Fact and Faction

Swami Vivekananda once described Kerala as a 'mad house of caste'. If he were to revisit the state today he might call it a mad house of factions. Factional politics is fast emerging as a key feature shaping the pattern of politics in the state. These intra-party units are not formal and institutionalised like the 'correnti' and 'habatsu', as in the celebrated models of factionalism, Italy and Japan. They are also not fleeting like cliques and tendencies. Yet we know there are distinct groups that are visibly active in almost all parties. Factionalism or 'groupism', as they call it in Kerala, would therefore not be an inadequate characteristic of Kerala politics alongside the politics of coalition fronts.

This year marks the golden jubilee of the first democratically elected Communist government. Ironically, the CPM, which carries the legacy of that defining moment, is witnessing an internecine battle which threatens to erase its past achievements. Factional conflicts are neither new to the state nor to the party, but the current fracas between the chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan and the CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan puts even the legendary Karunakaran-Antony battle in the Congress to shade.

The hostilities in the CPM go back to the nineties. Interestingly, they had worked in tandem to oust the CITU faction at the Palakkad state party conference in 1998. But by the Malapuram conference in 2005, the chasm became unbridgeable. What is significant is that the conflict is no longer limited to the leadership, party members and even to the voters but has extended to areas like the literary, artistic and cultural sphere, to pressure groups, economic organisations and media and even to the administration which relates to the government in terms of party factions.

Factionalism in Kerala and possibly other states can rarely be traced to ideology. Even where ideology or strategy difference has played a role, the personal factor has been dominant. Factions have formed due to personal disagreement. Subsequently, the relationships within factions are also decided by personal ties between the leader and members of the group. These ties are not necessarily emotional. They are often based on rational calculations of interests. Factions have aided members and leaders to achieve positions within party and government and enabled selective distribution of patronage.

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