The changing nature of the Left in Kerala

It has moved away from a party-centric state deemed to protect some sections to one that caters to all

May 10, 2021 12:15 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:30 pm IST

Election posters of LDF candidate and CPI (M) Polit Bureau member Pinarayi Vijayan amid the Congress’s campaign posters on a wall in Dharmadam constituency in Kannur. S.K. MOHAN

Election posters of LDF candidate and CPI (M) Polit Bureau member Pinarayi Vijayan amid the Congress’s campaign posters on a wall in Dharmadam constituency in Kannur. S.K. MOHAN

The Left Front has retained power in Kerala by winning more than two-thirds of the seats to the Legislative Assembly. This is unheard of in a State that was used to alternating between the Left and the Congress for more than four decades. The change in this familiar pattern was possible only because there was a fundamental change in the nature and practice of politics in the State after years.

Conception of the modern state

As a political organisation, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] has a different conception of state and governance. This is broadly viewed as the Leninist model and is fundamentally different from the structure of most political organisations in the country. During the early days of its inception and into the 21st century, the Left conceived the modern state system as being bourgeoisie. This modern state, it felt, needed to be transformed from within. Thus, the Left governments implemented or were expected to implement the agenda of the party in order to achieve their ultimate goal of revolution. The party was always considered more powerful than the government.


This has changed fundamentally in the last few years in Kerala. The end of the Left Front government in West Bengal and the Left’s subsequent loss of power in Tripura reduced the Polit Bureau, the highest decision-making body of the CPI(M), to a mere shadow of its former self, thereby weakening the hold of the party over the government in Kerala.

In 2016, when the Left contested the Kerala Assembly elections, the general perception was that V.S. Achuthanandan would be made the Chief Minister as the Left rode to power on his popularity. However, the party decided to pick its powerful State Secretary for the top post. This marked a new era in the nature of Left politics in the State. This meant that, unlike in the past, the government of Pinarayi Vijayan was considerably relieved of both the constraints of building the organisation of the party and its ideological tasks.

Confrontation to consensus

The new government ended the politics of confrontation between the landowners and the peasants, and between the industrial workers and the industrialists, which was central to the politics of Kerala for long. Such a change in the nature of the Left Front government was also structured by the changing socio-cultural demography of the State. A large middle class population emerged with changing economic activity in the State — agricultural land reduced and migrant labourers from north and northeast India entered Kerala. All this compelled the Left to change its political slogans of worker/agricultural labour emancipation to slogans that resonated with middle class aspirations. In the process, it made peace with the Christian church and other powerful social, religious and economic sections of the state, with which it had been in confrontation for more than half a century.


The Left’s conception of the modern state as a bourgeoise one began to peel away. Rather, it used the state and its mechanisms to protect the interests of the emerging middle class of Kerala. By moving away from being supporters of only economically backward castes, classes, communities and groups to one that became more acceptable to a wider multi-class population, largely devoid of any caste/class/community divide, the Left Front government was entering the terrain which was considered the domain of the Congress and its allies.

The two massive floods and the pandemic that ravaged the State came more as an opportunity rather than as a challenge for the Left. Through a slew of welfare measures including the setting up of free feeding centres, providing ration kits for all and providing pensions for the old, the Left Front government transformed itself as a caring protector that was not against any particular class. It benefited the middle class in particular. Unlike the early masculine image of the party, of protest and confrontation, the new Left was one of consensus. The sudden rise of Health Minister K.K. Shailaja as an important figure in the fight against the pandemic led to the creation of a new conception of the state as a representation of the ideal caring middle class family. The policy of giving free rations meant that the government as a ‘super family’ is there to feed and care.


Losing ground

While the Left Front government was using the optimal potential of the modern state system and pursuing a policy of consensus even with the Opposition, the Congress was increasingly losing its political space. By moving away from its earlier version of a party-centric state deemed to protect sections of the population to one that aimed to cater to all, the Left was venturing into a space that was held by the Congress for long. For the last couple of years, the Congress has been in a dilemma of whether it should support or oppose the government. With no ideology and a weak party mechanism, the Congress has survived as a response to the politics of the Left, which was seen as confrontational and therefore unacceptable to large sections of the State. Without any proper organisational mechanism and ideology, the Congress has won elections on an anti-leftist plank. However, it failed to see the political discourse changing. A large section of the minorities became apprehensive of rising Hindutva politics and considered the Left as a viable option in the fight against the Right. When the Supreme Court delivered its verdict on Sabarimala, the Congress decided to oppose the verdict and argued that tradition should be defended. One could argue that this was the only option it was left with in the political discourse of the State. But the Congress made the mistake of raking up this issue even in these elections in the hope of getting upper caste conservative Hindu votes. However, the issue of Sabarimala had become a dead horse and the Congress’s attempts failed to evoke any response. The Congress failed to build any convincing narrative against the Left.

Also read | Sabarimala did not become an electoral issue

By deviating from the ideological context of the conventional Left to domains that were hitherto considered as the space of the Congress, the Left has won Kerala again. To what extent the Left can retain this space without being in confrontation with its core values and to what extent the Congress can reclaim lost ground remains to be seen.

Burton Cleetus is Assistant Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi

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