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The lifelong siege that didn't last long

Once a pioneering example, Kerala's communism has lost its sheen

The lifelong siege that didn't last long
Jeemon Jacob,Thiruvananthapuram

August 26, 2013

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Crowds always fascinate me. Different faces talking different dialects are a unique experience. The spirit of joy soars when they have a common cause. So I was particularly happy earlier this month.

That was when 100,000 communists surrounded the Kerala secretariat, the nerve center of state government, demanding the resignation of the state’s chief minister, Oommen Chandy, over a financial scam.

The leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) declared they would not leave until Chandy resigned. Yet the siege ended the next day and Chandy is still in office.

What happened? What has happened to the communists in Kerala? Are they losing ground in this state, which many believe made history in 1957 by installing the world's first democratically elected communist government?

They ended the siege even though everything was going in their favor — the media, the timing, the weather, the numbers. Media, both national and international, played up the story with live telecasts and day and night coverage. Sensing trouble, the government declared two days holiday for the secretariat. It seems that even the bureaucrats were expecting the protesters to stay till the government fell.

Watching the massive protest, some old timers told me it brought to their minds the Church-led vimochana samaram -- the liberation struggle in 1958-59, which brought that fledgling communist government to an abrupt halt.

It looked like history turning full circle as the communists were now leading another "non-violent" struggle to bring down another elected government.

When the party announced the siege, I doubted their ability to rally such a big crowd in the Kerala capital. But after the start, I began to admire their organizing skills. The leaders had meticulously planned the struggle. There were volunteers to control the crowd and leaders monitoring each pocket closely to check any violence. The party had stores for two weeks to feed the 100,000 strong cadres, who came prepared to live and sleep on the roads and pavements, singing songs of revolution.

When the mob drifted towards hostility, the leaders controlled them, reminding them that their anger could derail the struggle. But despite all checks and balances, the mob did become violent on two occasions.

I saw the police officials consulting each other as the tension mounted. One of them told me to move to a safer place so I headed away from the crowd. I feared the worst if the police used water cannons on the jam-packed mob. There was every possibility of a stampede killing hundreds of people instantly.

Then the Commissioner of Police reached the scene. I saw him talking to the cop manning the water cannon, then jumping into the vehicle as if taking command. But nothing happened for a few minutes. No water, no baton charge.

Senior communist leaders reached the spot, they talked, and slowly the tension ebbed. Later, a police source told me the release button on the water jet failed. Lady luck was on the side of the communists.

An hour or so later, the cabinet announced a judicial probe into the Oommen Chandy scam. When that was flashed on the television channels, the communist leaders decided to end the siege.

I was delighted, but the cadres were disappointed. Some of them even protested. The explanations offered by their leaders didn’t convince them. It was widely felt that they offered a lame excuse to end a great struggle.

“Our party is destined for ruin,” said one demonstrator who was shouting slogans just five minutes earlier. “This struggle could have gone down in history had our leaders not ditched us.”

The fact is, communism has been losing its sheen in Kerala for several decades.

The state's working classes – the traditional core membership – have dwindled in number as they have migrated, particularly to the Arabian Gulf. In addition, the global developments that have challenged communist ideology, the open market system that India has adopted and the never ending revelations of political corruption: these have all taken their toll on the party and its policies.  Communists now remain a political force in only three of the 28 Indian states – Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura.

But why did they withdraw from this struggle without achieving their goal? One party sympathizer told me the leaders may have had an undeclared agenda and, moreover, they may have achieved it. As the nation goes to parliamentary elections next year, they may have simply wanted to show that their power to organize people against governments is not dead.

They may have also aimed to create enthusiasm among the party workers, who had not done anything like this in years. Maybe they were testing their own ability to call a rally and the strength of the response.

As the siege drew to a close, there were reports that the leaders decided to end the struggle after the intervention of a businessman, a non-resident Indian. I have no way to verify that, but I do know the crowds had dispersed within an hour with sunken heads and lost pride.

“No revolution in sight. Just a gimmick,” shouted one voice.

Jeemon Jacob is an award winning journalist for 28 years both in print and television. He was a Reuters Fellow and spent nine months in Oxford University as visiting scholar in 1994-95. He is currently Bureau Chief south of Tehelka Weekly.

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