The Kannur district in northern Kerala has been a hotbed of political violence between the ruling CPM and the RSS/BJP for nearly five decades. Burdened with a legacy of violent resistance against the British rule and brutal landlordism, the region had been historically different from the relatively peaceful and socio-economically advanced princely states part of Kerala.
However, two days ago, the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, in the southernmost tip of the state, has witnessed "Kannur style" violence that has pushed the ruling CPM-led government into a minor crisis. In an unprecedented move, the governor summoned both the chief minister and the state police chief to the Raj Bhavan to express his concern and demand immediate action.
The sudden outburst of violence in Thiruvananthapuram, which included damage of properties of both parties and their cadres and a murder of an RSS worker, somewhat validated a campaign the BJP had launched both in the state and at the centre a few months ago that the CPM was unleashing violence against its opponents.
In June, when the BJP president Amit Shah visited the state, his sole talking point was the alleged violence by the CPM. He held the party responsible for all the political violence in the state. Several central leaders and ministers also echoed his sentiment with an apparent threat of central intervention.
The Thiruvananthapuram violence, in which both the CPM and the RSS/BJP have been equally responsible, is a tactical blunder by the former because it proved the latter right. All these years, the RSS and BJP have been complaining that it's the CPM's intolerance to their growth in Kannur that had led to the murders and violence in the district. Now, they say the same about Thiruvananthapuram because the state capital is emerging as a potential stronghold of the BJP.
They even allege that some leaders from Kannur are planning and executing the violence against them. The mainstream media also have bought the expedient idea that a peaceful and quaint Thiruvananthapuram is being converted into another Kannur. The presence of a number of leaders from Kannur, who are seemingly more intolerant than the others in their public behaviour, handling the party and government affairs in the state capital lends some credence to this popular belief.
The mainstream media also have bought the expedient idea that a peaceful and quaint Thiruvananthapuram is being converted into another Kannur.
Kannur is a blemish for the party's reputation because no other place in the country has such a record of sustained and sanguineous animosity between two political parties. The violence in the district, that is one of the poorest in the state, has claimed more than 300 people, maimed many and led to large scale damage of properties. Although the loss of lives and damage of properties are on an even keel, the CPM claims a moral upper-hand by saying that it's paying the price for resisting BJP's communal politics. The same argument was repeated in Thiruvananthapuram too.
Although physically engaging the RSS/BJP is a tactical move by the CPM to attract minority votes, particularly Muslims, the party has fallen into a strategic trap that the BJP has laid to prove itself right and malign the former. By repeating Kannur in Thiruvananthapuram, the CPM has proved Amit Shah and other leaders of the party partially right. By his swift intervention, the governor has added considerable credibility to their charges and even put the CPM-led government on the back foot. On orders from the governor, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan had to immediately call the RSS/BJP leaders for a reconciliatory meeting and take political and administrative steps to advocate peace.
The CPM should have realised that any escalation of violence, including in Kannur, will be fodder for BJP's propaganda machine and should have resisted falling into the trap.
The CPM should have realized that any escalation of violence, including in Kannur, will be fodder for BJP's propaganda machine and should have resisted falling into the trap. Claiming victimhood of CPM's violence is BJP's only possible route to break its political impasse in the state. However hard the BJP tries, unlike in other states, communal polarisation will not work in Kerala because of its unique demography (27 per cent Muslims and 18 per cent Christians), general political climate (high literacy, a near equal split of popular support between the Congress and the CPM led coalitions) and a secular socio-cultural milieu.
The party has been trying hard to make a headway for several years and it's only last year that it could manage to get its first member in the state assembly. The CPM should have been cognizant of the BJP's desperation to break in.
The state unit of the party is under intense pressure from Amit Shah. During his June visit, he reportedly warned the state leaders of dire consequences if they failed. He also told them that he was not interested in merely increasing the vote-share.
When communal polarisation doesn't work and the socio-cultural conditions of the state are not conducive to its brand of politics, all that the BJP can rely on is vitiating the political atmosphere and playing the victim. The CPM should have understood that the BJP needed violence more than it did to manipulate the electoral sentiments and restrained itself. Instead, it stupidly played in to their hands.
When communal polarisation doesn't work and the socio-cultural conditions of the state are not conducive to its brand of politics, all that the BJP can rely on is vitiating the political atmosphere and playing the victim.
What harmed the CPM was the vanity of defiance and empty bravado that its Kannur leaders, including the chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, often demonstrate, and its over-zealousness in appeasing the minority votes by being the principal BJP-antagonist.
It wants to marginalise the Congress and the Muslim league, which enjoy majority-patronage by Muslims, and wean away their traditional vote-bank. As part of this communal appeasement strategy, the party often declares the BJP as its principal opponent even though it's still a political lightweight in comparison to the Congress and its allies.
Unfortunately, it will do more harm than good because it will help the BJP gain more prominence and even a foot in the door. Ignoring it and refusing to engage with it should have been a better strategy.