The dust has settled, and the Bharatiya Janata Party has bitten the dust in Kerala. Again. No seats at all in the Legislative Assembly, and a historic second term for the Left Democratic Front. Two cliches were killed with one stone. The first, of Shah and Modi as master strategists. The second, that Kerala has settled into a comfortable alternation of Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist) governments.
It was clear that the BJP had little to offer the state except for their usual divisive politics. As for development, the other BJP platform apart from religious hatred, Kerala has been doing rather well for itself for about a generation now.
The exemplary and democratic way that the LDF government handled the 2018 floods, the Nipah virus and, then the Covid-19 pandemic was what the electorate applauded. Hindu male chauvinists, and women under the banner “Ready to wait” argued against the entry of women into Sabarimala. This agitated some, but not as an electoral issue.
A meme circulated on social media of O Rajagopal, former BJP MP, acknowledging ruefully that in Kerala the people were too educated to vote for the BJP. Where keeping people in ignorance is bliss, it was folly to make them wise seemed to be his plaint.
Another distinctive feature of these elections that went unnoticed in the media was the fact that stalwarts like TM Thomas Isaac (the Finance Minister) did not stand for re-election. Nor did 33 sitting MLAs. This was because of the two-term rule that has been brought in to prevent the growth of entrenched interests as much as to bring in new blood. There are many reasons to celebrate, alongside the drubbing given to the BJP in Tamil Nadu, and its containment in Bengal.
However, there are some features of Kerala’s politics that need to be talked about. The state has the largest number of Rashtriya Swayamsevan Sangh units in the country, more than in Gujarat. The number is estimated at between 4500-5300 and they have been active in localities working with housewives, mediating in rituals of marriage and death, and presenting themselves as doing social service.
The concentration of units is in northern Kerala, where for the last 60 years, there has been a war between Communist Party of India (Marxist) and RSS cadres. This has resulted in the loss of over 300 lives since 1969. Pinarayi Vijayan’s politics were tempered in these killing fields and the violence continues unabated.
In Malayalam, the word used is othukkuka – to contain or restrain. The legacy of paka – revenge – means that the feud has acquired a momentum of its own and is a low-grade fever that cannot be controlled by any party intervention.
The large number of RSS units may have been contained somewhat by the war between cadres; at least that is the logic in the public realm. The BJP/RSS as much as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) party machines have made heavy weather of the deaths of its cadres, raising them to the status of raktasakshikal or martyrs.
Kerala’s campuses are also the sites of a politics of controlled violence and student leaders go through a baptism of fire – street agitations as much as internecine violence in colleges and universities. While this is acknowledged locally, the undergirding violence of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) towards dissidents and its opponents is something that has yet to enter academic discourse or journalistic wisdom.
In this elections, KK Rema, of the Revolutionary Marxist Party of India, won from Vadakara by over 7000 votes. She is the widow of TP Chandrasekharan, who was killed in 2012 for his continued opposition to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). What the long-term consequences of this continuing violence will be remains to be seen.
When E Sreedharan was called out of retirement to stand as the BJP candidate in Palakkad, there was a reason why that constituency was chosen. Palakkad – the rice bowl of Kerala – was one of the districts where the land reforms of 50 years ago had hit hard. The slogan of land to the tiller meant that many upper castes lost their lands to their former dependents generating a large Malayali Hindu diaspora that fanned out across the country into government service, journalism, and academe.
Many adapted to their new environments generating a distinct worldview, unique within regional language literature. Malayalam novels were set in Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and authors like Anand and C Radhakrishnan wrote about the larger landscapes that Malayalis now occupied.
The other side of this was a regressive nostalgia, a sense of loss and resentment, that was undergirded by feelings of being hard done by, being usurped by former underlings. A meme that circulated showed the fair-skinned, smiling Sreedharan (with a caption: lost by 3,000 votes) and a dark skinned and grimacing MM Mani, Communist Party of India (Marxist), who had won by over 38,000 votes in Udumbanchola, Idukki district.
The heading stated, “The Malayali has again proved that education and knowledge are two different things altogether.” The message was clear: lower castes (indexed by the dark skin) had no sense of the capabilities required for a legislator. This was ironic considering that Sreedharan had little experience of politics, except for his early association in childhood with the RSS, which came as a revelation to many.
Both VS Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan have been subjected to casteist abuse, and much of the humour generated by their opponents makes it a point to speak about the connection between lower casteness and a lack of panache. While, in Kerala, one may not have the kind of caste violence that is seen elsewhere in India, casteism runs like a rotting vein through daily conversation, visual representation, and the association of dark-skinned characters with comedy in Malayalam cinema. Upper caste resentment about material loss, as much as the undeserved rise to prominence of lower castes, is another wellspring that the BJP taps into. It has not yielded much. So far.
The Gulf boom
Sreedharan’s opponent was Shafi Parambil, a respected Muslim Congress candidate who had won in 2016. This is another slow burn in Kerala since the Gulf boom of the 1970s. Many Muslims and lower caste former agricultural workers who benefited from the land reforms sent members of their families to work in the Arab states. The remittances then allowed a buying of land, causing great alarm among conservative Hindus at this influx of what the writer MT Vasudevan Nair called Arabi ponnu – Arab gold.
This emerged as a theme in many of the Malayalam films of the 1980s (Gulf money created a turnaround in a previously impoverished industry) in which the idea of the genteel declining Nair and the upstart Muslim parvenu were stock characters. There are deep pockets of Hindu resentment in Kerala, particularly in the northern Malabar region, towards the growing prosperity and cultural prominence of Muslims.
Palakkad is one such seat of the aggrieved Hindu. Meanwhile, the inflow of money from the Gulf has created a self-confident Muslim community, sections among whom are aligned with Islamic trends in the UAE. The BJP draws upon a larger anti-Islamic rhetoric, prominent worldwide since 9/11 as also the local configuration.
Apart from this, is the central fact that Kerala is a remittance economy (with $14 billion-$15 billion in remittances in 2019) has allowed for a degree of prosperity, with little investment in industry and more in real estate. It has also allowed for Kerala to become the preferred site for migrant labourers from eastern India, so that much of the economy is dependent on the migrant. This is a fragile situation.
Each time the Gulf countries catch a cold, Kerala sneezes. The state is haunted by the idea of the permanent return of the Malayali migrant. If that happens, the state has no resources to employ or care for what will be a massive influx. This will be further influx of Muslim wealth and of Hindus with prejudices against Islam honed in countries that define themselves as Muslim.
The persistence of violence, caste and a remittance economy remain like powder kegs at the heart of Kerala’s progressive politics. One may be jubilant about the election results; but not sanguine. There are resentments and faultlines that the BJP will continue to work with here as they have done in the rest of India.
Termites always work with the grain of the wood.
Dilip Menon is Mellon Chair of Indian Studies, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and works on histories of the global south. He has recently edited Capitalisms: Towards a Global History (Oxford, 2020).