Pushed Against The Wall A Desperate CPM Uses Communal Card In Kerala
Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan (third from left) and minister KT Jaleel (fourth from left)

Pushed Against The Wall A Desperate CPM Uses Communal Card In Kerala

Defending the protocol and FCRA violations by Minister KT Jaleel has meant the Left coalition has had to look to religion

Desperate times call for desperate measures. The CPM-led Left government in Kerala has been on a slippery slope ever since the former principal secretary to the Chief Minister M Shivashankar underwent marathon questioning by the Central Customs and National Investigation Agency (NIA) for his close links with gold smuggling accused Swapna Suresh.

Last week’s turn of events seems to have further made the Left front’s political situation in Kerala slippery. Minister for Higher Education, KT Jaleel, whose alleged violation of FCRA (Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act) regulations and protocols, which was reported by The Lede in August was first summoned by the Enforcement Department (ED) and then by the NIA for questioning.

Jaleel is not the first minister to be questioned by a national agency. But what makes the situation unprecedented is the involvement of an anti-terror investigation agency. Jaleel was grilled by the NIA for eight hours on Thursday. Never in the history of the state has a sitting minister been questioned in relation to a scheduled offence.

Though Jaleel and the party argue that he was called as a witness to the case, legal experts believe that it is only a technical term under Section 160 CrPC which can go either way depending on the findings of the investigating officer.

This has given opposition parties the much needed ammunition to put the Pinarayi Vijayan government on the mat and with the government already facing corruption allegations in the Life Mission housing project, the opposition spared no time in sending its youth wings to the streets of Kerala to protest.

The result – all COVID-19 protocols have since been thrown out of the window as hour after hour, day after day, police and workers of Youth Congress, Yuva Morcha and Youth League openly clashed, the resignation of Jaleel being the immediate demand.

Youth Congress workers after a police lathi charge
Youth Congress workers after a police lathi charge
Police cane protesters
Police cane protesters

Lathi charges, tear gas shells and water cannons became the order of the day with Palakkad and Malappuram witnessing some of the most heated agitations.

Police lathi charge protesters in Palakkad
Police lathi charge protesters in Palakkad
Police lathi charge in Palakkad
Police lathi charge in Palakkad
Congress MLA VT Balram speaking after clashes with police
Congress MLA VT Balram speaking after clashes with police

But the state, especially the Chief Minister, is in no mood to budge. Rather the entire government machinery and the ruling party coalition came in support of Jaleel.

“I simply do not understand what is the mistake that Jaleel has done. He only distributed some Quran copies and also a few Ramzan kits. All these protests happening on the streets, I leave it to the wisdom of these people to decide if they are making the right choices for themselves and rest of the people in the state during the time of a pandemic like COVID,’’ Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told media persons.

Government Finds Ways To Back Jaleel

So far, there is no evidence in the public domain to show Jaleel’s alleged involvement in the gold smuggling case. But his break of protocol and FCRA violations are being clearly red flagged by legal experts.

Despite this, the state government, the ruling party and finally even the entire LDF rushed to Jaleel’s defence. The Minister too decided to deny that he was questioned by the ED, when asked about it by the media.

On the first day of his interrogation with the ED, Jaleel stoutly denied that the questioning had taken place. That same evening the Enforcement Director’s statement put paid to his claims.

When Chief Minister Vijayan was confronted the very next day on why the Minister had denied being interrogated by the ED, he said - “I am not even aware that the Minister had said any such thing. I don’t know about it.” This, despite, 24 hours of coverage in the media about the Minister’s denial.

The government’s open ticket to Jaleel was soon evident when Vijayan ruled out any chance of his resignation, saying he had not done anything wrong.

The CPM too had to back Jaleel. Senior leader and Central Committee Member MV Govindan told media persons at party headquarters, “I do not understand what the issue here is. Jaleel has not done anything wrong. He was called by the agency to get some clarifications. Now even if a case his filed against him, there is no reason for Jaleel to resign,’’ reiterated Govindan.

Though not surprised by the party’s moves in rubbishing calls for the minister’s resignation so close as it is to the assembly polls, most independent Left ideologues and thinkers say that the trend shows to what extent individualistic politics has submerged the ideology inside the CPM.

“If KT Jaleel confidently lies and thinks that no allegations or probe can touch him, then that confidence comes from what the CM and the party secretary give him through their open support to a culture of individualistic politics where the Left ideology and Left values take a back seat. Sadly, this is what the party has become in Kerala today where its leadership compromises with individual fallacies and tries to find new ways to justify them just to ensure that power is not lost at any cost,’’ well known Left activist and thinker Dr Azad told The Lede.

The Quran At The Centre Of The Storm

On Friday, the Deshabimani, the daily mouthpiece of the CPM had an editorial, written by the state party secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan titled – “Is this insult towards the Quran?”

The controversial editorial on the Quran written by CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan
The controversial editorial on the Quran written by CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan

Kodiyeri went on to ask, “Just because Modi is ruling India is there a ban on distribution of the holy Quran and Ramzan kits in the country? The animosity that RSS and BJP have shown towards the holy Quran revered by millions of Muslims is a well-known fact. The main agenda of the RSS is to annihilate Muslims, minorities and leftists and the ruling BJP government is closely aligned with it. Hence it is well known that the same government will never shy away from using central agencies for their political motives.”

What is baffling about Kodiyeri’s statement is that it was Chief Minister Vijayan who had, at the outset, written to the Prime Minister calling for central agencies to probe the gold smuggling case.

Later, on several occasions, the CM had himself expressed his trust on the ongoing probe. Now that the agencies had summoned Jaleel, the party and the government was doing a complete U-turn.

Such U-turns are common in politics, of course.

But what is uncommon is a Left party, the CPM, no less, using religion to further its political end.

Kodiyeri was guiding the ship into virgin territory. But it was not an off the cuff remark that could be open to misinterpretation. Kodiyeri clarified his stance further in the editorial.

“But why would the Congress and the Muslim League have an allergy to Quran like the RSS? Just like Aurangzeb who killed his brothers and imprisoned his father Shah Jahan just to grab power the Muslim League is doing the same by supporting the anti-Quran campaign of the RSS just to grab power for the next five years?’’ asks the CPM state secretary in the editorial.

CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan (L) with KT Jaleel (R)
CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan (L) with KT Jaleel (R)

In short, Kodiyeri reduced the agitation by opposition parties against the alleged illegalities of Jaleel into a ‘battle to insult the Quran’.

What is not mentioned by Kodiyeri is that Minister Jaleel himself had brought up the issue of the Quran while explaining his phone conversations with gold smuggling accused Swapna Suresh to the media persons after Swapna’s call records showed they had talked on the phone more than a dozen times.

Kodiyeri also sidestepped the point that the alleged protocol violation by Jaleel was by entering into an association with the UAE Consulate while accepting the Quran for distribution – the bone of contention is not the Quran itself.

Whether under the garb of the Holy Book, gold was indeed smuggled and whether the minister knew it at the moment are only matters of speculation which the agencies are investigating.

The opposition might have jumped the gun by alleging that gold was smuggled under the guise of the Quran but that too is a matter of speculation. The opposition has relied on alleged discrepancies between the weight of the parcel that came from UAE and the one that was sent for distribution by a government agency under Jaleel.

But even then, the Quran as such, was never a source of debate till the Minister, the CM and now the CPM made it into one.

Now here’s the narrative of the Chief Minister. “We can understand the BJP raising a complaint against Quran distribution. But why is the Muslim League doing it? I don’t think Jaleel has done anything wrong. We are not worried about what the central agencies are doing,’’ Pinarayi Vijayan told media persons last week.

Political analysts, especially the Left leaning ones who are irked at this stand, feel that the CPM might have sensed a political opportunity in this to not only get closer to the minority community but also to build a highly sensitive and emotive defence for Jaleel if at all he faces charges.

“There is a big reason why the CPM is communalising the issue here. It means they cannot say for sure that Jaleel will not get booked in this case. I am not saying Jaleel will, but at the moment, he is not out of the woods. That is specifically why they are saying that even if a case is filed against Jaleel, he doesn’t need to resign. The party is surely setting the ground for this. See, there is a particular way in which a government in a secular democratic set up should behave to its people. Neither Jaleel nor the Chief Minister or Kodiyeri has behaved in that spirit. It is so politically immoral for a communist party to play the religious card,’’ Left thinker & writer and a well-known critique of Islamist fundamentalism MN Karassery told The Lede.

CPM’s Narrative Leaves Left Thinkers Dejected

Many Leftist thinkers who have spent a lifetime close to the CPM are not just shocked but saddened by the religious narrative that the party has sprung.

They say the boundary lines between the Left and the Right have suddenly blurred, and the Left in Kerala is fast becoming a mirror of its ideological rival.

NP Chekkutty, senior journalist who had been associated with the party’s media wing for many years said, “People like me feel a deep sense of sadness because the Left has practically abandoned the kind of role it has played in Kerala politics or even Indian politics in its pursuit for power. You cannot win this game by using the same kind of practice that your (political) enemies are successful in employing. See these are the strategies of the right-wing. But Left parties taking on the role of right-wing politics? I think that is really tragic, counterproductive and really sad for the people who have understood Left politics in its true essence.’’

Words of disappointment are springing up from many quarters across Left intelligentsia. There are people like NM Pearson, a well-known Left political commentator who says that the new strategy of the CPM is hardly surprising, as it reflects the decaying Left political thought in Kerala’s civil society. From the media to the party to the common man on the street no one is interested in real politics now, he added.

“If the CPM in Kerala is stooping down to the level of using a religious card it is simply because there is no one to question their action, this blatant deviation from their ideology. Nobody in Kerala is interested in Left politics these days. In a nutshell it’s all about finding ways to stay in power. That’s it. This is how the Left disappeared in Bengal. You don’t need a microscope to find that out. It is so evident. Slowly the political boundary between Left and Right will ebb away and individuals will win elections on their individual influence and money power and not ideology,’’ Pearson told The Lede.

What has also irked Left thinkers is how easily the party has toed the line drawn for them by someone like KT Jaleel whose political career has a religious connotation to it. Jaleel, after all, came into the CPM from the Muslim League. It is no secret secret that before the Muslim League, he had ties with the now defunct Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), a banned radical Islamist outfit.

While Jaleel’s entry brought in a new mascot for the CPM among the minority community in north Kerala, something which the party badly needed, Jaleel soon became the blue eyed boy of Pinarayi Vijayan, which ensured that in spite of not holding any position within the party, this once independent LDF candidate who beat the all-powerful PK Kunjalikutty of the Muslim League in Kuttipuram in 1996, made his own space right next to the top brass in the CPM.

“See you should understand that with Jaleel being so close to the Chief Minister, it is more or less certain that if he falls, some of these allegations will fall upon the CM himself. In that respect the party is actually not protecting Jaleel but they are protecting the CM. That’s why CPM is so desperately backing Jaleel because his proximity to Vijayan is a well-known fact. If he falls, Vijayan will have a lot to answer for,’’ Joseph C Mathew, political commentator and advisor to former Chief Minister VS Achuthananthan told The Lede.

Eye On 2021 Elections

With hardly three months left for local body elections and six months to assembly polls, there is a lot at stake for the ruling coalition in Kerala.

What the gold smuggling case and other corruption allegations have done to the Pinarayi Vijayan government is to take away what looked like a reasonably good chance at re-election.

Political analysts say that this has left the CPM with desperate tactics. Playing up the minority card to woo the sizeable 26.5% of Muslim population the state, which had overwhelmingly voted in favour of the Congress in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls is one strategy and the Quran is being seen as the script for it. But not all are convinced it would work.

“This is what the CPM has been doing for some time now, fielding independent candidates who have a community and business backing. In 2016 assembly polls they gave PV Anwar, a Congress deserter, an LDF ticket in Nilambur. The key is to weaken the minority vote of the UDF and get them on their side. The Quran narrative is aimed at that. But it remains to be seen how much they will succeed because all said and done, Muslims of Kerala are still very moderate and it is not easy to sway them with such emotive narratives,’’ political commentator turned Aam Admi Convenor CR Neelakandan told The Lede.

Though the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) fears that the CPM is purposely playing the communal card, they say the Muslims of Kerala will not fall for it. “The CPM is converting the gold smuggling case into a communal issue. That is why they are dragging the Quran into it. But believers are not going to buy into this. The Quran is a matter of faith and a highly personal one. It is not even fit to be discussed with politics. So, we are very sure that CPM will not get any votes on this,’’ IUML Kerala General Secretary KPA Majeed told The Lede.

But there is one more reason why not many see the CPM strategy as winnable. People like Chekkutty say that if Jaleel does not come clean, it would be political suicide for the CPM.

“The CPM does not have a single credible Muslim leader in their midst. The only person they have now is Jaleel, who is under a cloud. If Jaleel does not come clean, this will backfire big time on the CPM. Remember how Kunjalikutty, who was among the tallest Muslim politicians in Kerala, lost to this same Jaleel in 1996 after he was tainted in the ice cream parlour sex scandal. Not that Kunjalikutty had done anything against the community. The problem was the Kunjalikutty had abandoned the fundamental principles of decent behaviour which is expected of a politician of a minority community. So, the community punished him. Now Jaleel is falling into the same trap. Now a sensible community like the Muslims will do the same to Jaleel if he does not come clean. The Left simply does not understand the minority community and its existential problems. That’s why they are out to defend him with the Quran,’’ added Chekkutty.

Polarisation To The Fore

But if there is one immediate fall-out to this narrative set by the CPM it will be the further polarisation of the electorate in Kerala on religious grounds.

A reciprocal consolidation of the majority Hindu vote bank, in the backdrop of the minorities rallying for the CPM, if it happens, could be on the cards in the longer term and that might favour the BJP. In the shorter term, the gains could be reaped by the Congress-led UDF.

The Sabarimala issue had distanced a sizeable chunk of the Hindu votebank from the CPM but most of it did not go to the BJP. Instead, it helped the Congress-led UDF sweep the 2019 polls.

Though the Left hopes it can substitute that loss by breaking into the Muslim vote bank with the Quran card, those closer to the community feel otherwise.

“The Quran is a matter of faith. It is a personal matter for a believer. Muslims in Kerala are not going to fall for this narrative of the CPM where the Quran is used for political purposes. But this kind of polarisation attempt could actually help the BJP,’’ IUML Kerala General Secretary KPA Majeed added.

Rather than helping the party there are those who also believe it will only leave an indelible communal tag on CPM.

“Look at the various religious groups in Kerala. Except the Kanthapuram group no other religious group in the Muslim community has actually supported the game of playing the communal card on the part of Jaleel or the CPM leaders. They have said, leave the Quran to us, to the believers. That has been the stand of the party in such things since the days of EMS Namboodiripad. But unnecessarily people like Kodiyeri are barging into an area where they have no expertise. Suddenly the CPM looks more communal than the Muslim League. That’s the sad part of this whole issue,’’ added Chekkutty.

CPM’s Stand

Senior CPM Polit Bureau member and former Education Minister of Kerala MA Baby spoke to The Lede and called the Quran issue a malicious campaign by the opposition to discredit all the good work that the Pinarayi Vijayan government had undertaken over the last four years.

“See you should understand the context in which this protest by the opposition started. Ever since a media house’s survey gave the Pinarayi Vijayan government a strong chance of re-election, both the Congress-led UDF and the BJP have turned desperate. Now they want to somehow discredit the government for all the good work it has done in the last four years. This government even earned international recognition for the way it handled difficult situations like the floods, Nipah virus outbreak and the COVID pandemic. So, these allegations targeting the Chief Minister’s office, various other ministers and lastly against KT Jaleel - if you analyse everything objectively, people won’t find any sympathy for what the opposition is doing,’’ MA Baby told The Lede.

Baby also hit out at the opposition saying it was they who dragged the Quran into the whole issue.

“If any gold smuggling happened as the opposition claims, do you mean to say that the Consulate gave Quran and KT Jaleel changed Quran with gold which he was having with him and that was smuggled? Or do you mean to say that gold itself was given from the Consulate to Jaleel and he smuggled it with his own knowledge? These are utterly preposterous allegations which is why Kodiyeri Balakrishnan the party secretary has asked whether the insult is aimed at the Quran,’’ added Baby.

CPM’s coalition partner the Communist Party of India (CPI) has meanwhile come out in support of its bigger partner.

“The Chief Minister sitting in that post has reservations in saying certain things openly. But if anyone who observes what is going on and cannot feel that the whole investigation carried out by the central agencies is not politically motivated, then he should be blind,’’ CPI State Secretary Kanam Rajendran told media persons at Thiruvananthapuram.

All eyes are now on what shape the probe in gold smuggling case will take. Will there be anything connecting Jaleel to gold smuggling or will he be held accountable just for the alleged protocol and FCRA violations?

If Jaleel comes clean, the CPM can heave a huge sigh of relief. If not, the political ramifications for defending him could be self-defeating for the party come the 2021 polls.

Either way the party’s use of religion has simply not gone down well even with its staunchest supporters.

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