Mullaperiyar: What is Pinarai Vijayan up to?


Chief Minister Pinarai Vijayan

The new Chief Minister of Kerala Pinarai Vijayan has willingly courted controversy in the first week of assuming office itself over Mullaperiyar and other issues.

The essence of his statement on Mullaperiyar was that Kerala will have to take into account the finding of the empowered committee appointed by the Supreme Court that the dam was safe and future negotiations would have to be over the report of the committee and its reliability. Secondly, he said that a new dam at Mullaperiyar, which Kerala had proposed as a means to ensure safety of people of five districts in the State, was not possible without cooperation from Tamil Nadu.

Faced with strong opposition to the change in the State’s stand over Mullaperiyar, Mr. Vijayan clarified that the government was still for new dam. What he had said was that it was not possible to build a dam without cooperation from the Centre and Tamil Nadu.

There was no compulsion for Mr. Vijayan to come up with an early policy statement on Mullaperiyar as no decision was pending on the issue that needed immediate attention. He also made a statement in favour of revival of the Athirappally hydroelectric project which is strongly opposed by environmental activists and leaders of the CPI which is a constituent of the ruling coalition, the Left Democratic Front. He could have delayed taking a stand on both the issues if he wanted.

However, he apparently had political and administrative reasons for making statements on Mullaperiyar and Athirappally even at the risk of losing some goodwill. On the face of it, the statements hook his bite noire in the party V. S. Achuthanandan who had adopted stands in favour of new dam and against Athirappally project in the past. There has been a truce between Mr. Achuthanandan and Mr. Vijayan before the elections, and Mr. Achuthanandan, as Leader of the Opposition, led the campaign of the Opposition Front. However, the CPI (M) chose Mr. Vijayan as the Chief Minister.

Mr. Vijayan’s statements come at a time when the party is considering an advisory position with Cabinet rank for Mr. Achuthanandan in the Government. Mr. Vijayan’s camp has already raised the criticism that this would give rise to duel power centres. If Mr. Achuthandnan loudly opposed the policy pronouncements by Mr. Vijayan, that would be proof to support the argument. Being a seasoned politician, Mr. Achuthanandan’s reaction was measured. Yet, there is no certainty that he would get the position he desired.

In a raising a controversy, Mr. Vijayan’s political costs are limited. His party does not have much support in any of the areas that will be directly impacted by failure of Mullaperiyar dam. The sufferer is the CPI which has won seats in areas that would be hit by a failure of the Mullaperiyar dam and impacted by the Athirappally project. CPI had done a sterling performance in this election winning 70 per cent of the seats it contested. The CPI (M) knows that it would have to concede more ground to CPI as CPI comes out of political stagnation in Kerala. So, any damage done to CPI is to its advantage.

There is also speculation that the CPI (M) would like to come closer to AIADMK considering CPI (M)’s diminishing importance at the national level. It is also notable that in Devikulam constituency in Kerala, where there is a Tamil population; AIADMK secured over 11600 votes which was more than twice the margin of victory of the CPI (M) candidate in the constituency.

Apart from political objectives, Mr. Vijayan’s statement is clearly aimed at laying the path for new initiatives. Kerala has nearly exhausted its legal options on Mullaperiyar at least for the time being. The way it conducted the cases before the Supreme Court left a lot to be desired. For example, the Supreme Court made an erroneous observation in its 2006 judgement that the waters would be contained in the Idukki dam downstream in case of failure of Mullaperiyar dam. However, Kerala failed to produce the Dam Break Analysis showing that towns and villages and a large population would be washed away, in subsequent litigation in the Court. The previous government then tried to hide reports of the Analysis, which it had commissioned, and other documents relating to the litigation from public by issuing an executive order against releasing documents on Mullaperiyar under Right to Information Act.

Now, Mr. Vijayan needs an opening to drive new policy and this could not be done without admitting the status quo following the Supreme Court orders and the impossibility of building a new dam in the near future. He has to open dialogue with Tamil Nadu. Acknowledging that there is a finding that the dam is safe is first step towards that.
Water for Tamil Nadu and safety for Kerala is slogan raised by the previous government. However, with Tamil Nadu seeking legal options and rejecting the proposal for a new dam, it had only campaign value. Mr. Vijayan has not specified what policy options he would pursue now. He probably has to reconstitute the Mullaperiyar Cell, which failed in its objective, and hold discussions with experts and lawyers before proceeding.

Even before Mr. Vijayan deprecated the proposal for new dam, there was a section of those agitating against the raising of water level in the old dam who argued that the dam should be decommissioned in a phased manner. The decommissioning should be over 50 years or so allowing Tamil Nadu the opportunity to shift its agriculture practices to modern techniques that need less water for irrigation.

Water policy expert Ramaswamy R. Iyer, who was Union Secretary for Water Resources, stated as back as in 2011 that Kerala would be repeating a folly committed more than 100 years ago by building a new dam.

Opinion is growing around the world against large dams and inter-basin diversion of river waters. The Mullaperiyar dam totally cut off flow through the river. International covenants now recognise lower riparian rights and the need to allow flow needed to maintain ecosystems and activities downstream.

Moreover, Kerala’s stand on impact on the Periyar Tiger Reserve is contradictory. On one side, it argued that the raising of the water level would harm the Reserve. On the other side, it proposed a major construction activity and impounding of water within the protected area.

It is expected that Mr. Vijayan would look into all this and come up with a new approach to the issue.

After the master stroke, super strike

If Opposition Leader Achuthanandan’s statement was a master stroke, CPI (M) Idukki district secretary M. M. Mani’s speech was a super strike.

M. M. Mani

M. M. Mani

Mr. Mani surely knew that it would recoil on his party. However, firing at the target was more important.  However, the media attention did not turn much attention towards Achuthanandan who was the party State secretary when the political murders mentioned by Mani took place.

The media is yet to ask questions whether Mr. Achuthanandan was aware of the murders in Idukki district. If he knew nothing about the list that Mr. Mani said the party had drawn up, what did he do when the serial killings were reported one after another?

The damage done to the party by Mani’s speech prompted party State secretary Pinarai Vijayan to call upon leaders to desist from making public statements against party policy,  in a bid to restore the truce that did not hold. What is notable is that both Mr. Vijayan and Achuthanandan are now criticising Mani in unison.

For further reading:

CPI (M) Idukki secretary stirs up a hornets’ nest
CPI (M) distances itself from Mani’s comment on eliminating political rivals
Pinarayi’s criticism of Mani not sincere: Chandy

We have killed enemies, CPI (M) not scare to own them up…
The bloody past of CPM in Idukki Spice Belt

Update (3-6-2012): V. S. Achuthananan has effectively neutralised Mani by visiting the home of slain leader T. P. Chandrasekharan. He has thus identified with the victims. Nobody is asking whether he knew of the serial killings by party men in Idukki district in the eighties.

Master stroke by Achuthanandan

V. S. Achuthanandan has delivered a political master stroke by proposing to step down as Opposition Leader and demanding discussion in the CP I (M) about issues surrounding the murder of the RMP leader T. P. Chandrasekharan in the party. It demonstrates that he is a master political strategist.

V. S. Achuthanandan

V. S. Achuthanandan

His action pre-empts likely move by the official faction in the State unit of the party to remove him from the position of the Opposition Leader over his statements in the Chandrasekharan issue. He has also foreseen that his position would be weakened by the government decision to commence vigilance probe against his son.

Mr. Achuthanandan has also seized the initiative by seeking discussions on the Chandrasekharan issue in the State and Central committees in his letter reportedly sent to the party secretary Prakash Karat as well as polit bureau member Sitaram Yachuri. He has stated his position clearly and has also said that he was not being consulted on important party matters.  Now, discussions about his indiscipline in the party could not take precedence over organizational issues he has raised.

He has also demanded the reorganization of the State Committee. Though he would not be able to carry that through, the opposite camp would find it almost impossible to dislodge him from the Central committee.

Virtual truce in Kerala unit of the CPI (M)

There would be a virtual truce in the State unit of the party until after the Neyyattinkara by-poll in June. This is partly the outcome of the talks the RSP leader T. J. Chandrachoodan had with the Opposition Leader V. S. Achuthanandan whom he met after informing the CPI (M) leadership on May 14. Both party State secretary Pinarai Vijayan and Mr. Achuthanandan would not make statements that would intensify the faction fight between them.

Pinarai Vijayan

Pinarai Vijayan

Mr. Achuthanandan reportedly declined to make amends to his stated stand on the murder of the Revolutionary Marxist Party leader T. P. Chandrasekharan during talks with Mr. Chandrachoodan.  This would help him to keep the rebellious cadre opposed to the official faction in Neyyattinkara with him until after the elections.  He has already written to the party’s Central leadership that his statements were in tune with the party’s policy of bringing back lost cadre, and the Central leadership would  keep mum until after the elections.

After the elections, the CPI (M) may go through the motions of taking action against Mr. Achuthanandan whose conduct amounts to gross indiscipline according to the precepts of the party.  And Mr. Achuthanandan may, as in the past, go through the act of submission to the party.

Update: (16/5/2012)

The truce was technically broken with the State Secretariat issuing a statement on Tuesday describing Onchiyam dissidents as psuedo revolutionaries gripped by parliamentary greed and noted for their absence of communist values. The statement almost coincided with Polit bureau member Sitaram Yechuri’s averment in Delhi that the party had directed the State leadership to make any more controversial statements.

Achuthanandan opens a new front; only to retreat?

Opposition Leader V. S. Achuthanandan has opened a new front in his fight against the party faction led by Pinarai Vijayan in the Kerala unit of the CPI (M) by identifying himself with the cause of the party rebels at Onchiyam in Kozhikode district.

V. S. Achuthanandan

V. S. Achuthanandan

What is most striking about his latest statement made at a press conference is the comparisons made between Pinarai and S. A. Dange (chairman of the undivided communist party, 1962-64) as well as the comrades of Ochiyam and those who rebelled against the Dange line. The comparison between those who opposed Dange and those who rebelled at Ochiyam is far-fetched. However, what Achuthanandan wants to project here is his role in splitting the CPI in 1964 accusing Dange of revisionism.

However, those who think that Mr. Achuthanandan would split the party now would probably be disappointed. His words have hardly ever been followed by deeds. He is known to put two steps forward and two steps backwards, be it his Munnar mission as Chief Minister or crusade in the party.

He would find strategic and policy justifications to explain his stand in party for a, though they would not be acceptable to the opposite camp. He has already noted that it is party’s policy to bring back deserters instead of branding them as betrayers of the communist collective and renegades and preventing their eventual return.

Moreover, what better strategy is there than to identify with the slain T. P. Chandrasekharan on the run up to the by-election when the murder was bound to affect the party’s prospects at Neyyattinkara. Moreover, there is simmering anger among a section of the party cadre in the Malabar area over the murder in which the needle of suspicion is pointed to the CPI (M).  The storm being created by Mr. Achuthanandan would persuade at least many of them to stay on and fight from within the party against policy aberrations.