Election In Pincodes: Ideological base in Kannur holds key to Left’s fight for relevance | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Election In Pincodes: Ideological base in Kannur holds key to Left’s fight for relevance

By, Kannur
Apr 24, 2024 01:32 AM IST

Though Kerala may be one of the only states where the Left has electoral heft, it is not the only party that looks to the state as its bastion of resistance.

Fifteen kilometres away from bustling Kannur is the small neighbourhood of Parapram in Pinarayi village, enveloped by the waters of the pristine Anjarakandy river and its tributaries on three sides. The streets are peaceful -- concrete paths lined by solar lights and coconut trees, a library in one corner of the village, and a spanking new convention centre. A central motif is the colour red -- flags flutter at most street corners, with some carrying face of Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara.

As the Left fades from the rest of the country, Kannur, both emotionally and politically, is one of its proudest bastions.
As the Left fades from the rest of the country, Kannur, both emotionally and politically, is one of its proudest bastions.

Quiet it may be, but Pinarayi holds a special place in Kerala’s politics. For one, it is the village of its now famous son, 78-year-old Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, born in 1945 in the one of the tiled-roof homes that dot the area. But six years before that, it was here on a December day in 1939 that 40 leaders of the then Congress Socialist Party, including EMS Namboodiripad, AK Gopalan and P Krishna Pillai, held a meeting to affirm the formation of the Communist Party of India in Kerala, laying the foundation of the Left movement in the state. Eighteen years later, that meeting bore fruit, and the first elected communist government in India was sworn in.

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It is a day Parapram is immeasurably proud of. Along one narrow paved road stands a memorial -- a clenched fist, around five feet high, rising out of a stone plinth. Engraved to the wall on one side is the number “1939”. Next to it are the names of the 40 people who attended the meeting.

Five hundred metres away from the plinth, 52-year-old Sankaran PK, in a white checked shirt and an orange dhoti, points to the memorial. “It’s a marker of courage. The fist is a sign of resistance against oppression.”

Sankaran launches into a discourse on the significance of Pinarayi, and the Kannur Lok Sabha seat. “It is here the party was born and then spread to other parts of the state. Kannur has given Kerala leaders such as Chadayan Govindan, AK Gopalan, former chief minister EK Nayanar, and current chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. The party has always been strong here, and if it wants to do well in any election, it must begin from here.”

In many ways, as the Left fades from the rest of the country, Kannur , both emotionally and politically, is one of its proudest bastions.

 

HT graphic
HT graphic

The politics

Over the eight decades since that covert meeting, the Left, though ideologically split into two parties -- the CPI and the CPI(M) — has grown into a massive political force in Kerala, winning nine of 15 assembly elections, and contributing six of its 12 chief ministers. Yet, there is a clear political dissonance. At the national level, the LDF has had only marginal success, winning more seats than the rival Congress-led UDF in four of the 17 elections held since 1956, when the state was formed. In 2019, that dissonance became even more stark. The Left Front was in power in the state, but won only one of the 20 seats on offer.

Elsewhere in the country, the Left parties are mere shadows of themselves. They were once the dominant force in West Bengal, ruling for 34 straight years till 2011, when the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress wrested power. Since then, there has been little sign of a revival, and the BJP has become the TMC’s principal challenger. In 2018, the CPI(M) lost power in Tripura to the BJP, which then was re-elected to power in 2023 with barely a challenge.

Now, even in Kannur, one of its most resolute ideological fortresses, it is a measure of the challenge ahead that there is a steep mountain to climb at the Lok Sabha level. In 2019, the state Congress chief K Sudhakaran won the seat by over 94,000 votes. Five years later, the CPI(M) has deployed MV Jayarajan, a former two time-MLA and briefly the private secretary to CM Vijayan, against the incumbent. One local CPI(M) leader says that hope springs eternal. “In four of the seven assembly segments, we are ahead and doing well. But there are two segments called Peravoor and Irikkur, which are areas bordering Karnataka where there is a large Christian population who generally favour the Congress, and the challenge is winning those parts.”

A symbol of decay

One day in early April, 500m away from the Left memorial, a group of 40 women are hard at work inside a decrepit building with a tiled roof. Some cut tendu leaves in rectangular shapes, and the practised fingers of others roll beedis by stuffing dry, flaky tobacco into them. The unit is part of the Kerala Dinesh Beedi Cooperative Society, launched in 1969 by the then Left government led by EMS Namboodiripad. The move was aimed at employing thousands of workers in a sector controlled privately at the time, and its grateful employees went on to form the backbone of support to the Communist party.

One of the women is Sudha P. Tall and striking, with spectacles resting on her nose, she’s wearing a simple peach saree, A metal watch jangles on her wrist as does a job she has been doing for 40 years. “I started rolling beedis when I was 13 after I dropped out of school. At the time, we didn’t even have the money to buy rice, and it was essential that I found work,” she said.

Now 53, she is one of the fastest beedi rollers in the unit. “It was very tough in the beginning. When we messed up the cutting of the leaf or the rolling of the beedi, the instructor would hit us on our knuckles with scissors. It was painful, but we learnt quickly,” she chuckles.

And yet, Sudha’s story is also a story of decay, of incomes that have failed to rise proportionally with the times. She does not remember what she earned when she started, but it was barely enough to cover for her family. Now, she makes 367 for every 1,000 beedis rolled, and 1,700 a month is set aside for a provident fund she will receive when she retires at 58. She is fast, but there is a limit to how much even she can do. In a month, she earns 8,000. “The extremely low wages, coupled with long working hours and health hazards associated with the profession have driven people away from the sector,” she said.

In the 1990s, the company had more than 1,200 workers -- its halls bustled with activity as rows and rows of men and women worked for hours on end. Now, there are just 40, and the peeling walls echo with emptiness. “Every year, more and more people are retiring. All the men have left for jobs with better wages and only the women have been left behind. The industry is on its last legs,” Sudha said.

Next to her, Sajitha, another beedi worker and an active member of the CPI(M), says that for decades the employees were lifelong Left workers, their loyalty learnt by the jobs that were created and the pensions that were offered. “But over the years, people inclined to other parties like the Congress have also joined in. There may be political divisions, but as workers, we are all one,” Sajitha said.

And yet, despite her clear political partisanship, Sajitha is disappointed with the LDF campaign. “The candidate came and spoke to us, appealing for votes. But he made no promises on increasing our wages. Maybe the party also understands that this is a decaying sector. It will soon disappear.”

Pinarayi village in Kannur holds a special place in Kerala’s politics. For one, it is the village of its now famous son, 78-year-old Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, born in 1945 in the one of the tiled-roof homes that dot the area.
Pinarayi village in Kannur holds a special place in Kerala’s politics. For one, it is the village of its now famous son, 78-year-old Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, born in 1945 in the one of the tiled-roof homes that dot the area.

How the Congress has made inroads

Though Kerala may be one of the only states where the Left has electoral heft, it is not the only party that looks to the state as its bastion of resistance. As the Congress has seen its vote shares and seat shares across India plummet since 2009, it has increasingly looked to Kerala to save face -- a state where it continues to have a robust organisational machinery and helpful allies. In 2014, Kerala contributed eight of its 44 members of Parliament, and in 2019 this number went up to 16 of its 52 MPs.

In Kannur, for instance, the party has built a formidable electoral calculus, with influence across communities, including the 29% percent Muslim population aided by an alliance with the Indian Union Muslim League.

In the 2019 elections, the Congress put more eggs in the Kerala basket with Rahul Gandhi fighting from Wayanad as the party searched for an alternative to the withering family pocket borough of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. The strategy bore fruit -- Gandhi lost Amethi but won Wayanad. In 2024, he is fighting from Wayanad again, and despite a national Left and Congress alliance elsewhere, there has been clear hostility between the two sides in Kerala.

On April 19, chief minister Vijayan hit out at the Congress, and Rahul Gandhi in particular, for the Congress’s stance on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. “When the Sangh parivar implements its agenda, secular-minded people oppose it. Rahul Gandhi should make clear whether he is secular or someone with the mindset of the parivaar. How can the Congress not protest against such a law?” he asked.

On that same day, speaking in Kannur, Gandhi hit back. “The Kerala CM claims he is leading an ideological battle against the BJP. But I know that the BJP fights back when they are attacked. Chief ministers of two states are in jail but Vijayan has not been questioned by the ED despite corruption charges against him. I am happy for him to attack me. But he must spend time attacking the BJP and Modi too,” Gandhi said.

A Kannur-based Congress leader said that he expects, like in 2019 when the UDF swept the state, minority votes to consolidate behind the Congress. “The visit of Gandhi has helped us. There is huge anti-incumbency against the LDF government and the BJP presence is marginal.”

The Left Front campaign

Less than a kilometre away from the beedi unit, inside a crumbling CPI(M) local committee office, Raghavan, the local committee secretary, speaks animatedly about his party’s chances -- a confidence built on local anti-incumbency against the sitting Congress MP. “It’s going to be smooth sailing for us in Kannur because we have a good candidate with a clean image against a sitting Congress MP whose attendance in Parliament was barely 50%, and who didn’t even use his entire MPLAD funds. The 2019 elections was fought under special circumstances, with the perception that Rahul Gandhi will be PM. Today, there’s a strong INDIA bloc with many leaders who are fit to be PM,” he said.

In a dark-blue shirt and a white dhoti, surrounded by four workers deep in discussion, Raghavan admits that there is a crisis in traditional sectors such as beedi and toddy tapping. But, he says, these had been replaced by other developmental initiatives. “On 13 acres of land opposite the CM’s residence in Pinarayi, there will be an educational hub with an engineering college and an IAS coaching academy. The regulator-cum-bridge over the Anjarakkandy river has been converted into a tourist spot. We have also replenished lakes and built a lot of bridges.”

A central thrust of the campaign, Raghavan says, is the issue of communalism, which, he alleges, the Congress has sidestepped. “We are conducting a campaign on the basis of the state government’s achievements and asking pertinent questions about the future of India and especially minorities if the BJP is re-elected. We are talking to voters about issues like triple talaq, uniform civil code and the Citizenship Amendment Act. Congress unfortunately is not able to take a national stand in favour of Muslims,” Raghavan said.

And yet, this campaign against religion in politics goes beyond the immediate. In Raghavan’s mind, it is the fundamental reason behind the dwindling of the Left nationally. “Communalism is the biggest challenge to Communism. When religion is purposefully brought into politics to divide people, it’s causing a challenge for us. While the older generations are resisting it, the younger generation seem to be falling into the trap,” he said.

Next to the memorial, with the clenched fist rising out behind them, auto-rickshaw drivers Abdullah A and Sadananan are idling on the side of the road, waiting for customers. The LDF’s allure has fallen, says Abdullah, because they have turned arrogant. But Sadananan shakes his head vigorously, for, in his mind, there are far more deep-rooted issues to contend with. “I want the LDF to win this time because it is a stronger voice against communalism. The Congress is weak and cannot be trusted,” he said.

They quarrel for a while, old friends, both in their mid-60s, arguing about the April 26 election. But there is one point of consensus. “Whatever happens, this election is crucial for the Left,” Sadananan said as Abdullah nodded in agreement. “And f they want to win Kerala, they must win Kannur.”

This is the eleventh in a series of election reports from the field that look at national and local issues through an electoral lens.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Vishnu Varma is Assistant Editor and reports from Kerala for the Hindustan Times. He has 10 years of experience writing for print and digital platforms and has worked at The New York Times, NDTV and The Indian Express in the past. He specialises in longform reportage at the intersections of politics, crime, social commentary and environment.

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