For people outside Kerala, it might appear extremely contradictory that the Congress is the principal rival of the CPI(M) in the state whereas in West Bengal, it’s an ally. Both are national parties and their ideologies don’t change from state to state, but political priorities make them both enemies in one state and strange bedfellows in another.
Interestingly, in Kerala, the CPI(M) has an upper hand over the Congress as its rival; but in West Bengal, as an alliance partner, it’s weaker. For the same reasons, Congress supporters and even local leaders in Kerala ridicule the CPI(M) as a weakling that cannot stand up against the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) without their support. They make it a political point to “expose” the CPI(M).
The most affected by this dichotomy are the Congress’s national leaders, such as Rahul Gandhi, who campaign in both the states. In one state, he has to talk ill of the CPI(M) and immediately switch gears in another. To save himself from the embarrassment of changing political colours, he had to put off his campaign with the CPI(M) in West Bengal last month. The CPI(M)’s national leaders, such as Sitaram Yechury, too face the same dilemma. They are friendly with Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi everywhere outside Kerala, but will have to at least pose as rivals in Kerala. Since the current elections in Kerala are crucial for the existence of the CPI(M) in India, having been wiped out from the rest of the country, Yechury had to up the ante this time and even get personal against Rahul.
This Congress-CPI(M) alliance predicament is not restricted to Kerala and WB alone. The foes-turning-friends phenomenon happens across the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border too. As they breathe fire against each other in Kerala, in Tamil Nadu, the CPI(M) has no qualms in seeking votes with the help of Rahul. Rahul has no problem in sharing the same stage with the CPI(M) either. In fact, the Kerala-Tamil Nadu conundrum is older than the Kerala-West Bengal one. The poll folklore of both Kerala and Tamil Nadu is replete with stories about leaders such as M Karunanidhi and former CPI(M) General Secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet canvassing for votes hand-in-hand with the Congress in Tamil Nadu and suddenly changing their tone and tenor a few kilometres across the border where they were pitted against each other.
If one looks closely, this is no big contradiction but pure political expediency brought about by a virulent common enemy called the BJP. The physical and financial muscle of the BJP has grown so sharply over the last decade that no single party in India can take them on singlehandedly. As a result, all non-BJP “secular” parties are organising themselves against it to see if they can make any dent. In West Bengal, the Congress and the CPI(M) had a history of rivalry and alternating governments till 1977, when the CPI(M)/Left began its uninterrupted rule of 34 years. Given a choice, the Congress would have wanted to avoid a tie-up with the CPI(M), but its past experiment with the TMC had not been pleasant and hence it was left with no option.
In fact, Trinamool was the Congress’s first alliance choice way back in 2011 – and earlier too – when three-plus decades of the Left rule was terminated in the state. The Congress had become weak – almost irrelevant – and Trinamool was the only party that was capable of vanquishing the Left. Together, they won 227 seats out of 294, leaving the Left with 61 seats out of which the CPI(M)’s share was just 39.
Although they won the elections, the Congress’s experience with Trinamool as its junior partner was bad and hence in 2016, it finally did the unthinkable – tie up with the CPI(M). The alliance didn’t do badly, although in terms of seats the CPI(M) slid further down. The front won 38% of the votes, which was only 7% less than that of the TMC. Trinamool with 211 seats had become stronger and the Congress marginally better, but the CPI(M) got weaker. By 2019, the same alliance was literally routed with its vote share falling steeply to 14%. The BJP had begun its ascent and the CPI(M) vote base had been completely eroded. The Left’s 26% vote share had dropped to 8% (with the CPI(M) polling just above 6%) even as the BJP rose from 10% to 40%. The Congress meanwhile lost half its vote share (12% to 6%) which in comparison to the Left’s decline was better. In terms of seats, the CPI(M) scored none, while the Congress managed two.
With a score of two seats against none, the Congress now has an upper hand in its alliance with the CPI(M), at least in the eyes of the followers of the former in Kerala. It also accuses the CPI(M)/Left of selling out to the BJP because it’s at their cost that the latter has amassed its electoral wealth in West Bengal. When the Left vote share plummeted from 41% in 2011 to just 8% in 2019, the BJP had raised its vote share from 10% to 40%. The decline of the Congress had been marginal at 8% to 6%, while Trinamool had in fact strengthened its position. Clearly, the BJP’s growth has been at the cost of the CPI(M)/Left. Since 2016, the TMC too has been vulnerable, mostly because of its poaching strategy, but it’s holding out remarkably well.
In Tamil Nadu too, the Congress has an upper hand. It has a double digit vote share whereas the CPI(M) and the Left are languishing at the bottom of the table.
Now the million dollar question: if the Congress and the CPI(M)/Left can join hands to fight the BJP in West Bengal, why can’t they do the same in Kerala. The answer is simple: there’s no threat of the BJP rising to power as yet. And it’s highly unlikely to happen any time in the near future because of the state’s unique demography. On the other hand, the Congress and the CPI(M) joining hands may strengthen the BJP as it happened in West Bengal. If it was the CPI(M) that lost its vote base in WB, it would be the Congress that would suffer in Kerala.
Kerala’s politics is essentially about the CPI(M)-Congress – or rather the LDF-UDF – bipolarity. The only way to keep the BJP out of power is to keep this bipolarity intact. But, the CPI(M) has been trying to skew this balance to push the Congress out as it did in West Bengal by roping in the BJP into the equation. An alert Congress has been dodging the tactic, but has been paying the price by being labelled as soft on Hindutva. The CPI(M) will continue to present itself as the bulwark against a relatively insignificant BJP to make the Congress look compromised in the eyes of the minorities. It’s challenge that has already lost the Congress a major chunk of the minority votes. If the erosion continues, the CPI(M) will be successful in converting the bipolar polity into a tri-polar world in which it will comfortably sit at the top.
The results of the upcoming Assembly election will probably show if it has been successful.
G Pramod Kumar is a former journalist and UNDP Senior Adviser in the Asia Pacific, and is presently based out of Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram.
Views expressed are the author’s own.