If I weren’t aware of Kerala’s more vibrant political past,I’d have died laughing this elections. The election campaign in Kerala was impossibly funny. Just to give you an example — in Thiruvananthapuram, in the middle of the campaign, we were treated to the spectacle of all the three major contenders — of the CPI, the Congress, and BJP — don the costume of the chivalrous knight — indeed, pushing and shoving each other quite unchivalrously– determined to rescue the damsel in distress. However, there was no damsel waiting to be rescued!
The distressed ones were (a) a non-living thing — a statue (b) some members of the Nair community. The statue was that of a venerable old reformer, Chattambi Swamikal,who the Nairs claim as their own (though the man, it is reported,not only denounced caste,lived completely outside it, but also once referred to himself as a thendi, a vagabond). Some rude fellow had pulled out the statue and threw it into a pond (if there is such a thing as life after death, I’m sure Chattambi Swamikal would do this himself). This prompted our fearless warriors to don veera-costumes and rush into the fray. One brave knight tilted a bit at the windmill-like police; another threw himself to the floor, allegedly in satyagraha; another garlanded the restored statue and offered many, many syrupy smiles. And in Ernakulam, we witnessed a ‘progressive’ candidate cravely bow down and determinedly plant kisses on the fingers of all and sundry bishops and Church dignitaries who happened to pass by. At Ponnani, where two of Kerala’s greatest champions of anti-politics declared their mutual admiration and support for each other, they seemed engaged in a friendly contest around who would spew more virulent rhetoric. And of course, the spate of sms-s reminding us that only the left remains to defend India against neoliberalism at the Centre, which naively reckoned that we were all blind to the way in which Pinaraayi Vijayan-clones were set up as candidates throughout Kerala. If I hadn’t known that many of the women politicians of an earlier generation, though few in numbers, were intelligent, dignified, and courageous public persons,I would have been in splits at the desperate efforts of some women candidates to project themselves as nice, good, family women, publicly calling up chey..ttaa.. (the husband, of course) and the family before crucial decisions.
If there’s anything all of us, CPM or non-CPM, know of this round of elections, it is the fact that the results are no repeat of the post-Emergency election pattern in Kerala. It is nothing short of a resounding slap on the face of the CPM — and at this point of time, that face belongs to the CPM state secretary, and it was delivered by the Malayalee electorate. The CPM’s alliance with Maudany was dangerous not because he is Muslim but because he has been avowedly antipolitical.Also,we no longer have the worker-peasant progressive alliance on this side of the picture, do we? The dominant power on this side is a combination of Kannur-ist style feudal-lordist bravado allied with all kinds of shady elements of Kerala’s thriving undereconomy endowed with considerable money and muscle power.That it was this monster cozying up to another, which frightened many of us — who may not be aligned to the Hindu or Christian communities.The Muslims of Malabar who voted for the Muslim League probably feared the same. It’s hard to describe the force of the rout. In Kasaragod,a fortress of the CPM, where it won resoundingly with an over-a-lakh-votes margin last time, the CPM candidate, A K Gopalan’s son-in-law, won against a complete nonentity for less than half of that margin. In Palakkad, another fortress, the CPM candidate, contesting against an exceptionally weak Congress candidate, won for just 1200 votes. Pinaraayi Vijayan’s insistence on being treated as a demi-god by the member of the Left Democratic Front cost the CPM dear at Kozhikode, which was counted as a sure seat. P. K. Biju, the CPM candidate who won from Alathur,survived only because CPM dissidents found him an acceptable candidate.
The CPM leadership doesn’t seemed to have learned anything from this thrashing, though. The LDF convenor, Vaikom Viswan, observes that the CPM’s share of the votes have reduced only by 2,28,638 and therefore its mass base remains intact. Well, we would like to remind him that there is little consolation to be drawn from this. It is a well-known fact that the LDF and the UDF are more or less equally matched and a small swing can alter the balance. This time the swing was certainly not small, compared with earlier elections, which is something the leaders of the CPM have admitted.And besides, the erosion of support was most evident in CPM’s core areas of strength; therefore it is not as if the non-political strata decided to vote UDF. Voters in core areas usually are loyal, while the support received in non-core areas may be driven by other, more local calculations. This is evident to the most ordinary voter but Vaikom Viswan and his peers are so used to thinking that the rest of us Malayalees are morons — and hence continues dish out such weak arguments.
Certainly, much damage may readily be attributed to the foul mouth of, and the bullying practised by, our favourite Lord-Comrade. Much credit is also due to the dazzling intellects of the Kerala CPM who performed gravity-defying acrobatics in their efforts to bend over to please him. However, there are several questions which cannot be answered by simply pointing to the role of these salutary figures. For example, there is little doubt that welfare handouts need not necessarily translate into votes. Now that Kerala’s massive micro-credit-cum-self-help network of below-poverty-line women, the Kudumbasree, so lovingly fostered by the CPM and smothered with microloan after microloan, has proved so fickle, what will happen to it? Whatever made the CPM think that the cheap bunch they put up as candidates, largely distinguished by their crudity and their amazing capacity for display of slavish loyalty to our favourite Lord-Comrade Pinaraayi Vijayan, would sweep the voters off their feet? What made them think that offering charity to refugees from Hindu right-wing violence in Orissa was more urgent than listening to the people struggling at Chengara? How did they judge our intelligence so poorly, that they could merrily assume that we would all swallow their ‘daddy’s-not-hiding-in-the-loft’ line on Pinaraayi Vijayan’s alleged role in the SNC Lavalin case?
To answer these questions, I think, we need to understand the way in which the CPM has systematically cultivated political blindness since the 1980s.Certainly, Kerala’s growing dependence on the global job market since the 1970s did begin to produce depoliticising effects in the field of politics, which were evident by the late 1990s. Not only did the CPM make no real effort to either comprehend or apprehend this phenomenon, by the 1990s, it also became even more hostile to emergent forms of politics in the oppositional civil society. Decentralisation was projected as a means of meeting the challenge of depoliticisation, and stealing the thunder of the new political challenges — for instance, by institutionalising a version of liberal feminism in decentralisation and delegitimising feminists who remained critical of liberal feminism.The ‘state-centric civil society’– the self-help networks — was another such step. Though EMS Nambutiripad is credited with having rooted for decentralisation very early, I think we need to note that Thomas Isaac’s conception of the ‘local’differs from EMS’ version. In the latter, while the focus is on community, the local is not depoliticised space; it is one in which people of different political persuasions can come together to deliberate towards consensus on local issues and continuously work to maintain it. Isaac’s version projects the local as apolitical space driven by Putnamite social capital.
But the result wasn’t just that meeting depoliticising with more depoliticising didn’t work. It was also that decentralization has produced unintended consequences. It has produced a whole tier of institutions which cannot be always simply controlled from above. Despite the peristent efforts of progenitors of the People’s Planning Campaign,it has not always proved so tractable. The formation of the panchayats in fact allows for a space around which local people may rally against greater powers, and about which the local party cannot afford to remain indifferent. At the height of the resistance offered by villagers to waste-dumping by the CPM-run Kochi Corporation in the Brahmapuram-Puthenkurisu panchayat, which is also ruled by the CPM, local party workers told researchers that they would not submit to the waste-dumping “even if Prakash Karat ordered them to do so”. It would be suicidal, they were sure; they pointed out other instances in Kerala where the local party had bowed to higher powers and supported waste dumping — and were swept into oblivion. Recent revolts against the CPM leadership have erupted precisely in local bodies, and the success of the rebels in local bodies have weakened the chain of command. These are among the ‘saboteurs’ who the CPM leaders have already begun to blame, other than the allies in the LDF who refused to bow down to Lord-Comrade P.V .
Nor did oppositional civil social politics disappear, even after strenuous attacks on them. Though reduced in numbers, such politics has continued to grow. Ecological concerns of the 1980s developed into as-yet-uncoordinated concerns around environmental justice; feminist concerns have become pluralised and far more visible; anti-caste politics and tribal political assertions have shaken up those who thought it would be easy to slip unnoticed the ‘unfinished agenda’of land reform into the waste basket. If VS Achuthanandan became a vote-puller for the CPM in the previous elections, it was not because everybody had forgotten his ugly history in Alappuzha; rather, he was able to project himself as the force capable of ensuring that the issues raised by the new forms of politics will be heard within the CPM. If voting figures have remained vibrant in the State even after the alarming growth of consumerism and loss of faith in politics apparent in daily life, it is also because other kinds of political challenges have continued to arise in the Malayalee public, which the parties have had to meet at least half-way.
Vaikom Viswan’s press statement indicates that the CPM remains as blind as ever. Neither the leadership nor the dazzling intellects of the Party expect us to ask the questions I mentioned. But even without these questions, they seem lost. Not only because these shepherds have lost direction. Actually, Vaikom Viswan looks a lot like Little Bo-Peep who lost her sheep. Like her, he too hopes, ‘Leave them alone, and they will come home, bringing their tails behind them.’ Only that Viswan has someto blame, ‘imperialist forces’, for scaring away the sheep, while poor Bo-Peep has no Big Bad wolf!