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Kerala: A Left Turn

The resounding victory of the Left Democratic Front in Kerala was more than an expression of disgust at the corrupt misrule and otiose performance of the shamed United Democratic Front. It was also a call to arms for the LDF constituents to lift Kerala out of its development dilemma. Yet the early manoeuvres of and within the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the LDF's leading member, have left the electorate with more than a sense of dismay.


A Left Turn

The resounding victory of the Left Democratic Front in Kerala was more than an expression of disgust at the corrupt misrule and otiose performance of the shamed United Democratic Front. It was also a call to arms for the LDF constituents to lift Kerala out of its development dilemma. Yet the early manoeuvres of and within the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the LDF’s leading member, have left the electorate with more than a sense of dismay.


CPI(M) campaigners recalled Swami Vivekananda’s characterisation of Kerala as a “lunatic asylum” because of thenotorious caste divisions prevailing in the state, and they called for a genuinely secular Kerala in a genuinely secular India. This (1987) campaign touched a sympathetic chord in the minds and hearts of tens of thousands of people outside the influenceof the LDF. Many different kinds of people began to support the LDF: Congressmen who treasured the traditions of struggle for secularism, Muslims and Christians who realised that the interests of their communities would be safer in a secular set-up thanin a communal one, and common people belonging to “forward” and “backward” Hindu castes who realised that a secular democratic set-up was the best guarantee for the advancement of every caste and religious community. Such people constituted the major political capital of the CPI(M) and the LDF, and it was on them, among others, that the LDF and the CPI(M) relied for their electoral victory.

– EMS Namboodiripad after the 1987 assembly elections

hose words from EMS, the grand old patriarch of the Indian communist movement, who headed the first communist ministry in Kerala during 1957-59, and is still the leader that the CPI(M) invokes regularly, if rather ritualistically, were written over 20 years ago, as an analysis of the 1987 assembly elections in Kerala. Yet, so timeless, insightful and prescient were EMS’ thoughts that they could well have been dissecting the outcome of the just-concluded elections to the 12th Kerala legislative assembly.

When the results were declared on May 11, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) emerged triumphant with a clear two-thirds majority. Of the 140 seats to the Kerala assembly, 98 went to the LDF, while the United Democratic Front (UDF) had to remain content with 42. True, the victory was not as good as the UDF’s in 2001, when it romped home with 99 seats (plus one independent), against the LDF’s 40. But sweet enough the LDF’s present victory certainly was.

Whichever way the results are viewed

– some less charitable observers say Kerala’s electorate did not really vote in the LDF, rather, they voted out the UDF. There can be no denying the clear and unequivocal majority and mandate that Kerala’s citizens have bestowed on the LDF. Even though the outgoing chief minister, Oommen Chandy, has said that the people’s verdict was not against his government, it is difficult not to apportion much of the electorate’s disaffection towards the poor performance of the UDF during its past stint. That explains why seven ministers were given the boot by the state’s voters, three of them from the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which received such a drubbing at the hustings that it may well change forever the nature of Muslim politics in Kerala. And among those who were voted out, some were handling key portfolios like agriculture, education and public works. Added to that, the resounding defeat of P K Kunhalikutty, general secretary of the IUML, former industries and information technology minister, trusted confidant of Oommen Chandy and the force behind most of Kerala’s industrialisation efforts, only drives home the point that the electorate was far from happy with the way the UDF had advanced the state’s development agenda.

Demand for Rising IncomesDemand for Rising IncomesDemand for Rising IncomesDemand for Rising IncomesDemand for Rising Incomes

And, clearly, by “development” Kerala’s citizens do not mean the sustained improvement in the well-being of the individual, family, community and society at large. For a state that has already achieved superior standards of social development and an enviably high physical quality of life – as reflected in indicators relating to social welfare, health, education, housing, urban and rural development, and land reform – surely the development that Kerala’s voters had in mind as they stood in line to cast their votes in the recent assembly elections lies elsewhere. Such a development has little to do with the more fundamental human development indicators that relate to reduction or eradication of mass poverty, inequality and conditions of underdevelopment. Rather, they focus on one pivotal issue – rapid and widespread economic and industrial development, leading to a tangible all-round increase in standards of living and disposable incomes.

Thus, it was not really surprising to read one aspect of the pre-election findings of The Hindu-CNN-IBN Poll conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). Apart from predicting a comprehensive win for the LDF, the poll came out with one intriguing finding on how the respondents reacted to the issue of development. They were asked to rate the ruling UDF on the following key indicators of infrastructural and social development: roads, electricity, drinking water, government schools, government hospitals and law and order. On all these indicators, the respondents rated the ruling UDF very positively, giving it scores above the 50 per cent mark, rising to 78 per cent for both roads and electricity, and 63 per cent for drinking water.

According to The Hindu-CNN-IBN pollsters, “With this kind of rating on key developmental issues, any government could have hoped to come back to power. This rating is not very different from that received by the Left Front government in West Bengal in the survey conducted by CSDS. The UDF seems set to lose in Kerala. It is an irony that despite similar ratings, the political fates of the two governments could not be more different.”

Perhaps it is easy – and rather facile – to tote that up to the unending list of ironies and contradictions that make up the “Kerala model” of development. However, a more careful analysis of The Hindu-CNN-IBN poll findings on voter perception of Kerala’s development experience would suggest another more plausible explanation. All the indicators used by the pollsters refer to basic social infrastructural

Economic and Political Weekly May 27, 2006 development – roads, electricity, water and hospitals. These – in most areas, other than the very remote parts of the state – are of fairly decent standards. It is in the area of industry and business that the state is still found lacking. Thus, what Kerala’s voters seem to want are more jobs, and more opportunities for a variety of sources of livelihood for themselves and their families. These, clearly, are unlikely to emerge substantially from social infrastructural projects. They will be produced only by a dynamic and widespread industrial revolution. Such expectations would thus explain the apparent dichotomy of a thumping yes for a ruling government’s development achievements and an equally decisive thumbs-down for its return to power.

The Kerala voters’ ire in the 2006 assembly elections was not only directed against mal-development, but also against the amoral and corrupt tendencies exemplified by the various sex-related scandals that plagued the state, especially the one involving former industries minister P K Kunhalikutty. Added to that was the UDF’s inept handling of the secondary school examinations and private entry into the state’s professional education sector. If these were some of the principal causes for the defeat of the UDF in the 2006 assembly elections, the LDF can claim some credit for victory too, for the verdict was not a mere routinely anti-incumbent wave.

Decimation of KarunakaranDecimation of KarunakaranDecimation of KarunakaranDecimation of KarunakaranDecimation of Karunakaran

For one thing, the LDF employed some unprecedented stratagems like allying with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the Indian National League (INL) and the Jama’at Islami – all traditional opponents of the IUML, operating from within the perspective of “Muslim identity” – which helped the coalition breakthrough the ramparts of the IUML in its stronghold in the Malabar area. More crucially, the hands-off policy adopted vis-a-vis the breakaway party founded by that old Congress war horse, K Karunakaran, the Democratic Indira Congress (Karunakaran) (DIC(K), also paid rich dividends. Not only was the DIC(K) completely annihilated – it lost all but one of the 17 seats it contested, and the lone winner was an unknown fluke from Kuttanad – but the LDF also managed to ensure the almost permanent irrelevance of Kerala’s newest mainstream political party, one started by as legendary a stalwart as Karunakaran.

And, as if adding salt to the wound, it was Kunhalikutty, the IUML (ex) supremo, who had first suggested that the UDF back the wrong horse by entering into electoral alliances with DIC(K).

Yet, these strategic moves were nearly dangerously stillborn, given the factional feuds within the CPI(M), the “big brother” in the LDF. The group linked to Pinarayi Vijayan, the party’s state secretary, was reportedly miffed with the manner in which V S Achuthanandan, the then leader of the opposition in the legislative assembly, was being prominently projected as the next chief minister of the state. Pinarayi’s group

  • which is said to be the “modern, progressive, pro-industry” face of the party
  • initially tried to deny VS, as the then opposition leader (and now, the new chief minister of Kerala) is popularly known, a seat in the elections. That led to unprecedented street protests by VS supporters – unheard of in the party’s history – a hurried backtracking by the CPI(M)’s state committee and a rethink by the party’s politburo.
  • The image of VS, as projected by the media and hammered home by the UDF, was that of a dyed-in-the-wool, unrepentant, unreconstructed hardliner of a communist, someone who would rather have the state remain pristinely backward, rather than give in to the demands of capital out to rape and plunder the natural resources of Kerala. If he was seen as stubbornly “antidevelopment” – witness the charges against VS for protesting against the smart city information technology (IT) project proposed to come up in Kochi as a collaborative venture with the Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone Authority – the electorate clearly did not seem to think so. True, at one time, VS did come across, both in personal body language and speechifying rhetoric, as a crass, harsh and rather irrationally backward-looking politician, given also to some uncompromisingly lethal politicking to further the interests of his coterie within the party.

    Nonetheless, VS’ stints as leader of the opposition allowed him to focus on peopleoriented issues, ranging from the exploitation of women, especially underage girls, and other gender matters, to environmental issues like the destruction of river-beds and forests by powerful interests masquerading as “industrialists”. VS, the hardliner soon metamorphosed into VS, the green activist, VS the feminist (or, at least, women’s rights advocate), VS the human rights campaigner, and VS the one-man-army against misappropriation by the timber, liquor and sand-mining mafia.

    Factionalism in CPI(M)Factionalism in CPI(M)Factionalism in CPI(M)Factionalism in CPI(M)Factionalism in CPI(M)

    That multifaceted, pro-people face of VS turned the tide, as it were, for the LDF in the run-up to the 2006 elections. Yet, the opposing faction within the CPI(M) sought to hedge in VS, who was seen as the one who raised factionalism to a fine art within the party. But, worrisomely enough, they continued to do so in the early days of the formation of the new ministry, long after the first battle had been won at the polls. Initially, though he was officially proclaimed chief minister, he was confined to mundane matters like general administration, and denied the all-important home portfolio. This was seen as patently unfair to Kerala’s electorate who had swept VS into power on his promises specifically related to the sex and corruption scandals.

    As rumblings of discontent began to shroud both the CPI(M) and its sympathisers, including many within the LDF, the party had no option but to give in to the VS faction’s demand for substantial subjects to be brought under the purview of the new chief minister. Thus the subjects of vigilance and anti-corruption, nonresident Kerala affairs, and IT were retained by VS, even as Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, a Pinarayi confidant, held on to the allimportant home portfolio.

    As if its start was not bad enough – bickering the day after V-Day – the CPI(M) went on to worsen its image by annoying its LDF partners, cornering all key portfolios in a massive 19-member ministry (a size they had criticised the last time around when the UDF formed its government in 2001, as a “jumbo” ministry far beyond the needs of a small state like Kerala), leaving them the less important subjects. Consider the portfolios the CPI(M) has bagged: vigilance and anti-corruption, non-resident Kerala affairs, general administration, IT, education, culture, labour, excise, health, electricity and SC/ST development, home and tourism, finance, local self-government, fisheries, cooperation, industry, law, sports, ports and parliamentary affairs. Of the remainder, the Communist Party of India has got revenue, forests and wildlife, housing, food and civil supplies, animal husbandry and dairy development and agriculture. The Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) got water resources, the Kerala Congress (Joseph), public works, and the Janata Dal, transport and stationery.

    Economic and Political Weekly May 27, 2006

    Surely, this is wherewithal enough for the CPI(M) to marshal the LDF’s resources to lift Kerala on to a trajectory of industrial and socio-economic growth. Here too, the prescription was written out decades ago by the venerable doctor himself: “While the development in social services and communications had, no doubt, to be preserved, attention had to be concentrated on the development of those fields of economic activity that would lead to the enhancement of production of material goods through industry, agriculture, irrigation, transport, and so on”, EMS wrote in an essay on the ‘Approach to Planning’.

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    If the LDF fails to adhere to this backto-basics approach, even as it seeks creative alternatives and options for the industrial rejuvenation of Kerala, the state’s voters are going to be harsh the next time they are asked to vote for a government. Normally, they are prone to exercise a five-year-itch, alternating between the UDF and the LDF every five years. This flipflop pattern has been in triumphant operation since 1980, and perhaps there is more to it than meets the eye. One explanation is that the Kerala electorate knows that the only difference between the UDF and the LDF is one letter. That may appear to be the flippant and rather cynical observation of a smart alec, but there is more than a grain of truth in that proposition. No coalition can survive in Kerala without guaranteeing a very minimum level – which, in itself, is fairly high by national standards – of human and social development. These superior living standards, Keralites know, have been wrested from the state and other institutions through years of public action, mass movements and concerted action by civil society organisations, irrespective of the political spectrum they straddle.

    Thus, whoever rules Kerala has to automatically handle the bulky socio-cultural baggage of the past – full of social uprisings, religious movements, trade union actions, student strikes, and political parleys. No one party or political grouping, however radical or revolutionary, can lay claim to be the single source of such a culture of public action. And in that truism lies the Kerala electorate’s tendency to “relativise” the merits of both the LDF and UDF coalitions, knowing that if one does not maintain the state’s basic human development achievements, the other will be forced to do so – just give it another present LDF government is faced with. chance. By that logic, surely the coalition Can it overcome the humdrum machinathat can upkeep such standards and yet lift tions of power that coalition politics dethe state to a new threshold, will perhaps mand, and think in generational terms, not be given the never-before opportunity of in five-year intervals? rnr curing Kerala’s electorate of its five-year itch. This is the new challenge that the Email:

    Economic and Political Weekly May 27, 2006

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