First Communist Government in Kerala : In Retrospect

Prof. B. Vivekanandan

When I look back to 1957, the assumption to power of a popularly elected communist government in Kerala that year was a landmark. Embedded in that development was that, in ideological terms, the Indian Communist Party had accepted the perception, which Karl marx propounded after the violent end of the rise of Paris Commune in 1871, that in pluralist democracies socialism can be ushered in through peaceful democratic means ,without a violent revolution. It also showed the correctness of the methodology democratic socialists had chosen, more than a century ago, to press for universal suffrages, in place of organizing violent revolutions, to bring about socialist reforms through democratically elected representative institutions. In Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland the Social Democratic Parties had adopted a reform path more than a century ago, and established strong, stable and successful welfare states in those countries. In India, the Indian Communist Party, for the first time, joined that stream of approach when the first communist government assumed power in Kerala in 1957, after winning a majority in the state elections. Thus the EMS Namboodiripad government of 1957 set a a new example not only for the communist parties of other Indian states but also of the rest of the world to emulate.

It may be recalled that despite a major change in the perception of Karl Mark, as early as 1872, in favour of peaceful methods, the Indian Communist party held on to his earlier perception, contained in the Communist manifesto of 1848, and organised a violent struggle in 1946 at Punnapra – Vayalar – a Paris Commune experiment in miniature – and established a Stalinist model of governance there. But, like in the case of Paris commune, the Punnapra – Vayalar experiment also ended in great tragedy. That bitter experience seems to have greatly influenced the Indian Communist Party to finally opt for a peaceful democratic electoral path to capture state power. The introduction of universal adult franchise in India, under the new Constitution, also facilitated such a major change in their approach and outlook. In place of organizing violent revolution, the Communist party of Kerala concentrated their efforts more to win the hearts of the electorate in Kerala by popularising their programmes through campaigns, agitations, public meetings and cultural shows like dramas, kathaprasangams (story telling), road shows and so on. In, this the role played by Kerala People’s Arts Club (KPAC) was quite significant.

The first fruition of those efforts was the election of the first Communist Government in Kerala, led by EMS Namboodiripad in 1957. Therefore what we have seen in Kerala in 1957 was the signalling of a new path of the Communist movement in India, in choosing, for ever, the parametres of pluralist democracies and becoming a partner of a healthy democracy.

A notable feature of the first EMS Government was the calibre of distinguished personalities who occupied positions in the Cabinet. Indeed, each one of them had a right to be there. It was composed of the cream of the Communist movement in Kerala at that time, minus A K Gopalan and K. Damodaran. EMS Namboodiripad, C. Achutha Menon, T.V. Thomas, K R Gowri and so on were all people of high calibre who had a long history of popular struggles behind them. The three independents who joined that ministry – V.R. krishna Iyer, Joseph Mundasseri and A.R. Menon – at that time were also men of great distinction. Today, it is difficult to see such an array of an outstanding team of ministers in a single state cabinet. In consequence, they initiated thoughtful changes in state government policies. Indeed, it is fair to say that it was a government which approached problems basically from the angle of the poor and the downtrodden. The Land Reforms Act and the Education Act were expressions of that approach. They were progressive legislations.

The bane of the first EMS Government was its failure to draw a line between the party and the government. The interference of the local party units (the party cells), in the local administration- especially in the police administration- became quite widespread and caused considerable resentment among the people at large. Simultaneously, vested interests lined up in opposition to the Land Reforms Act. Soon another group of vested interests also lined up against the Education Act. For quite some time, these opponents remained disjointed. But two years later, for different reasons all these opponents began to converge and launched what is known as ‘liberation struggle’ against the Communist Government. That struggle led to the dismissal of the first EMS Ministry. Though elected for five years, that government could remain in power only for 28 months. From hindsight, I feel that communist government would have completed its full term,had the communist party cadre in the state not indulged in introducing ‘cell rule’ at local levels, and caused hostility among the people. In that case, it would have been just impossible for landlords and other vested interest’s to build a mass movement merely around the Land Reforms Act and the Education Act.
The dismissal of the first communist government in 1959, while it was still enjoying a majority support in the Legislative Assembly, on the basis of the recommendation of the State Governor, was clearly against the letter and spirit of parliamentary democracy. Indeed, in this case, the Governor seems to have acted against the spirit of authority vested in him under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution when he recommended the dismissal of the government which enjoyed a clear majority in the State Legislative Assembly. It created an unhealthy precedent in the Indian Constitutional system. Yet, to the credit of the Communist Party of India, that did not dilute the party’s commitment to electoral politics and Indian Parliamentary democracy. That is its strength today.

However, the assumption to power of the first popularly elected Communist Government in Kerala in 1957 was a historic event in the sense that it has pointed the way for other Communist Parties of Europe, and elsewhere in the world, to firmly anchor their politics too in democracy and electoral politics to usher socialism everywhere.