Column | SilverLine debate: CPM double standard on free speech

SilverLine debate: CPM double standard on free speech

Call it irony. The CPM could invite Congress leader K V Thomas to its national conclave despite the latter's party prohibiting him from attending the meeting. CPM justifies the invitation saying a common platform could host different opinions.

The same party that bats for bringing together different opinions to a common platform, however, does not want Joseph C Mathew to participate in a debate on the controversial SilverLine semi-high-speed rail corridor.

The CPM and its chief minister have all rights to decide the panelists for the debate. But the irony lies in the party criticising the Congress for initiating disciplinary action against Thomas for attending the CPM's 23rd party conclave.

Two debates have caught the attention of political Kerala recently. One was Thomas's decision to attend the CPM party Congress in defiance of his party's fiat. The CPM, including Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, lauded Thomas for his courage in defying his party high command, with Sitaram Yechury, even questioning the Congress's narrow mindedness.

Within days, CPM, led by the same Yechury and Vijayan, expelled Mathew, initially included in the panelists on the debate on SilverLine, from the discussion. The party's decision made the opposition and Mathew wonder out loud whether CPM was scared of questions on the controversial project. This was the second debate.

Who is Joseph Mathew?

The CPM wants Thomas, currently in loggerheads with the Congress leadership, but does not want Mathew, who has been a thorn in the party's side since the days of V S Achuthanandan. The expulsion of Mathew – after inviting him for the debate – is merely a political decision.

The CPM could continue arguing for providing space for different and conflicting opinions. But if asked about Mathew's expulsion from the debate, the party may raise a counter question, "who is Mathew?"

Dropping Mathew from the debate points at the individual and political interests of whoever leading the party. Such moves narrows down or expands – better say, 'shapes' – the space and scope of democracy.

Former chief engineer of railways Alok Kumar Verma's visit to Kerala two weeks ago had sparked the controversy over the SilverLine debate. Verma's attempts to meet the chief minister and chief secretary went in vain. Chief secretary V P Joy, however, spoke to the former technocrat over the phone.

The debate plan was an offshoot of the criticism that no one in the government was willing to listen to Verma. Chief secretary Joy, who has been hearing different opinions on K-Rail's SilverLine project, took the initiative to hold the debate.

The initial plan was to invite Alok Kumar Verma, K P Kannan and R V G Menon for the debate. After Kannan informed the government of his inconvenience, it was decided to include either Sreedhar Ramakrishnan or Joseph C Mathew. Later, the search for the third panelist ended in Mathew after Radhakrishnan informed that he could not attend on the scheduled date.

Incidentally, the official in charge of holding the debate or K-Rail's managing director V Ajith Kumar were unaware of Mathew's political history. Chief secretary, apparently, missed it too.

The Chief Minister's Office was shocked to see news reports naming Mathew among panelists. It swung into action, and made clear that the Pinarayi Vijayan government would not honour Mathew as a guest. Perhaps, the chief secretary might have enquired about the 'controversial' figure after the CMO's intervention.

Controversy over Mathew

Joseph C Mathew was the advisor to the government on information technology when V S Achuthanandan was the chief minister. The then CPM leadership under Pinarayi Vijayan had then found Mathew having anti-party influence on the administration.

After Achuthanandan became the opposition leader, the party found Mathew behind the anti-party movements centred on the Cantonment House. The party intervened and asked Achuthanandan to sever all ties with Mathew and banned him from visiting the opposition leader's official residence.

Mathew's support to Achuthanandan when factionalism was at the peak in the CPM angered Vijayan. Neither Vijayan nor Kodiyeri Balakrishnan would forgive Mathew for the support he had extended to Achuthanandan.

Additionally, Mathew offered his advice to Congress leaders who later became the opposition. Hence, the present dispensation at the State would never accept him.

Meanwhile, the CPM opined that the debate need not be conducted under the auspices of the government or on its expense. It was suggested that K-Rail could hold the event. The guests, however, declined the invitation, expressing their unwillingness to be a part of K-Rail's public relation exercise.

In the meantime, the chief secretary was caught in a fix after questions were raised on the derailed debate plan. Pointing to the derailed plan, those opposed to SilverLine questioned the government's capability to implement the State's largest infrastructure project.

CPM does not want metroman E Sreedharan after he had joined the BJP. Alok Kumar Verma is not welcomed to the chief minister's office. Mathew, once close to Achuthanandan, has been banned.

Making a decision on the panelists is within the rights of the CPM and the chief minister. But at the same time, it is not prudent on CPM's part to criticise the Congress for prohibiting K V Thomas from attending the CPM conclave.

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