Remembering C Achutha Menon: a 'Nehruvian' Communist
He chose to retire from politics at the age of 64 after two successive terms as chief minister. Kerala remembers him as a major driving force behind the ‘Kerala Model’ of development
Chelat Achutha Menon played a decisive role in the history of modern Kerala-as one of the greatest statesmen emerged from the tiny state, and as a major driving force behind the celebrated ‘Kerala Model’ of development. Achutha Menon’s stature is so great that any serious discourse on the political economy of modern Kerala seemed unimaginable without his immense contributions to the development of the state. Today, thirty years after his death (August 16, 1991), Achutha Menon’s legacy still appears to be intact, although Kerala has moved away from much of ‘his model’.
Chelat Achutha Menon was born on January 13, 1913, in his ancestral home in Puthukkad near Thrissur. His father, Madathiveettil Achutha Menon (after whom he was named) and LakshmiKutty Amma belonged to a middle-class family in the erstwhile Indian state of Kochi. Achutha Menon had a brilliant academic career.
He passed the matric examination as the top scorer in the state and secured first class for B.A. Mathematics with the second rank in the Madras University. He passed B.L from the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram, with second rank and a gold medal for securing the highest marks in Hindu Law. After a year of practice as a lawyer, he left the profession to join the national movement.
He was a member of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) in the 1930s, and actively participated in India’s struggle for independence. Later, disillusionment with the activities of the Congress forced him to leave the party and join the Congress Socialist Party (CSP). After the Russian Revolution, communism was perceived by many youngsters as a ‘magic lamp’ to address the problems of the downtrodden.
Therefore, it was a natural choice for Achutha Menon to join the Communist Party, when the entire wing of the CSP moved to form the Kerala unit of the Communist Party of India. He led the nascent communist movement in the state, organising the working class and farmers’, and agitating against feudal oppression and untouchability. It was Achutha Menon who led the first-ever Kisan march in Cochin State, demanding fixity of tenure and fair rent. He was the secretary of the Communist Party of the Cochin State during 1942-48 and soon emerged as the prominent leader of the movement in the state.
He became a member of the Central Committee of the CPI in 1948 and continued the position until he retired from active politics. He was the secretary of the CPI in Kerala for many years. He was one of the delegates of the Calcutta Party Congress of the CPI and witnessed the passage of the historic ‘Ranadive Thesis’ that seriously affected the future prospects of the left movement in India.
Although Achutha Menon opposed the Calcutta Thesis, as a disciplined member of the communist party, he followed the party decision and went underground in pursuit of a ‘revolution in the Indian soil’.During this period, he was elected to the Travancore Cochin State Legislature in 1952.
MENON's MANIFESTO IN 1956 : When Kerala became a separate state in 1956, Menon prepared a pamphlet in which he beautifully expressed his dreams of future Kerala. The pamphlet titled ‘Towards a more prosperous and plentiful Kerala’, became the manifesto of the Communist Party in the general election held in 1957. The election witnessed the political victory of the Communist Party, and Kerala became the first state in the world in which the communist party came to power through the ballot paper.
When the Communist Party came to power under the Chief Ministership of EMS, the party decided to implement the programmes-including the land reforms-outlined in Menon’s pamphlet. Menon was the Minister for Finance and Agriculture in the Ministry. He presented the first budget of Kerala state on June 7, 1957.
Later, he was assigned the charge of the Ministry of Home Affairs when the “Liberation Struggle” gathered momentum. But the EMS Ministry was dismissed by Nehru on the ground of ‘failure of law and order’ following the ‘Liberation Struggle’.
When the Communist Party witnessed deep factionalism and ideological divisions that led to the eventual split, Achutha Menon remained with CPI. His natural inclination towards democracy, the Nehruvian consensus and his firm belief in the newly formed nation-state called ‘India’, profoundly influenced Menon to reject the dogmatic interpretation of the ‘concrete reality’ by the rival faction.
But the split and its after-effect in the organisation was a shock to Menon. As his son Dr Raman Kutty recollects, the conflict within the party, the division, and the bitter rivalry between CPI and CPI(M) cadres affected him physically and emotionally, triggering a heart attack at the young age of 48 (Dr V. Raman Kutty, C Achutha Menon, Communist Aspirations in India, Mainstream Weekly, September 5, 2020).
CHIEF MINISTER IN 1969: On November 1, 1969, Achutha Menon took charge as Chief Minister of Kerala. The coalition failed short of securing an adequate majority in the state legislative assembly. Therefore, it was predicted as an experiment destined to collapse soon. But contrary to the calculations, the unique experiment turned out to be a political miracle.
Despite the challenges, the government under Menon completed its full term, making political prophecies irrelevant for the first time in the history of the unified Kerala state. Besides, the coalition won the majority in the re-election, something which no other government has been able to boast of, until 2021.With the support of the Congress and Muslim League, the government continued till 1977, and Menon has become the longest-serving Chief Minister of the state since independence.
The 1970-77 government indeed faced many trials and tribulations. Yet, most of the crises were resolved amicably. Achutha Menon was a convinced democrat. His success in dealing with political leaders of conflicting interests clearly shows that morality and ethics can be precious political resources in the hands of genuinely great politicians.
Since 1970, Kerala enjoyed a virtual two-party system woven around alternative coalitions led by the CPI(M) and Congress. Thus, Achutha Menon began the culture of a stable coalition government in the state.Not surprisingly, the best practices and novel experiments created by the Achutha Menon government became the benchmark for successful coalition governments in Kerala.
FIRST STATE TO ADOPT A SCIENCE POLICY: One of the most significant achievements of the Achutha Menon government was the enactment of the Land Reform Act. On January 1, 1970, the historic Land Reform Act came into force, abolishing the feudal ownership of land forever. This is still regarded as the golden day in the history of Kerala. Despite its limitations, the Land Reform Act played a central role in defining, building and reshaping the development of Kerala, with a strong humanitarian, participatory and egalitarian orientation.
Under Achutha Menon, Kerala became the first Indian state to enact a science policy and established a department for Science and Technology. Several autonomous research centres including the Centre for Development Studies, the Sree Chitra Tirunal Medical Centre, the Centre for Earth Science Studies, the Centre for Water Resources Management and the Kerala Forest Research Institute were established during this period under the special interest of Menon.
He invited the noted economist K.N Raj to nurture the Centre for Development Studies. Following the Nehruvian tradition, he established unique institutions in the public sector as well. Realising the significance of promoting electronics, Keltron- the Kerala Electronics Development Corporation- was established in the public sector, along with many other corporations and boards. Institutions including the Regional Cancer Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala Agricultural University, Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT), Film Development Corporation, Kerala State Financial Enterprises, Steel Complex Limited, Kerala State Housing Board, Corporation for SCs/STs, Land Development Corporation, State Industrial Enterprises, etc. are also founded by the government during this period.
He ensured a primary health centre and a high school in every village panchayat and built the foundations of a robust public health care infrastructure in the state. The Peasant Law, Gratuity Law, One Lakh House Scheme for the homeless, direct payment for college teachers, Beedi cooperatives…there were many such unique initiatives. All these institutions and programmes played a vital role in redefining the destiny of Kerala in the subsequent period. This was indeed a golden period in the history of Kerala.
COALITION WON AFTER THE EMERGENCY: Achutha Menon was the Chief Minister of Kerala during the turbulent period of emergency. He has been criticised for the police brutality during the emergency, especially in the ‘Rajan Case’. He didn’t contest in the election after the emergency. He declared his decision to retire from active politics, at the age of 64. Another unique precedence in the country. But, the coalition won a thumping majority even after the emergency, thanks to the development efforts of the Achutha Menon ministry.
Achutha Menon was a great visionary and an ardent communist. At the same time, he cherished Gandhian ethics and Nehruvian modernity. He was a man with an open and rational mind while remaining anchored to his core beliefs in the emancipatory role of Marxism. Achutha Menon is popularly hailed as a ‘Nehruvian Communist’ mainly because of his passion for Nehruvian humanism and his dedicated effort to create a state based on the ideals of Nehruvian consensus.
Like Nehru, he carefully nurtured the nascent democratic institutions in the state and always upheld the spirit of the Constitution and federalism. His deliberations and debates in the meetings of the National Development Council and the Kerala Legislative Assembly are still considered as ‘textbooks’ for the administrators and representatives of the people. His respect for the legislative assembly, adherence to the official code of conduct, friendship with political rivals, and above all, his deference to institutions over individuals remind us of the great legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Although Achutha Menon was a disciplined party cadre, he often expressed his disagreements in the party meetings. He was strongly opposed to many of the historical blunders of the Communist Party including the ‘Calcutta Thesis’ and their position on the China War. He questioned the USSR’s invasion of Hungary and rejected it as inhumane. Some of his last writings reflect his admiration towards Gorbachev, unlike many other communist leaders in India.
He often questioned the ‘foreign’ dependence of the party and highlighted the need for developing truly Indian roots to capture the imagination of the masses. He was not a ‘Marxist intellectual’. He always attempted to interpret Marxism pragmatically. He perceived Marxism as a tool to emancipate the masses.
Hence, he never accepted the logic of blindly following the ‘texts’ and ‘international allies’ without analysing the local situation. He was not a leader of political rhetoric.He has an enlightened worldview and visionary zeal in understanding the principles of Marxism, unlike his fellow communist leaders. He always looked beneath the ground for solutions. Therefore, he was greatly admired by people from all walks of life.
Menon was not perfect. He made many mistakes. But he did a much better job than any of his contemporaries. While remembering Achutha Menon on his 30th death anniversary, we can proudly say that whatever may be his success or failure, his misjudgments and misgivings, Menon stood for shaping and nurturingthe dream of building a modern Kerala.
There are many feathers in his cap: the greatest institution builder that Kerala has ever seen, an efficient coalition leader, a passionate nationalist, an ardent communist, incorruptible administrator, visionary statesman, prolific writer and above all a ‘rare breed of Nehruvian modernist’. But, the real tribute that best capture the essence of Achutha Menon is perhaps, to elevate him as the architect of the ‘idea of Kerala’.
( Sudha Menon is a Labour Rights activist and researcher)