On the eve of the panchayat elections in Kerala, I can’t help noticing how different it has been this time. Every time, the build-up to voting day includes heated debates about the state of the local bodies and discussions on the promises made by political parties. Not that it was completely absent this time, but somehow it appeared that such questions were hardly on people’s minds. The coming of decentralized governance in the mid-1990s divided the political field in Kerala into two: ‘local governance’ and ‘high politics’ involved very different conceptions of power, authority, and agency. Welfarism, now also reimagined in terms of self-help, was moved into the former, while the latter remained the more decisive arena of political activity and authority. However, given that the space on local governance was crucial to the poor in that welfare entitlements flowed through it, it remained a key area of public concern. Over the years, from Plachimada to Vilappilsala, the local bodies even seemed to form sites around which resistance to top-down destructive ‘development’ could take shape. Each election was an opportunity to take stock of this large network of institutions which despite all the flaws remained quite decisively important to the lives of the poor in Kerala. In fact, it is worth noting that the elections were the occasions in which the better-off sections paid relatively more attention to local bodies and even set aside their cynicism and reluctance to engage. Not so, this time, I can’t help feeling.
The reason why this is so is too obvious to be stated: the Hindu right wing seems to have crossed all limit now and threatens to encroach into the normalcy of everyday life in Kerala, and not just of the poor. The many controversies over culture, the murders of dissenters elsewhere, and the Hindu right wing paranoia over beef, especially the raid on Kerala House in Delhi, seems to have ensured that cultural questions and national politics are the key topics of charged discussion.
Is this wise? I do not deny that the fight against the Hindu right wing is very significant today. Indeed I myself am part of it, and as a social dissenter myself, it is life-and-death struggle for me. In other words, personally, this is the struggle that is most crucial in my life at this moment. Yet I feel that there are good reasons to think that letting these questions take center-stage was unwise.
First, never have the local bodies in Kerala been so weakened as now, and we are not taking serious note of this. Over the years, public participation in local governance has continued to decline and the dependence on women in the Kudumbashree self-help groups has been so much that it may well be that it is no longer ‘women’s participation’ but plain gendered ‘provisioning labour’. Plan funds have been declining over the years and utilisation has been unforgivably slack. The corruption in and around Kudumbashree seems to have risen exponentially and its democratising potential seems irrecoverably eroded. More dangerously, the independence and developmental autonomy of local bodies seemed seriously compromised in many ways – from action like Operation Anantha in Thiruvananthapuram, which, however useful or necessary, relegate the elected urban body to a corner and hand power back to the District Collector, to the rising densities of mandatory projects imposed from above on local bodies. Indeed, the elections provided an excellent chance to debate the relative strengths and weaknesses of the City Corporation and the Chief Secretary-Collector combine. Meanwhile, parastatals like the TRIDA continue to be a blot on democracy, judging by its determination to gobble up the Attakkulangara School, a vital green lung in the city.The restructuring of MNREGA seems to be causing distress, much of which is yet to be documented.A young researcher from Mahatma Gandhi University, Vipin Kumar R, calculates in his doctoral thesis on decentralization and development interventions of local bodies in Kerala that there has been a rise in the relative share of mandatory projects in the general category plan funds of village panchayats from 7.55 per cent to 39.46 per cent between the Tenth and Eleventh Plan periods. He also brings to our attention several persisting failures: the unhealthy dominance of individual beneficiary schemes in productive sector investment and the worrying popularity of infrastructure projects which ride roughshod on ecological concerns.I also believe that the ridicule heaped on women contesting the elections by male inhabitants of and male aspirants to the highly masculinist high politics indicates not just vulgar patriarchal mindsets but also the contempt of the space of local governance itself as a site of potential democratisation. In short, it appears that many problems noted earlier by researchers continue to plague local governance, while new weaknesses are being created.
But worst of all in my mind, is the shameful failure of local bodies to provide succor to indigenous peoples who face silent genocide today, and to the poorest and most disempowered. While the women workers of Munnar shook the very ground under the feet of Kerala’s elites, and they have themselves resolved to fight the local elections, the question why the local bodies failed to address the sheer misery behind the verdant facade of Munnar’s tea gardens was never raised vocally in the wake of the panchayat elections. I do believe that such apathy may not be deliberate but is symptomatic of the progressive elite’s excessive concern about the danger that worries it more, that of Hindu rightwing take over of culture, everyday life, and politics. I do belong to this social group and indeed, my own inclinations are towards devoting time and energy towards thwarting this threat. When my own attempts to alert the public with concerns about corruption and further elite takeover in the Kudumbashree did not generate the intense debate it ought to have, I was disappointed but not surprised. But is such self-centredness worthy at all?
I do see that it may be difficult to pull away one’s eyes held in hypnotic immobility by the Hindu rightwing’s threat to erode regional cultures. But it may be important to do just that, and not just to avoid bestowing unnecessary and undeserving importance to Hindutva goons. I do think that the progressive elites risk perpetuating the usual divides and elitisms when they fail to support and highlight questions of welfare vital to the lives of the poorest in Kerala, who are of the indigenous peoples,or Dalit communities. Indeed, one wonders if this will not push into invisibility issues vital to the lives of the poorest and most oppressed Muslims in Kerala who are Dalit. I agree that the panchayati raj and the neoliberalist welfarism it now embodies is not any panacea to poverty or caste oppression, but can’t help feeling that these are vital spaces that the oppressed need to capture and turn around to serve their emancipation. An occasion like the panchayat election ought to have been n occasion for precisely such reflection and reiteration, but it has not been that. I think we have a lot to learn from Karthick R M’s reflections on the ‘Hindu-Muslim Love Story’, published in Round Table India – he shows you why limiting ourselves to conducting beef festivals won’t do. I also learned from him why it struck Modi that he could well tell Dalit communities that his political opponents will steal reservation benefits from them and hand it over to Muslims, and that he could get away with it!