Opinion | How CPI(M) Became A Victim Of Its Own Propaganda In Kerala

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Beyond the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) opening its Lok Sabha account in Kerala through Suresh Gopi, the Left's rout in the general election warrants a closer analysis. Anti-incumbency – although it did play a part – wasn't the only factor. There was a larger undercurrent that became evident after the Lok Sabha election results.

The Left Democratic Front (LDF), led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M), has been reduced to a third of the total vote share at 33.3%. It lost an additional two percentage points since 2019 despite an alliance with the Church-backed Kerala Congress (M) and the Socialists. The National Democratic Alliance's (NDA) vote share, in contrast, climbed to a staggering 19.2%.

While the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) also lost two percentage points and got just about 45% votes, it has retained the support of Muslims and Christians. It's the LDF that's in serious need of introspection. 

How CPI(M) Became A ‘Hindu Party'

It needs to be understood that the CPI(M) has long been considered Kerala's ‘Hindu party'. This has been the case since the time the undivided Communist Party came to power in the first assembly election in 1957, soon after the Kerala Renaissance movement championed by Ayyankali, Narayana Guru and Chattambi Swamikal, who worked for the upliftment of the Scheduled Castes, the Ezhavas and the Nairs, respectively. 

The Ezhavas (known as Thiyyas in Malabar), though the largest Hindu community in Kerala constituting about 23% of the state's population, were at the bottom of the social strata – below the Nairs, categorised as Shudras – and above only the ‘untouchables'. The rampant discrimination against them prompted some of them to turn to Christianity and Islam. It was social reformer Narayana Guru's teachings that alleviated the community's plight. The Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam was also established under his tutelage in 1903, though it later diverted from its founding goals. 

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The Ezhavas never integrated fully into the Hindu fold as they were guided by Narayana Guru's doctrine of 'One Caste, One Religion, One God for humanity' and the ‘Sri Narayana' religion. It may thus have been easier for them to eventually adopt the Communist ‘faith' when it became prominent in Kerala in the ‘40s and ‘50s, which promised to bring equality to all. Even today, it's not uncommon to see households in Kerala that have images of the gods of all three major faiths displayed prominently. 

Interestingly, it's no secret how the SNDP Yogam resisted destabilisation attempts by CPI(M)'s EMS Namboodiripad, who had grown wary of the outfit after its involvement in Kerala's anti-Communist liberation struggle of 1958-59.

Meanwhile, by 1914, the Nair Service Society (NSS) had been founded as a renaissance outfit by Mannathu Padmanabhan on the lines of the SNDP Yogam. Post-1925, when the Nair Regulation abolished matriliny, many in the group came to identify themselves as ‘Savarna' with the breaking up of the hierarchical caste structure practised by Namboothiri Brahmins. 

The Birth Of The UDF And LDF

Over the years, both the SNDP Yogam and the NSS formed their own political outfits: the Socialist Republican Party (SRP) and the National Democratic Party (NDP), respectively. While the NSS's political ambition was shaped by the fact that the Church-backed Kerala Congress (a breakaway faction of the Congress) was gradually becoming a vehicle for Christian aspirations, the SRP was formed as a counter to the NSS outfit. Ultimately, all of them aligned with the Congress. 

All these developments culminated in giving shape to the UDF and the LDF groupings in the state. The Congress-led UDF was a collective of various community outfits, including the Kerala Congress and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). The LDF, in turn, stayed true - mostly - to its Communist moorings. 

Amidst all this, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Jan Sangh, though active, remained largely dormant. A window finally emerged for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2011 during the Oommen Chandy-led UDF government's days, when the IUML started flexing its muscles over accommodating a fifth minister from its ranks. That led the NSS and the SNDP Yogam to implore Hindus to unite. 

The Shift Towards BJP

The SNDP Yogam eventually found common cause with the BJP and veered towards it as Vellappally Nateshan, a businessman who consolidated his leadership of the outfit, saw an opportunity in aligning with the Hindutva party when Narendra Modi assumed power in Delhi. It birthed another political outfit: the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), led by Nateshan's son Tushar Vellappally. Parallelly, the BJP had already been making inroads among the Nairs, who felt alienated after the sidelining of former Chief Minister K. Karunakaran, a Nair, within the Congress.

The BDJS was touted as a party open to all Hindus, and it went on to become a force multiplier for the BJP.  The 2016 assembly election saw the BDJS at its peak. The BJP-BDJS alliance acted as a spoiler to ensure the LDF's win. That election also saw the BJP opening its account for the first time in the Kerala assembly, when O. Rajagopal won from Nemom. The Supreme Court verdict on women's entry into the Sabarimala shrine in 2018 also came at an opportune time for the BJP, and the Lok Sabha polls that followed in 2019 saw the party becoming a force to reckon with. 

Ultimately, the CPI(M)'s Ezhava vote bank was bound to come under siege too. The Sabarimala protests reinforced the identity of the Ezhavas and Thiyyas, who began to see themselves more as Hindus and not mere proponents of the Sri Narayana religion. This pushed them to identify with the BJP. 

The CPI(M) initially managed to keep the gradual but sure swing towards the BJP at bay, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and Pinarayi Vijayan's strong leadership during it, coupled with his social engineering. But Vijayan had realised that the CPI(M)'s Hindu vote bank was gradually eroding. Minority outreach, he thought, would be enough to compensate for that. But the two-time Chief Minister was deeply mistaken, as he would later see.

2024: Ominous Signs For CPI(M)

The CPI(M) did not think twice before employing dog whistles in a desperate bid to win the 2021 assembly polls. For instance, it tapped into the subtle Islamophobia prevalent among Christians in central Kerala, whereas it adopted a protective position for Muslims on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register for Citizens (NRC) in the Malabar region. 

Unlike the past, the CPI(M) also significantly watered down its ideology in the Pinarayi Vijayan era, promoting religious leaders and backing those from the middle classes to rise through the ranks. Also, with the fading of class pretensions, the neo-middle class that joined the party identified themselves more with their religions and castes, drawing them to the BJP.

The 2024 Lok Sabha campaign saw the CPI(M) once again flogging the CAA issue and backing the Hamas in Palestine, convening solidarity marches and events in the Muslim-dominated Malabar region. The Left even riled against Shashi Tharoor for decrying the violence perpetrated by Hamas and dubbed him an ‘Israeli sympathiser'. The party went to the extent of painting the IUML as being hypocritical.

Vijayan played his cards well in exploiting not just the cleavages that existed in the IUML's fraught relationship with the Samastha Kerala Jemiyyathul Ulema, but also the Church dispute between the Malankara Jacobite and Orthodox factions in central Kerala, assuming these tactics would help him tide over anti-incumbency. But he wasn't prepared for the Hindu backlash coming his way.

How CPI(M)'s Campaign Backfired

Not only did Muslims (and Christians) consolidate behind the UDF, going by the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey, but the Left also saw a huge erosion of its Ezhava vote bank. Worse still, the erosion of Marxist cadre votes to the BJP in Alappuzha and Kannur, once considered the party's strongholds, could portend an ominous future for the Left in Kerala. 

All in all, the CPI(M) became a victim of its own propaganda in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, though other factors, such as the Sangh's outreach to Thiyyas, the promotion of subaltern deities in ‘Kavus' (family shrines), and involvement in temple affairs to integrate the local traditions within the larger Hindu fold, were also at play.

Can the CPI (M) arrest the slide by 2026? Only time will tell.

(Anand Kochukudy is a senior journalist and columnist)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author