The Mountaineer


M G Radhakrishnan


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CPI(M) is now confined to Kerala and under Pinarayi, it did the impossible, return to power for the second time in a row | Mathrubhumi Photo

The 23rd State Conference formed a historic landmark for CPI(M), which enters its 60th birthday in two years. It marked the end of the intense factional rivalry - manifested in four different avatars - that dogged the party for the past four decades. Wonder if it was a deliberate stroke from Pinarayi Vijayan, but having Kochi as the venue for the present state conference, too is a clincher. For, the theatre of the first major factional war in CPI(M) was the state conference held at Kochi in 1985. What began in Kochi appears to have ended at Kochi, four decades later. Geometrically, it is called a “closed shape”- a figure that starts and ends on the same point.

For Pinarayi too it marks a full circle. His mentor MV Raghavan’s eclipse at the Kochi conference in 1985 had triggered the young Pinarayi’s (40 years is young in Communist parties) ascent in party. He soon became Kannur district secretary. In 10 years, he became state secretary and entered Politburo in 2002.

Nearly four decades later, when the party met in Kochi again, Vijayan, at 76, is at the pinnacle. He was CPI(M)’s longest serving state secretary and now, Kerala’s longest serving Chief Minister and the first to be re-elected back to back. But most significantly, he is now the most unchallengeable leader in CPI(M)’s history, not just in Kerala, but nationally too. Not just because of Vijayan’s personal clout but also the “objective reality”, a favourite Marxist truth doctrine that depends “neither on the subject, nor the man.” The objective truth is that CPI(M) is now confined to Kerala, and under Pinarayi, it did the impossible, returning to power for the second time in a row.

Like the A-I rivalry in Congress, the biggest political story for my generation of Kerala journalists was the CPI(M) factionalism. Professionally it was more exciting and challenging than covering the Congress war because of the sheer difficulty to extract inside information from the iron-curtained CPI(M). Personally too, it was intimidating because of my familial links with the party. Even those few who dared to open up before others, turned mum with me.

MVR’s Badalrekha Viplavam was the first dramatic chapter in the CPM factionalism in my journalistic career during the mid-1980s, a few years after I joined Mathrubhumi. It rocked the party from top to bottom much more than the earlier Naxalite upheaval of the late 1960s, largely confined within the small (yet vocal) segment of the urban middle class intellectuals. When Raghavan led a scorching campaign inside the party with many important leaders joining him, the media went to town. Bored stiff with the unending Congress A-I war, the apparent implosion in CPM was new and exciting to the media.

As a junior sub then, I only had to join the desk’s endeavour to make the best of the CPM implosion. Mathrubhumi carried the biggest scoops on MVR’s revolt, thanks to K. Prabhakaran, our senior colleague who had direct access to all the dramatis personae. It also helped Mathrubhumi emerge after it launched Thiruvananthapuram edition to topple Kerala Kaumudi as the capital’s largest circulated newspaper and give Manorama too a big scare.

When Kochi State conference took place in November 1985, I was at the Ernakulam desk. I remember Prabhakaran “annan” arriving there from Thiruvananthapuram as a “Badalrekha specialist” with a super star image to cover the conference. But, contrary to what most newspapers -no tv channels then- expected, CPI(M)’s mighty establishment led by EMS smashed the Badalrekha Viplavam to smithereens. Even big guns like Nayanar or Sivadasa Menon, who had originally backed MVR, acquiesced. Only MVR continued relentlessly, defied the leadership, and went out of the party.

Problems snowballed between Gouriamma and the party, which eventually led to her ouster in 1994

The next storm-maker was K R Gouriamma. CPI(M) had sent out an informal message during the 1987 election that if it won, Gouriamma would be the Chief Minister. But after LDF swept the polls, Nayanar was again picked to the top post. Gouriamma was shattered, and though became the Industries Minister, she never forgave. Problems snowballed between Gouriamma and the party, which eventually led to her ouster in 1994. Unlike MVR, Gouriamma was one of Kerala’s senior-most Communists, had a legendary past who sacrificed even the family, for the party, and was the architect of Land Reforms. That she was a woman and also an Ezhava, unlike the upper caste EMS, AKG or Nayanar, too added to her halo.

1994 was the year, I left Mathrubhumi to join India Todayas a reporter. I travelled with my colleague Jacob George to Alappuzha many times to meet a furious Gouriamma, who too like MVR, blasted EMS, as her destroyer. The national media loved the story of an angry, wronged woman who was also a backward caste revolutionary at war against the patriarchal, upper-caste Communist establishment. But Gouriamma’s revolt was also crushed by EMS and VS driving her to seek asylum in the Congress camp. Gouriamma’s expulsion didn’t make a whimper at State Conference at Kollam next year.

But, by then, the power struggle inside the part had triggered another factional war. The official faction (also known as CITU camp) vs VS Achuthanandan. Top men who together finished Gouriamma, parted ways. The entire leadership from EMS onwards was on one side, with VS alone on the other. Raising the morality flag against his allegedly corrupt enemies, it was the beginning of VS’s rise as Mr. Clean. VS’s dream to succeed Nayanar as Chief Minister was sabotaged by the dominant group in 1996 when he was defeated in the assembly elections at the red citadel of Mararikulam. At both the state conferences of 1991 (Kozhikode) and 1995 (Kollam), Nayanar defeated VS to be the secretary.

By 1998, the power equations inside the party again turned. The Palakkad state conference saw the official camp being decimated by VS for the first time. All the CITU titans bit the dust. VS’s new force multiplier was none other Pinarayi and his “young brigade”. The neutral Chadayan Govindan became the new secretary. But Chadayan died in 1998 and Pinarayi soon succeeded him.

Each of the six state conferences from 2002 to 2018, saw Pinarayi’s grip becoming complete over the party

But the wheel of power tussle and equations were to turn even more swiftly soon. The Kannur comrades, Chief Minister Nayanar and Secretary Pinarayi, became the new power centres with VS left high and dry. The mother of all factional wars was underway. VS and Vijayan clashed openly like never before. Both got once dropped from Politburo, but the fracas didn’t stop. VS was twice denied a ticket to contest assembly elections but he galvanized massive campaigns outside the party with support from intellectuals and the media. Central leadership succumbed and fielded him on both occasions -unprecedented in party history. But right through this period, Pinarayi, despite being demonized by the media, worked singlemindedly inside the party to decimate the VS camp. Each of the six state conferences from 2002 to 2018, saw Pinarayi’s grip becoming complete over the party. In the process, he emerged the supreme leader with all its attendant attributes. I covered all these conferences and chronicled the high drama until 2012 at Thiruvananthapuram after which my innings as a reporter came to an end.

Indeed, Vijayan’s journey has been far from easy. The proud son of Mundayil Koran, a toddy tapper from Kerala’s Communist cradle, has earned the crown through incredible hard work, unassailable personal integrity, ruthless and strategic organizational operations. He also had to overcome huge odds - his own less-than-friendly persona, his limited articulation, his rivals’ better popular images, the antagonism of large sections of the civil society, and a belligerent media. At Kochi, the party decided to retire everyone past 75 years and opened way to many youngsters to the top. But not just party workers but even outsiders cannot imagine a CPI(M) without Vijayan at the helm. Factionalism may never end eternally, and it may assume new avatars sooner or later. But for Vijayan, there are no more continents to conquer. The highest post of General Secretary is unlikely to excite him. So all that remains for him is to stay on where he is even though most mountaineers never stop craving another peak to scale. Yet as someone said, the hardest mountain to climb is the one within.

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