In Kerala’s social lab, a Modi formula

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  • Published 6.04.14

Narendra Modi has set the CPM’s tail on fire in Kerala in this election although it is unlikely to bring electoral dividends in terms of seats for the BJP. The party has never won a Lok Sabha or an Assembly seat in this state and its fortunes may not change during polling on April 10.

Independent of the state’s BJP, however, Modi has triggered a process that may eventually lead to the neutering of the Left in Kerala. The fate that awaits the CPM in Kerala, as a result, may not be significantly different from that of the CPM and its allies in today’s Bengal.

It is memories of my late grandmother that help me understand the subterranean effects of an ongoing Modi “mantra” in Kerala. My earliest recollection of a political event was when I was five years old in 1957.

In elections to the Assembly at the beginning of that year, the first since Kerala was created as part of the linguistic reorganisation of states, my grandmother, an archetypal Nair widow of the patriarch of a traditional joint family, shocked men in the household when she declared that she was going to vote.

The men’s shock turned into consternation when the woman, brought up on feudal values that are part of a culture of landed gentry, made it plain that she was going to give her vote to the Communist Party of India. Except my father, who was a communist, no one in the joint family, a staunchly pro-Congress household, was pleased.

My grandmother’s reasons for unconventionally supporting communists were very simple and very Hindu.

In 1950, the famous Hindu temple in Sabarimala in the remote but sacred Western Ghat mountains was burned down. I vividly recall my grandmother narrating the legend that priests in the temple actually heard the splash of Lord Ayyappa jumping out of the sanctum sanctorum into the temple pond to douse the flames on his divine deity.

It was suspected that a group was behind the arson and the then deputy inspector-general of police, Kesava Menon, was appointed to inquire into the incident. But once Menon finalised his report, both the Congress and Praja Socialist Party chief ministers of Travancore-Cochin, an ingredient of what became Kerala in 1956, decided to treat the inquiry findings as classified.

Into that consequential cauldron of Hindu resentment waded M.N. Govindan Nair, the undivided CPI’s state secretary who was in charge of the party’s strategy in the 1957 Assembly election. He declared that if the CPI came to power, it would make the Kesava Menon report public and expose the culprits in Sabarimala. To say my grandmother was pleased is an understatement.

The communist movement in Kerala may have been muscled and sustained by the sacrifices of peasants and workers, but it was hundreds of thousands of staunch Hindu voters like my grandmother who made it possible for the world’s first democratically elected communist government to coast to power in Kerala in 1957. One of the first decisions of the new government was to make the report public.

Since then, for close to six decades, Hindus have made up the rank and file of the CPI — and later the CPM.

When I left for Washington 14 years ago to represent The Telegraph there, it was said that 53 per cent of the CPM’s cadre was Hindu.

Last week, as I left Washington and relocated to New Delhi, I was told that this figure of Hindu presence in the CPM had subsequently gone up to 73 per cent. I have not come across any definitive proof in support of those statistics, which are widely accepted all the same.

Modi has done some homework on Kerala’s political history and its social ramifications.

Which is not surprising. At least one of his most trusted aides in Gujarat is a Malayali, an IAS officer who has transcended the limits and barriers of bureaucracy and scaled academic heights. Everybody in Gandhinagar expected K. Kailashnathan to be appointed as Gujarat’s chief secretary when the post fell vacant some years ago. But Modi refused to overlook seniority and chose another officer, the senior-most in the state cadre, for the job.

But the day Kailashnathan retired from the IAS, Modi made him chief principal secretary to the chief minister as a political appointee — as the Americans would describe the choice. He continues in that job and could be principal secretary to the Prime Minister if Modi heads the Indian government in the new House.

Modi travelled to Kerala in February for the centenary celebrations of what is known in the history of Travancore-Cochin as “kayal samaram” which literally translates as “lake protest”.

It commemorates a dismal time and circumstance, which Swami Vivekananda aptly described when he called this state a “lunatic asylum”. The reason: the fate of untouchables in what is now Kerala was worse than in the rest of India. The lowest strata in the caste system in most parts of India were only untouchables, but here they were required to be invisible as well to the upper castes. They were required to hide if someone from the upper caste crossed their path.

When the Pulaya community could not bear such repression any more even as the rest of India was waking up to clarion calls of the struggle for freedom, they protested in 1913 from boats banded together and loaded with drums and other accompaniments of protest. The Pulayas could only stage their protest on water because they were by tradition denied any right to hold meetings or protests on land.

When Modi chose to attend the centenary of this landmark protest and spoke for 40 minutes identifying his own humble origins with those whose memory the celebrations in Kochi were commemorating, he was seeking to win the hearts of the Pulayas.

Such a strategy was pregnant with political significance because this downtrodden community has been with the CPM for decades. In this election, one certainty is that a sizeable chunk of the Pulaya vote in Kerala will shift away from the CPM to the BJP, increasing the latter’s vote share but may not bag any seat for the party in the Lok Sabha.

With a similar strategy, Modi is wooing the backward Ezhava community, which constitutes the CPM’s backbone. It was a coup for Modi to have got the chief of Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, the representative body of Ezhavas, Vellappally Natesan, on the stage with him in Kochi.

The BJP got just six per cent of votes in Kerala in 2009. Modi’s strategy is expected to raise this vote share to double digits or just below that at 9 per cent, according to surveys.

The BJP’s candidate from the Thiruvananthapuram seat, O. Rajagopal, a potential minister in any BJP government whether he wins or loses the election, believes his party could get up to 15 per cent of votes in Kerala.

Modi’s strategy is to create a Dalit-backward classes coalition in Kerala under the BJP. If he succeeds, he will bankrupt the CPM of a traditional vote bank for the Left parties in the long run.

When that happens, Hindus like my grandmother would have left the communists for the first time since 1957 when M.N. Govindan Nair won them over in the name of Lord Ayyappa. The CPM, complacent in Hindu support for over half a century, would then be running for electoral cover.

Kerala votes on April 10