Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Assessing E Balanandan: Worker, Trade Unionist, Marxist Politician

E BALANANDAN died yesterday. He died at the ripe age of 85, his public life spanning more than six decades, rising from an ordinary worker in Kalamassery to a top Communist revolutionary who served in the politburo of the CPM for a long time.

In my career as a journalist I had occasion to interact with him on a number of times. He was simple, down to earth, with a wry wit and easily accessible. In Delhi he lived in the small one room flat at the Vithalbhai Patel House, and always welcomed his guests. He was willing to listen to what you have to say and was always game to a little gossip.

He had a long innings in the Communist party and was often at the centre of its inner party struggles. I was witness to two major occasions when he faced severe setbacks in his inner party struggles. The first was when his most trusted supporters like M M Lawrence, K N Ravindranath, Apppukkuttan Vallikkunnu and others, who were then known as the CITU group in Kerala CPM, were simply thrown out of the Kerala state committee in a severely contested election. It was an open and blatant case of factionalism in the party. It was V S Achuthanandan, Pinarayi Vijayan, M A Baby and others who organised this bloodless coup in the party. Swami, as Balanandan was always known in the party, could do nothing when his gang was simply thrown out, lock stock and barrel at Palakkad in January 1998.

Swami issued a press statement a few days later in which he directly referred to the Palakkad incidents. He said it was against party norms and corrective steps would be taken. As part of these steps, appeals were filed with the Central Control Commission which upheld their case, but the next party congress, instead of reinstating those who were thrown out, decided to clip the wings of the control commission led by veteran Samar Mukherjee. In fact that was the first step in the direction of dilution of party organizational principles for the sake of expediency. But that remained a half-hearted step. They should have gone the whole hog in making it a bourgeois party with open and normal elections to all posts. But it was not to be; and now we have a faction-ridden party which is neither a strong working class organisation of committed cadres nor a bourgeois political party which aims to capture power. It has the vices of both and virtues of neither.

The next time I saw him face another setback was in Delhi in 2005 when he was removed from the politburo of which he was a member from 1978. By then he was a strong supporter of V S Achuthanandan in the new equations in Kerala party. But the official group in Kerala led by Pinarayi had already made their kill at Malappuram state conference ensuring a comprehensive win in party elections. The central leadership could not ignore the voice of the party rank and file as expressed in the Malappuram conference, and the first casualty was Balanandan who had to make way out of the politburo.

That was the end of a major political career. Ever since Balanandan was not a major force in our politics. Yesterday, as his pyre was still burning, I had to make a quick assessment of his contributions, his strengths and weaknesses for a news channel.

I thought there were three major points to remember about him:

First, he was one of the last of our politicians who came from the nationalist movement,with a firm commitment to the ideals of that struggle. His simple life and selfless career embodied those ideals.

Second, he was a trade unionist and politician who failed to notice the changing times and the new challenges posed by a new world. This phase emerges in the seventies when he was an influential figure who opposed the Silent Valley movement, a sign of the nascent environmental movement in India. Same was his attitude to the new digital world that made its impact in the next decade, when he opposed computers as anti working class. He even wrote a book, Computerisation and Indian Working Class, in which he theorized computers would prove to be a great job destroyer!

The third, I think, was a more serious issue: It was in the days when he was the leader of Indian working class movement that the Marxist trade union movement slowly ossified itself into a powerful coterie with its own interests which often clashed with the interests of other sections of our society. There emerged a divide, a deep divide which pitted the organised trade unions against others, mostly unorganized sections of people. Trade union movement became, in the public perception, a gang of organized hooligans who were mercilessly fleecing even the small peasant or petty trader. It was a disaster. Balanandan and his comrades in the trade union front failed to see how this would affect the working class in the long run. Now we know. The working class has practically lost control of its party to the middle class in front of our very eyes.


chespeak said...

K Govindan Kutty writes in an email:

i knew balanandan pretty well. i could not keep in touch with him
for the past few years. he was a nice man. modest. self-made. and
he was good to me.

but that is not to say he knew what was good for the people in whose name he led so many struggles. balanandan represented a limited vision which threw people up to leadership.

i have heard from him umpteen times a self-same commentary on
what used to be called the deepening crisis in capitalism. there was a certain repetitiveness about it. maybe revolution in the old sense of the term is an eternal recurrence, as nietzche would have put it.

i recall talking to balanandan about the torture he suffered and survived. he talked about it rather unfeelingly. i did not see him seething with vengeance. he used to tell me, perhaps with a spiritualist note, that the
human frame is a work of wonder, it can resist battering in an incredible manner, just as his body had resisted it. no one would have taken him for alive
after what he went through. but he came back, every time he was abandoned for dead. was it the durability of the human frame, or was it the deathlessness of something invisible within it?

in impossible situations, he held on to his faith. often, while thinking of him, and those like him, i find myself mumbling an old line from bachan, not the actor
but his dad, harivansh rai bachan:

mere poojan aradhan ko/mere sampporna samarpan ko/
meri kamzori kahkar/jab mera poojit pashan hasa/tab rok na paya main aansoo..

my worship, my devotion
was all my weakness:
when my idol said so, and laughed,
i couldn't hold back my tears.....

chespeak said...

RVG Menon writes in an email:

My encounters with Sri Balanandan were limited to the Silent Valley and Nuclear Power Plant debates.

While fully honouring his commitment and the sacrifices he made for the cause in which he believed, I tend to agree with Chekkutty that he was unaware of the larger issues of environment and development.

chespeak said...

Damodar Prasad writes in an email:

Dear Che,

In your assesement, it seems that TU movement in Kerala and the so-called working class are synonymous. Some time back, I had seen a reference to the 'archetypal marginalized'.
In this conetxt, who is our 'archetypal working class'. Does such a 'class' exist? Though all the brickbats were recieved by the headload workers, the direction of TU movement in Kerala was largely defined by the University employees, BEFI, KSEB Officers Union, SETO, etc, etc. They were/are the vanguard revolutionaries of the TU movement.

2. And on the issue of mechanization and the working class, you are only confirming a long-hled view propagated by Manorama. How mechanization affects society, how the society responds to it is completely erased from this 'judgement' of social change. This anti-computer agitation is over-palyed to instill some kind of gulit feeling in the mainstream Left movement which has become too "pragmatist" in the wake of changes brought in by the technological changes.

chespeak said...

N P Chekkutty replies:

Dear Damodar,

Thanks for raising these pertinent issues in your criticism.

I decided to circulate the note because I was feeling a bit uncomfortable with the way our political debates were revolving around such non issues like Abdullakkutty's perceived probelms with CPM. Looking at Balanandan, we could get a more balanced and nuanced picture of the developments in our politics in recent past. We need to take a hard look, whether we agree on all the points or not.

First, let me say though the trade union movement and working class are two different things, it is the TU movement that actually gives them a face and a voice. TU represents the working class, whether they are marching behind the TU or not. They represent the effective voice of the class.

Second, this TU movement was practically hijacked by the middle class organisations in the public sector. Exactly, this is my point too. It was a very convenient arrangement or a facade of working class movement for the TU Ieaders and the party so long as the unorganised sections did not create troubles. When I say unorganised sections, I do mean even the headload people who received all the brickbat, because for all practical purposes they were only in the peripehry of the movement, the real core being those powerful groups you have mentioned in your note.

Third, I do feel the TU understanding of the environment movement and mechanisation process was not without fault. It was not a Manorama creation, though Manorama might have played it up to make political capital. For me, this question is directly related to the problems of failure of the leadership in applying Marxism in the actual situation, understanding it simply as a static system and not a n organic way to take the society forward.

chespeak said...

Damodar Prasad writes:

1. Che and RVG have indicated about the "developmentalist" agenda of the CITU fcation in the CPM. After the Palakkad conference, as we understand from the reports and journalistic sources, the TU had lost its grip over the party. True that the TU leadership had lost the ideological supremacy but the 'developmentalist' agenda prevails. Not only prevails. But it has overwhelmed with little dissent.

The supposed 'dissent', if there is any, is in anyway theoritical or ideological dissent? Is status-quoism considered as dissent?

2. In M P Paramsewaran's work on KSSP history- Jankeeya Sathra Prasthanathinte Charithram- published last year, there is a reference of the rift between high-developmenatlists represented by the TU faction (KSEB-) and environmentalism of the KSSP particulalry in the context of Silent Valley agitation and later.

3. Now everything has come a full circle. It is interesting to note that those members who had sided with KSSP's alterante view on development have in recent times appropriated the developmentalist agenda of CITU.

4. Earlier, the TU's ideology of developmenatlism had its moorings on the assumed 'Soviet socialist state capitalist' path of development. But now the high-developmenatlism promoted by the party has its foundation in the new ideology of free market dynamics(through farmers's debt relief commission, social securty measures- a mixed political ideology is being promoted).

chespeak said...

N P Chekkutty writes:

Damodar is raising a very pertinent issue, but it is tough to tackle it because the links between the internal divisions in CPM and the development strategy of the dominant groups in the left are not easily identifiable.

My feeling is that the divisions were mainly on the lines of personal clashes and personal interests in the post-CITU phase, and what decided the course was the ambitions of each person who was in position of power in the party. It would be futile searching for a semblance of ideology, or a fig leaf for that matter, in a place where it is non existent.

RVGs comment in the other thread about the curious case of no serious critique of the Modi development model and its links to economic interests of the new capitalist classes is very pertinent in this regard. Modi's politics and Modi's economics are not separate, they are two sides of the same coin.

(Comment courtesy: fourth-estatecritique@googlegroups.com)