Why Communism survived in Kerala but died in Bengal: Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd writes

The hide-and-seek game with caste in Bengal killed the communist party, and the successful Ezhava leaders maneuvering Kerala saved it.
Photo of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan surrounded by people.
Photo of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan surrounded by people.

As I write this piece on April 4, 2021, the eight phase elections are going on in West Bengal and the single phase election in Kerala will take place on April 6. Most pre-poll surveys say that the CPI(M)'s Ezhava leader Pinarayi Vijayan is likely to come back to power for the second time in Kerala election history. But the CPI(M) of Bengal is not even in the news in the electoral arithmetic. It appears it is a dead party there. The Kerala CPI(M) leadership went from having a Brahmin (EMS Namboodiripad) as its first Chief Minister in 1957, to Nairs (topmost Shudra caste of the state) to Ezhava caste leadership, which was once an untouchable toddy tappers’ community. It was in this community that the famous social reformer Narayana Guru was born in. Kerala Dalits, unlike Bengal Dalits, organised with the reformist inspiration of Ayyankali in recent times and still remain communist supporters — though no Dalit has yet become a Chief Minister. 

In West Bengal, the commuist party from the beginning was controlled by the Bhadralok consisting of three castes — Brahmins, Kayasthas and Baidyas. The remaining Shudra and Namashudra (Dalit) castes were designated as Chotolok (neech and low caste people) by the Bhadralok intellectuals. They were never allowed to emerge as leaders in the party ranks. Though the communist Bhadralok leaders hardly had any roots in the agrarian and artisanal productive economies, they used the Marxist jargon to keep the Chotolok at the labouring level, without even allowing them to use reservation, to become middle-class low-end intellectuals.

The Chotolok masses are now organised by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Dilip Ghosh, the president of the state BJP unit, is from the Sadgop (equivalent to Yadavs in other states) caste, who were historically cattle herders.

The communist Bhadralok did not even allow the Muslims of Bengal to emerge as educated people in the rural areas, though they constitute around 27% population. If the communist party was to get out of the Bhadralok mindset, a Muslim leader would have become the Chief Minister from its fold quite easily. They thus suppressed Shudras, Dalits and Muslims of the state in the garb of their communist secularism.

The Kerala experiment on the other hand was quite the opposite. The Ezhava leaders in the communist movement asserted their leadership positions. Though Brahmins and Nairs resisted the reserved Shudra (called Avarna in Malayalam) and Dalit activists becoming top leaders, they used Narayana Guru and Ayyankali reform movements to claim leadership positions. KR Gouri Amma and VS Achuthanandan, Pinarayi Vijayan slowly and systematically toppled the Brahmin and Nair leadership hegemony and usurped the leadership positions.

The Politburo of the CPI(M) is mainly controlled by the Begal Bhadralok and Kerala Nairs. They were resisting any caste consciousness to emerge in the country and much more in the party ranks. But the Kerala OBCs and Dalit leaders handled the caste blind central Bhadralok leadership to come to centrestage very deligently. Now, Pinarayi Vijayan has emerged as the captain of the party quite decisively. Such mobility of lower castes and Dalits was never allowed in Bengal and also in Tripura. The situation in those states seems to have reached a stage where Shudra/OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis no longer trust the Bhadralok communist leaders.

Caste is a totally strange institution for communist Bhadralok all over India. They try to pretend as if it does not exist. In south India, caste identity played quite a transformatory role, much more than class identity politics. After all both of them are identities and they are instruments of mobilisation both in elections and also in transcending socio-economic stagnation. Not that the communist Bhadralok intellectuals do not know that. But they wanted to hide it, as it harms their leadership status. That hide-and-seek game with caste in Bengal killed their party, and the successful Ezhava leaders maneuvering Kerala saved their party.

The Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu and Telugu Desam, TRS and YSRCP’s clever mobilisation of Dalits and reserved Shudra categories, as they are headed by unreserved Shudra caste leaders like Kammas, Velamas and Reddys, could thwart even the RSS/BJP capturing power in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. But in Bengal, since Trinamool Congress itself is a Bhadralok party, the RSS/BJP are likely to mobilise Dalits and Shudras in significant ways. But they do not find many buyers in Kerala from the reserved Shudras (OBCs), if not Nairs, and also Dalits. The RSS/BJP in any case do not think of mobilising Muslim voters — rather they want to polarise Muslim and Hindu voters and come to power.

At the Delhi level, the RSS/BJP are run by the Bhadralok of north India. That includes Brahmins, Banias, Kayasthas, Khatris and Kshatriyas. But for votes and for other mass mobilisation, they operate on caste identities. That was the reason why Modi played the OBC card, though he does not come from a Shudra agrarian community.

If the south Indian Shudra communities like Nairs of Kerala, Kammas, Reddys and Velamas of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, do not share power with lower Shudras and Dalits, the BJP will use them against these ruling Shudra castes. They are trying to mobilise Kapus in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh by making militant Kapu activists as the presidents of the state units.

If Pinarayi Vijayan were not from the Ezhava caste, which is the biggest caste in terms of number (about 34%) Modi would have offered Chief Ministership to a leader from that caste and come to power in Kerala. But now that is not possible.

Exactly such a game is being played by RSS/BJP in West Bengal, by mobilising Chotolok that constitute castes like Mahisyas, Sadgops and Dalits. The communist Bhadralok are made to seek hideouts. We must wait and watch what happens there. But in Kerala Pinarayi Vijayan, by undercutting communist Brahminism and mobilizing Muslims, OBCs and Dalits, is likely to save the party and the country. 

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist and social activist. His latest book is The Shudras — Vision For a New Path, co-edited with Karthik Raja Karuppusamy. Views expressed are the author’s own. 

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