11 Mar 2009, ET Bureau
NEW DELHI: Among whatever is left of the pan-Arab Left, ageing comrades remember Saddam Hussein as the despot who single-handedly decimated the communist movement in Iraq. However, back in Kerala, a state which lives on the remittances sent back by its million-plus emigres in the Gulf countries, local communists hail Saddam Hussein as the Arab Saladdin who held out against American imperialism.
For a decade now, the Kerala Left led by the CPM — with its core base coming mostly from lower-caste Hindus — has been trying to make inroads into the Muslim-majority district of Malappuram and neighbouring Kozhikode.
At the heart of a heated debate within the Left is the Ponnani Lok Sabha constituency where Muslims make up 25% of the population, a traditional bastion of Congress ally, the Indian Union Muslim League. Emboldened by the sweeping gains that the Left made in the two northern districts in the last assembly elections, the junior partner in the Left Front, CPI, has been nurturing hopes of wringing the seat. However, the CPM, which has been cosying up to the firebrand People’s Democratic Front (PDP) leader Abdul Nasser Madani — acquitted in the Coimbatore blast case after several years in jail — wants to field an indpendent from the seat who is agreeable to the PDP.
The CPI, which is trying desperately to hold on to the seat to ensure that its vote share does not drop further, is averse to the PDP calling the shots. Mr Madani still faces around 20 cases in Kerala, which includes spreading communal hatred. The war-of-words that ensued culminated in a slanging match between the all-powerful CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan and CPI state chief Veliyam Bhargavan, as widely reported in Malayalam media.
Up north, the CPM has also decided to put up its candidate in the communally-sensitive Azamgarh seat hoping to capitalise on the electorate’s perceived disillusionment with the ruling parties at the Centre and the state. In the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attack, protestors from Azamgarh shouted slogans “Azamgarh Zindabad!” and “Ulema Council Zindabad” in the heart of the Capital.
Protesting police “harassment” of Muslims, they said “we are students, not terrorists”. The Ulema Council is also likely to field a candidate in the constituency, which is seen as a terror hub after the Batla House encounter.
In Assam, where illegal immigrants from Bangladesh have a say in several seats, the CPM was trying to tie up with the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF), which had won ten assembly seats. The party is eyeing seats in the Lok Sabha by wooing over the Muslim voters. It’s another matter that the CPM walked out of the alliance following deadlock in seat-sharing arrangement in the state. However, the CPI is still part of the NCP-AUDF-Left front in the state.
CPM’s political organisational report finalised at the recent Coimbatore Congress said more efforts needed to be made to recruit Muslims, following a drop in Muslim membership over the past seven years. While in Kerala the LDF has managed to win over a section of the American-wary Muslims by striking the right chords, in West Bengal the steady drop in the Muslim membership have given cause for concern at Alimuddin Street.
The Left had the backing of around half-a-dozen Muslim groups in Kerala, as was evident from the assembly elections of 2006. The LDF got a taste of the Muslim backing when it stole a large share of the minority vote from the Congress which had fallen from grace in the eyes of the Islamists because of the Indo-US nuclear deal. The CPM’s central leadership explained its affiliation with the minority groups by saying there was a difference between accepting support and forming an alliance with a religion-based party.
In West Bengal, where it sensed that the Muslim votebank was slipping, the CPM tried to make amends—the Taslima Nasreen episode was a clear indication.
But it was too late. The CPM felt the pain of the Muslim backlash in the panchayat polls. The Muslims had started to distance themselves disillusioned with the Left Front in the wake of the Sachar Committee report. Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s utterances about clearing Madrassas did further harm. What made matters worse was the state government’s land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram, in which the community was affected severely. The Muslim population is over 50% in some districts of the state, including Murshidabad and Kishanganj.