The controversy surrounding the Ponnani constituency in north Kerala has been enlivening the election scene in Kerala for the last two weeks. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) has never won this Parliament constituency since 1978. In this context, it is but natural that the well-wishers of the LDF wonder about the reasons behind the present controversy. The issue in Ponnani, as far as the CPI (M) is concerned, is not limited to winning a seat. It is a part of the Party’s strategy that seeks to fundamentally change the balance of political forces in Kerala.
A historical examination of the growth of the LDF in Kerala would reveal its relative lack of influence among religious minorities as a major limitation. The class struggles around land, wages and various social security measures have drawn a large share of the poor and working people in the State towards the Left. While religious minorities were equal partners in receiving these benefits of the class struggle, there was never a decisive movement of these sections towards the Left.
Several reasons explain this paradox. Prevalent orthodoxy and vested interests amongst organized religions is one important reason. However, there is a flipside to it. The adoption of a simplistic rationalist approach by the Left on several occasions, incognizant of the specific religious atmosphere in these communities, has also led to problems. The Left does not aim at eradication of religious faith. Instead, it aims at rallying together all the members of the working class, believers or non-believers, in the process of social revolution. This aim has met with significant success in recent times in Kerala, and the transition has been increasingly visible within the Muslim community.
The history of Malabar in the 19th century is marked by a number of anti-British revolts led by the Muslim community following from their staunch anti-imperialist and anti-feudal positions. However, the British suppressed all these struggles with an iron hand. An important repercussion of this suppression was the boycott of Western trends and a retreat to community as a form of protest against the British. On its part, the Congress party attempted to portray the revolt of 1921 as a communal revolt. The Left, however, fully grasped the exhortation and warnings that these struggles embodied. This understanding led to the election of K. P. Abdurahiman Sahib as the President of Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) with the support of the Communists.
Yet, the influence of the Communists among the Muslim community remained relatively weak. In the assembly elections of 1957, the Communist Party of India received only about 21 per cent of the votes from the constituencies that form the present Malappuram district. Several measures of the first Communist government, such as the provision of 10 per cent special reservations for the Muslim community, school fee incentives for Muslim children, the annulment of restrictions on the construction of mosques and madrasas and congregational marches in front of mosques, upgrading of Arabic teachers to full-time teachers and so on won it considerable appreciation within the community. The E.M.S. Namboodiripad government also withdrew the draconian and anti-Muslim Mappila Outrages Act.
The anti-communist Liberation Struggle of 1959 witnessed the resurrection of the Muslim League in Kerala. Still, in the 1960 Parliament elections, the Communist Party of India secured 33.3 per cent of the votes in Malappuram district; the Party’s vote share recorded a 125 per cent increase over 1957. The vote share of anti-communists declined from 75.8 per cent to 65.5 per cent. In 1957, the Muslim League and the Congress had secured 1.5 lakh votes each in the constituency. However, in 1960, even after being in alliance with the PSP, the combination secured only a 16 per cent increase in the vote share. In summary, the Liberation Struggle did not influence the voting patterns within the Muslim community in any major way.
In the 1960s, the CPI (M) had entered into a strategic alliance with the Muslim League in order to thwart the emerging anti-communist front. Although the alliance was beneficial in some respects, it created problems too. It resulted in the increased influence of the Muslim League in the Travancore-Cochin region, and difficulties in attracting the Muslim masses towards the CPI (M). This flaw could be corrected only by the mid-eighties.
In the 1990s, at the national level, the Left has upheld the protection of religious minority rights as an important concern and a part of their political agenda. The Left adopted a strong position against the American invasion in West Asia, resulting in the increasing affinity of the Muslim population towards the Party in the 1990s. Although it comprehensively severed all political connections with the Muslim League, the Party adopted an attitude of open-minded dialogue with other Muslim cultural organisations and built new bridges with the community. This conscious policy of the Party led to the appreciation among the Muslims that the problems of the community would be addressed even in the absence of the League’s intervention. This new appreciation found its first expression in the historic 2004 victory of the CPI (M) in Manjeri parliament constituency.
As mentioned earlier, the Communist Party of India received only one-third of the votes in Malappuram in 1960. The party’s vote share gradually rose to 35-40 per cent in the elections that followed. Although the League secured 63 per cent of the votes in 1977, this figure fell substantially by 2004. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the League secured only 45 per cent of the votes in Malappuram district. The advantage of 34 percentage points that the League maintained against the Left in 1989 and 1991 shrunk to 10-16 percentage points by the late-1990s. The difference fell further to 3.3 percentage points in the 2004 elections, when CPI (M)’s T. K. Hamsa secured 45 per cent of the votes in the Manjeri constituency. From just one win in Malappuram district in the 2001 assembly elections (Mankada), the Left progressed to secure five seats in the 2006 assembly elections.
An important trend can be identified from the data on voting percentages in Malappuram. There is a consistent decline in the voting percentage in the 1980s from an earlier figure of 74-76 per cent. Only 63.9 per cent of the votes were polled in 1999. The situation points to a phenomenon where a sizeable section of anti-League votes do not get cast due to the absence of effective alternative. The voting percentage in Manjeri rose to 71.9 per cent in 2004, when the Left candidate won. However, the figure was still just 62.3 per cent in Ponnani.
The higher probability of success for a Left candidate, who is capable of accumulating the passive anti-League votes, is the lesson to be learnt from the above mentioned trends. This realization has led to panic within the League. The combative strategy of the League in this situation involved bringing together all the religious organisations of the Muslim community under an umbrella body. Several kinds of alliances mushroomed under the aegis of League leaders like P. K. Kunhalikutty and others. These were also attempts on the League’s part to assume the political spokesmanship of the Muslim community. While it was successful to some extent in generating an impression of success on this count, we are now being witness to this strategy faltering in Ponnani’s election arena.
Dr Hussain Randathani, the independent candidate of the LDF in Ponnani, has received his post-graduate degree from the Aligarh Muslim University and a doctorate from the Calicut University for his thesis on Mappila Muslims in the colonial period. He has been receiving incredible support from various Muslim organisations. The political scene in Ponnani is fast advancing towards a state of polarization between the League, the NDF and the UDF on one side, and all progressive forces on the other. The BJP is not a significant entity in Ponnani. These fundamental changes in the political canvas of Malappuram would ensure an LDF victory in Ponnani, similar to the victory in Manjeri in 2004.
The formation of a broad Left union in Ponnani has already influenced the neighboring constituency of Malappuram. The advance of T. K. Hamsa, the winner in Manjeri in 2004, has already pushed E. Ahmed of the League to defense. Popular unrest against the League’s shameful clinging to power in the face of the shift of foreign policy in favour of US and Israel is evident. It has to be remembered that the execution of Saddam Hussein was approached by the India’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (under E. Ahmed) as an internal matter of Iraq. India is the largest buyer of weapons from Israel; Israeli army chiefs visit Kashmir; and India helps put Israel’s spy satellites in orbit. The League is being interrogated by the masses for its complicity in all these policy shifts.
The waves in Ponnani will not be restricted to Malappuram. The reverberations will spill over and influence the results of the elections throughout Kerala, and especially in Malabar.