI's political arm made inroads into strongholds of CPM, IUML

A PFI rally. File Photo

Kasaragod: Muzhappilangad -- between Kannur and Thalassery -- is on the world map because of its long drive-in beach. Youths and tourists in cars and on motorcycles always leave trails of their frolics on the wet but firm sand-bed.

But unlike the drive-in beach, the sands are treacherously shifting in Muzhappilangad's political landscape. For the first time in two decades, the CPM-led Left Democratic Front saw its seats in the 15-member panchayat board drop below 10 in 2020. The CPM, with six members, is still able to control Muzhappilangad panchayat board because of the small mercies or grand scheme of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political arm of the now-banned Popular Front of India (PFI).

The SDPI -- registered with the Election Commission of India in April 2010 -- has four members on the Muzhappilangad panchayat board. Three of them wrested their seats from the CPM, and one SDPI member snatched her seat from the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML).

Till 2015, the SDPI had zero seats in the panchayat. The CPM used to win 10 or more seats and the remaining five were shared by the IUML and the Congress. Now, the SDPI and the Congress have four seats each. The IUML has just one member. "For long, the CPM was using the SDPI to dent the bastions of the Muslim League. But in 2020, the CPM had a direct contest with the SDPI at Muzhappilangad and it took a beating," said Chandran Churai, veteran CPI leader and political observer from Thalassery, 10 km from the panchayat.

The SDPI still enjoys the silent approval of the CPM because it helps the party make inroads in other places, he said. "But it's a dangerous game," said Chandran.

Social critic Hameed Chennamangaloor said the game is cynically played by the LDF and also the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). "The ban on the PFI has put the spotlight on SDPI and its alliance with the two fronts. Else, both the UDF and the LDF have no prick of conscience in seeking the SDPI's help during elections," said Hameed, a staunch critic of religious fundamentalism.

He is spot on. In Kasaragod's Manjeshwar block panchayat, the Muslim League and the BJP have six members each. The LDF has two members. The SDPI's N Abdul Hameed voted with the Muslim League to help the party control the block panchayat board.

In a quid pro quo, Hameed was made the chairman of the block panchayat's standing committee for welfare.

The IUML's ally Congress was the bitter loser in this game of deception. Hameed defeated Congress's sitting member Haseena K. "During the local body election, the Muslim League helped SDPI win several seats. The SDPI returned the favour during the Assembly election by publicly campaigning for the IUML candidate in Manjeshwar," said Congress leader Harshad Vorkady.

In Kasaragod's Meenja panchayat, the CPI-led LDF is at the helm with five members because of the open support from SDPI's lone member and IUML's three members. The alliance is to keep out BJP, which has five members in the 16-member panchayat board.

Speaking to Onmanorama when the PFI was banned, IUML leader K M Shaji said extremism was growing in the country because "mainstream political parties take along extremist organisations for vote bank politics shamelessly. The double-dealing of the ruling class is another reason which keeps them relevant".

The SDPI is not just being relevant but is thriving. In 2020 local body election in Kerala, the party won 95 seats, 75 of them in gram panchayats, 18 in municipalities, one in Manjeshwar block panchayat and one in Kollam corporation. In 2015, the SDPI had only 40 seats across the state, including 32 in grama panchayats.

K P Mohanan, an independent journalist and a keen observer of Left politics in Kannur, has a different take on the growth of SDPI and PFI. "The PFI members infiltrate into any stronger party in an area and overtly campaign for it. But covertly, they work on their agenda," he said.

In Kannur, the PFI members hide in CPM and the conflict with the RSS gives them legitimacy, he said. In Malappuram, they blend with the Muslim League.

Since the 90s, a lot of people from the coastal areas of Thalassery settled down at Muzhappilangad. "They came as DYFI members but over the years, they turned to PFI," he said.

Something similar is happening in Valapattanam, a panchayat on the outskirts of Kannur corporation, said Mohanan. "But in Valapattanam, Congress is the victim," he said.

Vallapattanam was a working-class liberal panchayat with Congress and IUML having the almost same strength, he said. "There was no CPM or Welfare Party in 2010. Now, Congress has only one member. BJP has two members, Welfare Party - the political outfit launched by Jamaat-e-Islami Hind -  has one member, the CPM has two members and IUML has seven members," Mohanan said.

In Pathanamthitta municipality, deputy chairperson Ameena Hyderali contested as a Congress rebel but was backed by the SDPI. "When she won, she was surrounded by SDPI supporters. No Congress rebels were to be seen. The LDF later made her the deputy chairperson," he said.

In Pathanamthitta district's Kottangal panchayat, where no party has a majority, the lone SDPI member backs the LDF even though their support was not sought. Panchayat president Binu Joseph said he resigned from the post twice because of allegations of having a truck with the SDPI. "In April 2021, I was made the president again. I decided to continue to avoid a crisis of governance," he said.

The BJP, which has four members in Kottangal panchayat, said the SDPI had helped the CPM during voting and after voting. "When we bring in a no-confidence motion, the UDF and the SDPI abstain," said Akhil S Nair, a BJP panchayat member.

Hameed Chennamangaloor said the CPM and the Muslim League were not welcoming the ban on the PFI because it has a significant vote base and both the parties have an eye on it.

But again, the ban makes little sense because the SDPI is still a legal entity, he said. "100% of PFI workers are workers of the SDPI," he said.

For the ban to be effective, the governments will have to cut the financial vein of these organisations, said Hameed.

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