The discussions about the concrete shape the AAP will take in Kerala have begun to heat up here. Two suggestions appear to be equally strong at the moment. One, the apparent interest taken by VS Achutanandan and his supporters as well as groups that have broken away from the CPM and possess some electoral clout, like the RMP, have been read as a beginning. The second indication is from news that public intellectuals like Sarah Joseph, who have a long history of struggle in and within Kerala’s largely leftist oppositional civil society, are joining the AAP Kerala. There is also some fear that the fledgling party will be choked by middle-class college lecturers and others who are angry about Kerala being ‘too politicized’ and who would read AAP as essentially politics in the service of anti-politics. A fourth prominent group is of sceptics who ask if the AAP is doing anything more or different from the militant welfarism of the left in Kerala in the mid-20th century decades. Is the AAP even relevant in Kerala, they ask.
Now, if VS or his proxies are going to be AAP Kerala or even its mascots, I’d think that the AAP would literally be what the word means in Malayalam — a booby-trap. For reasons that are pretty well-evident to observers of politics here. If VS has fought corruption in high politics, it has never been very certain that he himself is free of it totally, at least in an indirect sense. Certainly his followers and advisers are not. And there is no evidence that VS has anything new to offer that would genuinely transform and democratize politics in Kerala; his strategy, often highly successful, has been to use campaigns and issues painstakingly built up by the oppositional civil society in Kerala. And he not been averse to turning cynically against the oppositional civil society, as was so evident during his last spell as Chief Minister. The second indication is promising, but it is a fact that the oppositional civil society in Kerala is too small and is often composed of narrow circles, almost friends’ circles, which nurture such distrust of each other that one wonders sometimes if these constitute a real public at all. No, the AAP has to be new in all senses — in its membership, agenda, and in possession of a leadership that has given us some reason to think that they are capable of breaking free from the treacherous mediocrity of development thinking in Kerala and the numbing cynicism that is indeed the hallmark of high politics here.
So what should its agenda look like? I do agree somewhat with the sceptics that militant welfarism cannot dominate the AAP’s agenda in Kerala. The gains of history have not been completely lost in Kerala even in these troubles times of neoliberalized welfare. My own research in panchayats in Kerala have taught me that the corruption there lies not mainly in the individualized welfare distribution but in infrastructural investments. Of course people do pay small sums or give gifts to panchayat members or Kudumbashree functionaries who are poorly paid, as tokens of appreciation for the running around they do, but that is hardly corruption in any strong sense. And people seem quite capable of dealing with the really corrupt, in a range of ways, from poisonous gossip to complaints sent to the Ombudsman. Of course some cleaning up is surely needed but that would happen almost automatically I think if a party that can renew the meaning of ‘people’ and ‘democracy’comes to power — the locals themselves would deal with such corruption. There is a large disconnect, too, between the panchayats and the urban bodies, the latter being for more corrupt and inept compared with the former.But the urban slums for example, have been bombarded with neoliberalized welfare especially through the JNURRM, and even if the present scenario looks bleak to observers, the people there support the completely undemocratic and inefficient authorities in the city corporations purely because they fear that they may lose the promised welfare. These people, we need to remember, have endured great inconveniences over the years.
What we need to do for AAP in Kerala, first of all, is bring here a large dose of the medicine Kejriwal himself has specialized in — which is to politicize governance by subjecting capital and its interference in governance to
relentless critical scrutiny. Politicizing welfare does not mean adding more and more generous dollops; that is certainly not what AAP Delhi has done. It means probing closely the ways resources are diverted away from those who need them most urgently by and for the elite. But it all means bringing to book those sections of capital which refuse to cooperate with local governance, which simply steamroll local authorities to get their way. And it is precisely this that is at the heart of the crisis of governance in Kerala, and every single official report from the Oommen Committee to the Gadgil Report, has consistently pointed this out. It is very much part of our everyday life. Travel anywhere in Kerala and you will find struggles in progress against sand mining, rock quarrying, waste dumping, pollution of water and air … all by powerless people who are never recognized as the significant majority simply because they are not represented by powerful and belligerent backers like the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. This is a huge groundswell waiting to be tapped by a party with a renewed sense of democracy and if AAP Delhi’s adept use of modern communication tools can be replicated, these small struggles can be linked together to form a massive tidal wave that will sweep away the suffocating muck generated by the capital-bureaucrat-politician nexus. This will also force us to pull off the masks from the faces of entrenched players: for example, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church will be exposed for what it is — a corporate holding huge amounts of resources in this state and generating massive amounts of profit at public expense. The same can be said of other powerful community organizations such as those of the Nair and the Ezhava. Their huge investments in health and educationahave nothing to do with welfare anymore; they are corporate investments generating huge profits year after year. In fact,that the boundaries between this sort of civil society and capital are no longer clear as is evident from the recent work of a doctoral student at CDS, Neethi P. Such interests must be named and made accountable in both urban and rural areas. In cities, a major hurdle in the way of waste management by city corporations lies in the games played by capital, specifically the commerical interests, especially the hotel and restaurant industry. In Thiruvananthapuram, the City Corporation’s bumbling betrays their pathetic failure to rein in such interests — much to the frustration of local people who, again, are never recognized as the majority only because they have no powerful force to represent them. Indeed, the AAP Kerala could become precisely that voice but for that it needs to confront not just the functionaries of local governance but local capital itself.
Kerala does have a functioning set of local govenance forums in the panchayats which however are widely perceived as welfare distribution forums and not platforms for radical democracy. What the AAP needs to do is set up alternate grama sabhas and ward sabhas in urban areas which would function as the platforms for political education for radical democracy. It is worth noting that we have in Kerala, lost the sense of civil social activism as the essentially slow, non-conspicuous, painstaking, intimate work of the transformation of subjectivities. In the urban areas especially we are now beginning to see more closely the perils of instrumentalizing civil society to the ends of the state, however well-intentioned and certain recent developments seem to mark a cautious return to that earlier sense — for example, a group of nature enthusiasts and activists in Thiruvananthapuram who call themselves Tree Walk, have been conducting walks in the city to highlight the rare verdant wealth that we possess and the need to value it, against heavy ridicule and neglect. They have however begun to generate more and more public support; media which largely ignored them to begin with are now paying more respectful attention to their attempts to stem the wanton destruction of the city’s tree cover. The AAP’s platforms for democracy ought to learn from them — these platforms should not be periodical events but forums that constantly draws critical attention to the destructive consequences of the dominant consumerist lifestyles of Malayalis. In other words, it must turn the critical eye not just on the government but on the people themselves, leading a massive public effort towards generating self-reflexivity as a people.
This will require us to stop viewing ourselves as nothing but a people confined to the geographical boundaries drawn by the Indian state. In fact predatory capital of Malayali origin no longer thinks of itself in these terms and are stronger for that. But the oppositional civil society unfortunately continues to think of itself this way though we have indeed won some struggles at least through networking with Malayalis interested in social justice and democracy the world over. That network needs to be strengthened and revived — especially when it comes to doing the sound research necessary for radical democracy.
And who should be in the AAP? Kerala I am frightened when I see ex-aides of politicians with long histories of cynical manipulation join AAP Kerala but no Kudumbashree women leaders in it. This perhaps to be expected because the political space in Kerala is completely unlike that in Delhi and because governance remains unpoliticized still. Interestingly, Kudumbashree self-help groups in Kerala have been long accused of being politicized and largely CPM, but information collected on the political leanings of the chairpersons of the panchayat-level Kudumbashree community development societies (undoubtedly a position of considerable power and influence in panchayats) showed that nearly 20 percent of them claimed that they are ‘neutral’, not with any political party! The rest was divided nearly evenly between LDF and UDF, with the former enjoying a rather thin advantage and the BJP having almost no influence. And from my research I do know that it is these women who are subjected to the worst kinds of pressures from political parties; but even those who are members of the CPM are not cadres, trained foot soldiers, and so they do resist and challenge their higher-ups in the CPM occasionally at least! The AAP in Kerala, then, should perhaps tap this huge reservoir of public-minded, highly efficient women who by now have the entire system of local governance at their fingertips, who know their panchayats like the back of their hands, and are driven by the desire to be fair and become popular that way! I am not saying for a moment that the AAP Kerala should neglect the existing oppositional civil society consisting of feminist, Dalit, Muslim organizations — I am only saying that it will not do if the AAP Kerala is merely their reincarnation in the field of electoral politics. Indeed that’s why I say that the full form of AAP in Kerala should not be Aam Admi Party but Aan Allaatha Party — Not-Masculine Party.
‘Aan’ in Malayalam can mean not man but Male, Masculine — a source of oppression. Men are therefore not excluded but Masculinity, a tool of oppression and exploitation, is. And so would be Masculinist women — we apparently have no dearth of these and of women who seek gain power by pleasing powerful men all the time. There are women Vice-Chancellors drunk with power (the ongoing controversy over the denial of justice to Dr Prasad Pannian at the Central University of Kasaragod is an excellent instance); there are popular women who coo literary talk and giggle and blush obligingly when powerful male authors publicly praise their femininity, there are those who claim women’s studies scholarship and hold up utterly patriarchal understandings of gender to please powerful men, like was evident in the ‘Golden Mother Award’ issue at the University of Calicut. They are also likely to crawl into AAP Kerala, if only lured by the distance it claims from conventional politics (they all claimed space through worming their way into a critical discourse, women’s studies, by the way) and so beware, supporters of AAP Kerala! For Masculinity in Kerala is not the solely of men but also of women of this ilk. It in every sense an elite privilege which authorizes violence and exploitation and so sensible men would not boast of being masculine with the upper case M.It is not available to marginalized men, to women, to people of other sexualities, to children, to people whose very lives are eroded by marauding predators who gobble up natural resources, to people who queer kinship, to people who depend on natural resources for their livelihood, to those who are condemned to be confined to the wretchedness of dalit and adivasi ‘colonies’, and indeed to Nature itself. In fact it presides over their marginalization and oppression and therefore creates a negative community of the oppressed. It is this expansive negative community of the Not-Masculine that should form the core of AAP Kerala. To change the full form to Aan Allaatha Party would also remedy the brief irritation I felt on hearing the name AAP Kerala — to hear it bear as its name a word that has negative connotations in Malayalam! Of course, that is not really a problem in the long run for language and meanings are not cast in stone, but we need to change the name not just for strategic reasons but to bring into focus this negative community as the majority of Malayali people who are not heard. I will, therefore, wait for the Aan Allaatha Party which can only be the Aam of Kerala.