Communist Green (Chromolaena odorata) an invasive plant species, seen in Road sides of Kerala
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has been struggling with its political narrative in Kerala since the Sabarimala debacle of the 2018 issue and the disastrous results of the 2019 Lok Sabha Election. After admitting the Sabarimala debacle in May 2019, a controversy broke out over a rape accusation against Binoy Kodiyeri, the son of Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, the CPI(M) Kerala General Secretary.
The results of the 2019 Kerala by-elections however provided a welcome relief for the CPM, as they won three seats, adding a net two seats to their legislative assembly. The victory of Mani C. Kappan of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) ally Nationalist Congress Party in Pala, a constituency which had been won by K.M. Mani of the Kerala Congress (Mani) for 30 odd years was especially important to the front. KM Mani was a legendary figure of Kerala politics who had consecutively won Pala Legislative Assembly seat 13 times. Kappan’s victory in Pala, as well as the victory in the Vattiyoorkavu Legislative Constituency prompted many to think that the momentum was back on the side of the LDF heading into the 2020 Local Assembly polls and the 2021 Legislative Assembly polls. Especially with the State’s COVID-19 response being extensively praised and being called a ‘model’ for India.
Things however went haywire yet again for the CPM with the COVID-19 pandemic going out of control in the State; but more importantly (politically), a gold scam involving the Chief Minister’s Office broke. This has led to a political crisis in the State, the likes of which was seen only during the solar scam during the last term of the United Democratic Front (UDF) Government. The media has for the past few weeks enjoyed a new renaissance and the regularly scheduled COVID-19 programming has been replaced. The link of the smugglers to the UAE Consulate led to a whole another dimension to the smuggling. The subsequent allegations against the LIFE Mission, the housing project of the State Government and its links to the UAE based Red Crescent organisation led to yet more questions. The tone of Chief Minister Pinrayi Vijayan’s press conferences declined from a tone of ‘united resolution’ to that of a defiant autocrat. The party and government was besieged and attacked on all sides by the allegations. The Chief Minister had, within a few days of the scam breaking, requested the intervention of Central Agencies. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over the case, and started the perilous task of investigating the smuggling.
One of the smuggling accused, Swapna Suresh, was appointed to contract positions within the government and contacted by the Chief Minister’s Principal Secretary and IT department Head M Shivashankar. Shivashankar had earlier taken complete responsibility for the ‘Sprinklr’ cloud data allegations a few months ago. Ungracefully removed from both posts and then questioned by the NIA, the ex-Principal Secretary’s closeness to the Pinarayi regime had become the elixir for any and all allegations.
KT Jaleel, Minister for Higher Education, Minorities and Wakf
The problems for the CPM did not end with the gold smuggling; allegations came flying in against the Minister for Higher Education, Minorities and Wakf, K.T. Jaleel. Jaleel was accused of links not only with the gold scam accused, but of violating laws relating to Foreign Contributions by distributing aid packets from the UAE Consulate. That the food packets contained the Quran along with the food items became both the offence and defence. The opposition attacked the minister for distributing the Quran in a state vehicle, while the Chief Minister counterattacked on the same lines by stating that it was a gift by the foreign government. Jaleel’s own defence for the alleged violations was even more boisterous: “If PM Modi awards death penalty for helping the poor, I will accept it”. Modi of course regularly hands out death sentences for the violation of the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act. It is this sort of rhetoric however, that will find favour in Kerala.
Jaleel is an independent member of the legislative assembly from Tavanur, supported by the CPM. He was a student leader associated with the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) that was later banned. He had switched to the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) after his college days. In 2005, he was thrown out of the IUML after differences of opinion with P.K. Kunhalikutty, general secretary of the IUML. In his maiden electoral contest, he unseated the very man responsible for throwing him out of the party, Kunhalikutty from the Kuttipuram seat. Jaleel represented a sort of Muslim face that the party sorely needed in Malappuram, the overwhelmingly Muslim district of Kerala. He is a doctoral degree holder and professor; a left fellow traveler that Pinarayi values.
In this term, Jaleel has acquired significant status within the cabinet, and Pinarayi’s confidence. Jaleel faced nepotism allegations in 2018, much like EP Jayrajan, who was forced to resign a few months after taking office. Jaleel, however, did not face such fate. Jayrajan subsequently has returned to the cabinet, but he is having his own grudge match with Kodiyeri over their son’s link with the gold scams and more.
Jaleel is an important figure for the CPM, especially for Pinrayi VIjayan
Jaleel is arguably the most high profile ‘Muslim’ member of the State Government. Elamaram Kareem, who was the Industries Minister in the last LDF government under the veteran Achuthanandan, has been booted out to do a Rajya Sabha term. The projection of Jaleel as a viable leader from the Muslim community is extremely valuable for the CPM. The state has witnessed a stream of competitive anti-hindutva from both fronts in 2019, with both sides attempting to paint the other as being co-opted by BJP. In this view of politics, Jaleel is a necessity for the left narrative – an educated and qualified Muslim who is unwilling to compromise his faith. This of course gives rise to the accusation that the Communist party is diluting its ideals and principles in support of Islamism. This should not be dismissed out of hand; considering the changing nature of demographics and political alignments, the Communist Party will reinvent itself. The Communist Party, in some parlance, is now a mixture of red, green and gold. The allegations of an unholy nexus between the various persuasions that the party has found itself under over the years.
To defend Jaleel for example, the CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan accused the opposition of being ‘anti-quran’. The invocation of religious sentimentalism is of course not new in Kerala politics, but the move has ostensibly backfired.
Being questioned by the Enforcement Directorate and then by the NIA does not bode well as well for Jaleel and CPM, electorally and politically. While the Chief Minister claims that there is absolutely no reason for Jaleel to resign, his party insists that V. Muraleedharan, the Union Minister of State for External Affairs should resign for his fallacious statement regarding the smuggling of gold via diplomatic baggage. That the pandemic is still raging in the state while these political developments are taking place give a surreal effect to the entire drama.
COVID might be raging in the State; but the virus and its effects are old news. The current news cycle has broken CPM’s hopes for Pinrayi to become the first Chief Minister to win a second term for now. The Opposition, especially opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala, is nowadays much more beaming than usual. His hopes for Chief Ministership might come true after all. The BJP meanwhile is attempting to capture its own headwind by showcasing the protests of its women cadre. Its new state president K. Surendran was the symbol of the agitation against the Sabarimala Supreme Court Judgement. Whether the party will be able to overcome both media narrative and its internal factionalism is yet to be seen.
In the run up to 2021, the incumbent government as always, is at a disadvantage, but BJP and its impact likely will be the wildcard that decides what power equations the State will have. Whoever wins, I predict the IUML will enjoy power.
Special Thanks to Aishwarya Ajayan for editing.
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