Sunday, March 9, 2014

Aam Aadmi Party and the Kerala Model or a Political Party’s Suicidal Thinking before Birth

(Arvind Kejriwal)

“What do you think about Aam Aadmi Party? Is it going to make a big difference in the political scenario of Kerala?” I asked an auto-rickshaw driver when I was travelling from Trivandrum city, the capital of Kerala, to one of its suburbs. The man initially felt a bit hesitant to answer my question and after looking at my face in the rear view mirror, perhaps reassured by my unthreatening face, answered my question initially with a smile and then with the following words: “People want some kind of change but the problem with the AAP is that it does not have any organized leadership. Generally we all believe in an able leadership. Those people who have come up as leaders of the AAP here need to prove themselves first before they take on the existing political system.” Kerala has very well organized auto-rickshaw unions; of Congress, of CPM, of CPI and of the BJP. Auto-drivers show their union affiliations in making subtle changes in their uniforms. All the auto-drivers are supposed to wear Khaki shirt and Khaki pants. If they prefer to wear dhoti/lungi, it could be white. Generally most of the auto-drivers who believe in Congress politics opt for white dhoti and white shirt with an unbuttoned khaki shirt worn over it. Those who belong to the left unions make it curt by wearing a white dhoti and khaki shirt. The right wing union members wear a saffron lungi and khaki shirt; they sport a saffron or sandal paste Tilak (religious marker). The auto-drivers in this well organized sector are generally educated, clean, non-abusive, politically aware and people friendly in nature. There could be exceptions when some of them indulge in a bit of moral policing but that is not yet a norm in Kerala. Some of the auto-drivers take up charity work once in a while contributing to the general social health of the state. Some of them ply their autos as part time ambulances and offer free ferrying for women devotees of local temples for some organized festivals. Social work undertaken by these auto-drivers is not clearly defined by their religious or political affiliations. Hence one could see a Muslim auto driver doing social work during a temple festival or a Congress or CPM union member offering ambulance service or free ferrying of devotees for a Hindu festival. There are efforts by religious and political groups to cash in on this charity by demarcating them as sectarian acts but as a community of workers often auto drivers show the tendencies of transcending the political and religious boundaries in order to be ‘human beings’ who do a particular work or job with social responsibility and dignity. If at all they are vertically as well as horizontally divided it is in the area of their liking for certain film stars. They are not ‘fans’ in the traditional meaning of the term but they prefer one actor/actress over the other. The glossy pictures that decorate the interiors of these clean and well maintained auto-rickshaws clearly say their ‘liking’ for certain actor/actress. Most of the auto-rickshaws carry the names of local deities or they are named after their own children, mostly of their girl children. No autos carry the pictures of any political leader even if the owner/driver is a staunch follower of a political party or a particular ideology. Had Aam Aadmi Party looked for support base and propaganda base amongst the auto-drivers in Delhi, no auto-driver in Kerala would flaunt AAP’s symbol, ‘broom’ on their auto-rickshaws. The problem of AAP in Kerala starts there itself.

(Autorikshaws in Kerala)

I do not think that I need to furnish more details why I have decided to start an article on the effect of AAP in Kerala with the auto-rickshaw sector. My idea is to say that what AAP had targeted and still targeting in North India, as political and social issues, do not seem to have any relevance or reason to be addressed in the socio-political scenario of Kerala. Definitely corruption in the system as a poll and political issue exist in Kerala too. However, the complexion of this corruption is slightly different. When I reached Kerala this time, for a university seminar, a few friends came to receive me at the Kochi Airport. We were supposed to pick up a friend from a nearby railway station who was coming from another city. We had half an hour in our hands and one of the friends suggested that we could have a small peg of brandy to start the evening. A friend who was driving the car dropped two of us in front of a bar and went further to take a U-turn and to park the car elsewhere. I asked my friend why he did so. He told me that Kerala Police was so strict that they make everyone who drove undergo the ‘breathing test’. Rs.1000/- is fine. Police do not accept any bribe. If found drunk, you are given a notice and you are supposed to go to the special court to pay the money. Besides, the police make you to sit through and watch a video regarding the ill effects of drunken driving. Even if you have political connections or even connections within the police, you are not let off. This clamping on drunken driving has brought down accidents considerably but ironically the rate of alcohol consumption has not come down in Kerala. On the contrary it increases considerably per annum. People who want to drink, buy it from government run beverages shops, go home and drink. Those who visit bars and other drinking joints use public transport or autos to reach home. Those who take a chance and escape the clutches of the police are considered to be the lucky ones. But in Kerala one cannot be really lucky in this front.

 (people queuing up before beverages shop in Kerala)

Auto-drivers and Policemen are union members and both of them wear khaki uniform. What makes them distinct is that while the auto-drivers could be divided along the religious and caste lines if need be, police force cannot be under any religious or caste group in Kerala. Police force is always an instrument of the state ministry and operates according to the demands of the Home Ministry of the state. Unlike the police force in the North Indian states, in Kerala, generally police force does not involve in extortionist tactics. There used to be a time that Police brutality was rampant in Kerala. But over a period of time Police force has become people friendly. However, it takes out its brutal force when they act according to the wishes of the state in order to curb mass protests against the state government or organized movements of the people for their rights. But as the public is vigilant on these matters police brutality on individuals has come down or almost nil today. I saw a poster in my village which demanded a public apology from the local station house officer who slapped a construction worker. A mere slapping could evoke public outrage in Kerala, which is unthinkable in states like Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. Most of the public servants ‘behave’ though their strength as members of certain unions gives them some kind of insularity. But in most of the cases they provide service as per the wishes of the people though it does not make Kerala, God’s own country as it is claimed. Corruption is rampant though not so much in the national scale but public is so alert that the corrupt cannot just get away with their acts. People so far have been reacting to it by changing their rules religiously after every five years and giving a chance for improvement in governance. What remain unfinished or unsolved are a few public issues such as corruption in politics-religion nexus, Dalit issues, large scale land reforms, environmental issues and third gender issues.

(Kalabhavan Mani, an actor with Dalit background acting as a police officer fighting against system in one of the mainstream Malayalam Movies)

In the bar I found a couple of boys who worked as ‘waiters’ there. We ordered a few drinks and for them comprehending what we said seemed to be difficult. One of the boys called another one and in somewhat accented Malayalam he repeated the order that we placed. My friends informed me that these boys were from Bangladesh or Orissa. There is a huge presence of people from Bangladesh, Orissa, Bihar and even from Nepal. Most of the menial works are done by these people. Some of the C-class theatres in Kerala show Oriya and Bengali mainstream movies for their entertainment. This shows that in Kerala, today, as far as an average educated Malayali is concerned, he is unwilling to do ‘certain’ kinds of jobs. Within Kerala a new job giving community has come up against the former job seeking communities. The new generation youngsters either wait for a government job to happen to them, or relay on their family fortunes, or migrate to Gulf countries or just spend their time idly. In short, Kerala does not have any concrete demand for a social revolution because social change is a constant part and parcel of this state. The mainstream movies debate political corruption as well as systemic corruption as their staple themes and suggest all the possible solutions for such issues. Unlike the national mainstream movies, Muslim is not the ‘real other’ in these movies. There are Dalit actors who act as police officers and ministers who work towards a better future righting the wrongs either by persuasion or by force. There could be several other detrimental ideological aspects to these movies, however for the purpose of this article I would say that these films actually flag out issues and constantly lampoon and ridicule even the living political personalities in spoofed characters. Mimicry and comedy programs in television channels have become strong social critiques in their own rights and these programs have now spilled over even to religious festivals held right in the temple premises where they discuss, debate and even suggest solutions through these comedy programs. There is an overlapping of the secular over the religious, and the aesthetical over the political. One has to accept the fact that these programs function not only as a safety valve for the millions of people in Kerala but also they help to form an opinion about politics and governance from within the aesthetical.

 (Oommen Chandy, Congress Leader and present Chief Minister of Kerala)

Kerala, in that sense poses an extremely strange problem to the AAP. Let me recount a few examples. One of my family members is a very strong left wing union activist. He tells me that the AAP does not have a real program in Kerala even if there are very famous social activists and writers have joined the force. I met an AAP activist in my village; in fact he came to meet me when he came to know that my book on Arvind Kejriwal was recently published. According to him, the membership drive has still not gathered momentum mainly because most of the village people know each other and have been devoted followers various political outfits for a long time, mostly without too many complaints. One of my cousins, who works in a private firm and comes from a traditional left background tells me that the AAP workers have distributed pamphlets and membership forms in all the local shops but the people are still not sure whether to ‘take a look’ at it or not. Though, the AAP leadership in Kerala claims that there is a strong following for the party, the general feel betrays such confidence. While returning to Delhi in a evening flight that took off from Trivandrum and had a stop-over at Kochi I found the chief minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy at seat number 1A (window seat) and the opposition leader and veteran left leader, V.S.Achuthanandan at seat number 1F (window seat). As his age demands VS has two young assistants with him and they sit a row behind him. The Chief Minister is left alone with a local edition of Times of India. No fan following. No airs around. To complete a triangle, a well known film start who often portrays police officers and politicians, Sreeraman was sitting a row behind me. None disturbs none. None runs for autographs. Kerala is different in many ways. AAP has to find a new way to define itself in such a Kerala.

(V.S.Achuthanandan, fondly called as VS, CPM leader and opposition leader in Kerala)

Kerala’s political space is almost occupied by other political parties and organizations. In a way, these parties are at logger heads on each other on many issues. And when it comes to religious and caste voting patterns, major parties go all out to appease religious equations. Where else in the world you could see Mother Mary and Che Guvera in the same poster? Where else in the world you could see a left party’s local youth wing endorsing a Church festival? Kerala in that sense is radically different. I am not attempting to say that Kerala is heaven. No, it has its own problems and so many issues are still unaddressed as I mentioned elsewhere of which religion-politics nexus is a major one. But AAP’s ideology, Swaraj is not going to work here. Nor does the issue of corruption is going to work the way it has worked for Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi or elsewhere. Then what exactly is the poll strategy of the AAP in Kerala? Is it going to be reduced to the level of an exercise of knowing how much vote could swing for or against the new party and thereby knowing whose vote bank has been eroded in the process? In Trivandrum former IPS officer Ajit Joy is the AAP candidate for the Lok Sabha election who would fight against the sitting MP Shashi Tharoor and BJP’s veteran candidate and former central minister, O.Rajagopal. Noted activist and writer Sarah Joseph will contest from Thrissur. A few more names including that of the noted journalist Anita Pratap are heard as AAP candidates. Going by the Delhi experience, one could see that even the unknown names could bring forth a surprise. But Kerala is a different society which refuses to be surprised. It believes in patterns and an informed sort of political thinking, which believes in logic than surprises.

(Activist writer Sara Joseph)

If so what could be done? Many people that include noted writers and even strong Marxian writers like B.Rajeevan have expressed that there is a space for the AAP in Kerala. But the nature of that space is not yet defined. Is it going to be corruption alone? If so it has been fought in different ways in Kerala’s politics and people have come to a conclusion that so long as the political parties deliver ‘goods’ corruption is okay. The acceptance of the CPM’s transformation from a proletarian party into a bourgeoisie party has been accepted by the people of Kerala in a strange way. And more strangely they have embraced the critique of it from within the party in form of V.S.Achuthanandan is also lauded and celebrated equally. Is AAP’s agenda going to be land reforms? If so, it has been done and still movements are on for the same in different places. In that sense, do these people need AAP’s support for their struggles? Will they vote for AAP? Is AAP’s agenda going to be Police reforms? If so what about the Police force that is more or less prone to self criticism in Kerala? Is it going to be Public Distribution System? If so most of the middle class still buys things from ration shops in Kerala. I had a plateful of ration rice (sold for Rs.2/- per kilo) from a well to do relative’s home and it tasted really good. However while reading the history of Chengara Land Struggle I came to know that most of the landless Dalits are given APL (Above Poverty Line) ration cards divesting them of the benefits of the BPL (below poverty line) card holders. Is that going to be a poll plank alone?

In Kerala, in my view, AAP's role is not of pragmatic politics. It has to function as a supra structure for the AAP elsewhere and has to produce recognizable benchmarks and dignified political and intellectual debates for the party. Kerala model of development, which is absolutely different from the mindless corporatization of Gujarat style development could be and should be one way of giving a model of debate for the party. Even Arvind Kejriwal himself has lauded the Kerala style of decentralization in his book Swaraj. If so, can corruption alone be a poll issue for the AAP in Kerala? Now the AAP has opposed the arrival of Sheila Dixit as the governor of Kerala. It sounds like a very naive argument though there is some sense of indignation in bringing a failed chief minister in Delhi as the governor of a comparative better state like Kerala. The urgent need of AAP in Kerala should not be targeting the parliamentary seats or even testing the mandate for the time being. It should further the debate to a new dimension and think about things that would help the party to evolve a better idea of governance and delivery of services. While I have not lost faith in Arvind Kejriwal, I am supposed to be presented with more and more persuasive arguments to believe in what the party is going to do in Kerala. Kerala needs a change but obviously the AAP cannot take up the responsibility of that change for it does not have the followers or agenda to take it up. But in the meanwhile, it has got good will and intellectual back up here. Their job is to provide an intellectual structure and ideology to the party if it need to gain power or to prevent it from its possible degeneration, which still I think is avoidable.

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