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Communism not yet a relic in the south

Pope's comment attracts attention thousands of miles from apparent target

  • AJ Philip, Delhi
  • India
  • March 29, 2012
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Pope Benedict XVI could not have imagined that his comment that Cuba’s Marxist structure “no longer corresponds to reality” would have evoked such a strong reaction thousands of miles away in the tiny Indian state of Kerala.

Many, including Communist Party of India (Marxist) Politburo member S RamachandranPillai, have described the statement as the Pontiff’s “personal opinion,” betraying a poor understanding of the functioning of the Roman Curia.

However, it is not difficult to understand why the pope’s comment went unnoticed in Cuba, where President Raul Castro was present in the front row when the Pope said a mass at Santiago, the second largest city in the country, whereas it became a subject of intense political debate in Kerala, where the world’s first democratically elected Communist government came to power in 1957.

The state’s dalliance with Communism began in the 1920s, when a picture of Karl Marx was printed and distributed but went largely unnoticed. However, the ideology of a casteless, classless society where everyone worked according to his ability and received according to his needs appealed to some sections of the people.

The popular movement in the state at that time was the Congress led by such stalwarts as the Mahatma Gandhi and the first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru.

In Kerala, a section of the Congressmen who were inspired by Socialist ideals and were in the forefront of the anti-colonial, anti-feudal struggles led by EMS Namboodiripad and AK Gopalan joined the Communist Party, which soon became a viable political force.

While Namboodiripad provided the intellectual underpinnings of the Communist Party, Gopalan’s popularity among the people helped it establish a large base in the state.

The party won the elections in 1957 and formed a government under the leadership of Namboodiripad but some of the “reforms” it initiated in the education and farm sectors did not find favour with the upper caste Hindus like the Nairs and the Christians, particularly the Catholics, leading to a “liberation struggle,” which had the tacit support of the Congress leadership. The popular agitation was used as a ruse to dismiss the government in 1959.

The split in the world Communist movement, following the emergence of Mao Tse-tung in China, had its impact on the party in Kerala, which split into two with the CPI owing allegiance to the Russian model and the CPI (M) drawing inspiration from the peasant struggle that brought Mao to power.

But this division weakened the Communist movement in Kerala. It required the imagination of Namboodiripad to cobble together a seven-party alliance, including a Catholic priest-led Kerala Socialist Party, to defeat the Congress and come to power in 1967.

In Kerala, there are now two evenly balanced fronts, led by the CPI(M) and the Congress, alternatively coming to power every five years. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communists going the capitalist way, the Kerala Communists have only the Cuba model to draw inspiration from. They often refer to the strong healthcare system in Cuba, supposedly better than anywhere in the world, including the US. It is like the drowning man clutching at a straw.

In any case, ideology no longer drives the Communists, for whom the little gains of power are what matter most. It is not incongruous to find a poor Catholic attending the mass every Sunday with family also attending rallies organised by the party. In the past, the party had such powerful leaders as the late TV Thomas and today MA Baby and Thomas Isaac are some of the top Marxist leaders in the state.

Though Communism and atheism go hand in hand, the party never insisted that its followers give up their religious beliefs. In fact, Namboodiripad’s wife was a devout Hindu. It is also not uncommon for CPI (M) leaders like MA Baby to visit bishops and priests at the time of elections, as part of their election strategy.

At one time, the Communists were a powerful political force in the country. They were strong in some areas in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar and had the largest contingent in Indian Parliament after the ruling Congress. Today the Communists are confined to Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura.

In West Bengal, where the CPI (M) created a record by ruling uninterruptedly for more than three decades till it was displaced by the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress in 2011, the party first won the confidence of the people by organising them in the struggle against poverty and hunger. Ironically, a majority of the migrant labor in Kerala comes from West Bengal. Again, it is a misnomer to call the Marxist voter in West Bengal a Communist, for he would also be a worshipper of Kali, the Hindu goddess.

One of the reasons for the CPI (M)’s popularity was the leadership of the late Jyoti Basu, an Oxford-educated politician who converted it into an almost regional party by appealing to the sub-national feelings of the Bengalis. In nearby Tripura, where, too, the CPI (M) is strong, it is not the Communist ideology that inspires the partyworkers. Rather, it is a combination of regional, sub-nationalist, linguistic and clannish feelings that helped the CPI (M) to come to power in the tribal-dominated state.

Over the decades, the Marxists have not brought either Kerala or Tripura and West Bengal closer to Communism but they have emerged as one of the richest political groups, owning large office buildings and medical colleges.

The writer is a senior New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at ajphilip@gmail.com
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