Kanam Rajendran: Leader who tried to stop Kerala’s Left from veering off its path

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Kanam Rajendran. File Photo: Onmanorama

CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran, who died of a heart attack on Friday, is perhaps the only Left leader who had performed the cliffhanger trick on Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

Kanam nudged Pinarayi off the cliff and held the dangling Chief Minister by his hand. He pulled the Chief Minister back to land only after he got what he wanted: the resignation of transport minister Thomas Chandy.

It was November 15, 2017, Wednesday, a year after the first Pinarayi Vijayan ministry came to power. A cabinet meeting was scheduled at 11 a.m. Thomas Chandy, who was found guilty of illegal encroachment of government land and against whom the High Court had passed a damning indictment, had been holding out for too long despite repeated calls for his resignation. Confident that he had the Chief Minister's support, Chandy was one of the first ministers to reach the meeting hall.

But before the Chief Minister could reach the meeting, he was met by revenue minister E Chandrasekhar with a note. Chandrasekhar was reluctant but his boss, Kanam Rajendran, insisted that he hand over the note to the Chief Minister. The note gave Pinarayi a jolt. The four CPI ministers, the note said, will boycott cabinet meetings as long as Chandy was minister.

Such brinkmanship, that too by a gentle party like the CPI, was unheard of in Kerala politics. A rattled Pinarayi called this "unprecedented" but, even if resentful, had to ask Chandy to put in his papers. The first Pinarayi ministry survived.

Left’s moral compass
At least during his initial years at the top of the state CPI, Kanam was widely considered the moral centre of the LDF.

CPI State Secretary Kanam Rajendran. Photo: Manorama

Whenever he felt that the CPM was straying from Left principles, Kanam refused to hold back. In 2017, before he forced Pinarayi to boot out Thomas Chandy, Kanam had voiced his strong objections to what he said were the "anti-Left" and "dictatorial" tendencies of the LDF government.

He was especially critical of the Pinarayi government's eagerness to block the release of cabinet documents under the Right to Information Act. "The CPI will oppose any move to clip the wings of the RTI Act," Kanam had declared.

Later, when Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) was clamped on two students Alan Shuaib and Thwaha Fasal in November, 2019, Kanam did not conceal his displeasure. "UAPA should not be imposed in such cases. As per the directives issued in the state, such charges should be slapped only by an official in the rank of IG. It is understood that all such norms were clearly violated in Kozhikode," Kanam said, clearly miffed that the government was straying from Left principles.

Kanam Rajendran (left) and Kodiyeri Balakrishnan (right). File Photo: Manorama

Leader in Achuthanandan’s mould
He publicly reprimanded the police, and by extension, the Chief Minister who was holding the Home portfolio. "If the accused had committed any crime, cases should be registered as per existing laws. However, the CPI does not agree with any legislation that allows the police to keep somebody in custody without trial. The state police should act as per the Left government’s policies," he said.

He kept up his rebellion all through the first LDF tenure. As recently as in 2020, when Maoist Velmurugan was shot dead by Kerala Police's elite commando force Thunderbolt, Kanam adopted his stern disciplinarian’s tone. Velmurugan was the eighth Maoist to be gunned down by the state after the LDF came to power in 2016. Kanam quickly called the state council of his party and demanded an immediate magisterial inquiry into the killing.

He then met the press and stated that the police action against the Maoists was a "blot on the face of the Kerala government."

This was a time when Pinarayi Vijayan had already emerged as the unquestionable leader of the CPM. Even central CPM leaders were reluctant to offend him. Kanam was least bothered. His political conviction and courage made the CPI seem considerably more relevant than its numbers suggested. After V S Achuthanandan exited from active politics, it was as if the former Chief Minister had left his nonchalance and ideological rigour to Kanam.

Kanam gave the impression of being an ideologically upright long-term politician. He was concerned about the LDF's deviations under Pinarayi for immediate political gains, and openly articulated his worries.

"When the Left is in power, the government cannot go on by taking anti-Left stances. Only in two states, Kerala and Tripura, the Left is in power. In other states, the Left workers are in constant struggle and are protesting against anti-Left policies. If Kerala fails to uphold the virtues of the Left, we will be failing their hands," Kanam had said.

The CPI leader also took pride in this dissenter tag. In 2017, after receiving the Manorama News Newsmaker prize, Kanam said: "I see this prize as public support for the true Left values that I had stood for."

Manorama News Conclave
Kanam Rajendran (left) with VD Satheesan and V Muraleedharan at the Manorama News Conclave in Thrissur in 2022. File photo: Manorama

Fall of the rebel
Nonetheless, three factors combined to undermine Kanam's power. One, the CPM decision to expand the LDF. As a first step, the CPM roped in Kerala Congress (Mani) rudely brushing aside the bitterness of Kanam. He was far more disheartened when the CPM attempted to lure the Muslim League. All of a sudden, it was felt that the most obstinately Left among the LDF constituents was no longer wanted in the fold.

Two, factionalism in CPI. Ever since his second term at the state CPI's helm, Kanam was in a perennial struggle with the old guard of the party led by K E Ismail and C Divakaran.

Nonetheless, it was a reflection of Kanam's political courage and his long term vision for the party that saw him resting stalwarts like Divakaran and Mullakkara Ratnakaran and introducing new and fresh faces like E Chandrasekharan, V S Sunil Kumar, P Thilothaman, K Raju, K Rajan, and G R Anil.

All the same, Kanam was so caught up in this internal fight that he did not have time to play the moral referee. To win a third term became the predominant concern. In this bargain, it was the heroic dissenter's voice that he lost.

Finally, his own health did him in. It was recently that Kanam revealed to Malayala Manorama that acute diabetes and an uncontrolled infection had caused his right foot to be amputated. Kanam had visited a doctor when a small wound under his right foot had refused to heal even after two months. The infection could not be stalled even after three of his toes were removed. And then, as a last resort, his right foot was amputated on November 21.

Even though he had applied for a three-month leave, Kanam was confident of continuing as the state secretary.

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