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Kerala CPI(M) reaching out to IUML. Tharoor, Vijayan’s son-in-law have a lot to do with it

Indian Union Muslim League has been Congress’ most valuable ally in UDF for over five decades, and has only grown in stature.

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Less than two years into Pinarayi Vijayan’s second term, the Communist Party of India-Marxist finds itself back on the drawing board, formulating plans to extend its stint in power well beyond 2026. But with Vijayan’s diminishing stature and health impediments, it has to think out of the box to chart a way forward.

And it is precisely in this context that CPI (M) state secretary M.V. Govindan’s comments, certifying the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) as a secular party, assume significance.

When Vijayan assumed office as chief minister in the summer of 2016, it was long overdue for the Left ecosystem in Kerala. Within a month of the swearing-in, the late Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, then state secretary of the CPI(M), wrote in the party organ Deshabhimani how the Left Democratic Front (LDF) needed to expand its base to ensure a second term. By 2021, when Vijayan sought re-election, LDF had new allies, such as the Loktantrik Janata Dal (LJD) and Kerala Congress (Mani), coming at the expense of Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF).

Now, IUML is no pariah to CPI (M), having shared power in the past. But ever since CPI(M) famously ousted Kannur strongman M.V. Raghavan in 1986 for his ‘alternate document’ (to former Kerala CM and then party general secretary E.M.S Namboodiripad) advocating an alliance with parties such as IUML and the Church-backed Kerala Congress factions, it has blown hot and cold on the issue. Perhaps it is no coincidence that CPI (M)’s courting of IUML comes with M.V. Raghavan’s protégés Vijayan and Govindan helming the Marxist party today.

Also read: Operation ‘Discipline Tharoor’ failed in Kerala. But battle against Pinarayi won’t be easy

IUML’s credentials

IUML has been Congress’ most valuable ally in UDF for over five decades. Even in 1992-93, post the razing of the Babri Masjid, IUML stayed put in UDF, despite then IUML president Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait rebelling and forming a splinter outfit. Notwithstanding its historical linkages to Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s All-India Muslim League (AIML) and having endured Jawaharlal Nehru’s “dead horse” jibe, IUML has only grown in stature—especially with its timely intervention in maintaining peace in the Malabar region after Babri Masjid’s destruction.

But more importantly, IUML has historically had the highest electoral strike rate for any party in Kerala. With a strong base in Malappuram and other pockets of Malabar, IUML—apart from CPI (M) and Congress—is the only party guaranteed to win seats in the absence of alliances in the state. And that is what makes it an alluring proposition for CPI (M). In fact, getting IUML to cross over will at once weaken UDF and simultaneously make LDF invincible, at least for 2026.

Vijayan winning a second term in 2021 owed in part to the disarray in UDF caused by the departure of Church-backed Kerala Congress (Mani). That exit tilted the time-tested balancing of community interests by Congress in CPI (M)’s favour. Now, with Shashi Tharoor making a splash with a pan-Kerala tour and his candidacy getting approval from traditional Congress vote bases, CPI (M) reckons that it needs to muddy the waters.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party of India (CPI) has taken exception to M.V. Govindan’s ‘certification’ of IUML as a secular party as well as subsequent overtures, fearing the loss of its status as the preeminent LDF ally, with both IUML and CPI contesting 25 seats each in either front. But CPI (M) is unlikely to back down, as CPI and smaller allies depend heavily on the Marxist party’s organisational muscle to win elections. Ultimately, CPI should stay put even with fewer seats in LDF.

As for IUML, it has no plans to rock the UDF boat for now, at least until the 2024 Lok Sabha elections are done and dusted. Nevertheless, IUML will find it tough to keep its flock together without power, and it will have to take a call on its continuance in UDF based on results of the local body polls in 2025. Even now, IUML leaders such as P.K. Kunhalikutty and P.V. Abdul Wahab are perceived to have a soft corner for CPI (M). But a larger group is also dead to LDF within its ranks, led by IUML leaders M.K. Muneer and K.M. Shaji. However, even they are likely to be persuaded in the event of UDF coming off as second best in the local body polls.

Also read: Arif Mohammad Khan vs Pinarayi Vijayan was up for a showdown. Until it became personal

Riyas for 2026?

CPI (M) might also have an additional game plan. As of today, there is virtually no line of succession in the party. Ideally, Vijayan would like his son-in-law and high-profile cabinet minister P.A. Mohammed Riyas to succeed him as chief minister. However, notwithstanding his total domination of the party, Vijayan will find it challenging to install someone as junior as Riyas as the next leader, although it can still be accomplished with a deft plan.

Such a proposal could also clinch the deal with IUML in the run-up to the next election. To date, IUML’s C.H. Mohammed Koya has been the only Muslim face to assume the chief minister’s post, albeit as a stopgap arrangement in 1979. Assuming the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) retains power in 2024, as it would in all likelihood, CPI (M) could dwell on the importance of projecting a Muslim face as Kerala’s chief minister—as a bulwark against communalism—thus placing Mohammed Riyas as the odds-on favourite.

The Left ecosystem will take care of the rest with propaganda and overt appeals to identity. And with Sitaram Yechury most likely to be succeeded by M.A. Baby as CPI (M) general secretary, getting the stamp of the politburo could also be a smooth affair. Nonetheless, Vijayan needs to jump through many hoops to convert this plot into a reality, but it’s theoretically very plausible.

The author is a Kerala-based journalist and columnist. He tweets @AnandKochukudy. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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